My first apple pie was an apple sauce pie, but not because that was what I wanted it to be. It was because I used my then-favorite eating apples: McIntosh. I had envisioned a pie like ones I had seen in photos, where the crust was highly domed and dimpled from the abundance of apple slices piled high within, so I peeled, cored, sliced and mounded as many apples as would fit the bottom crust Without sliding out and carefully draped the top crust over them. The baked pie turned out beautifully golden and majestically high. I could hardly wait for it to cool enough to slice into it. But when I did, I was shocked and disappointed to see that the crust stood alone, towering above a thin layer of melted apples. Apparently the apples had stayed firm long enough for the crust to set and hold its shape and then the high moisture content of the apples (which makes them so delightfully juicy to eat raw) caused them to soften and dissolve. That was when I learned my first lesson about apple pie: Much depends on the type of apples and a juicy apple like a McIntosh is not a good baking apple.
Years later, newly married, we bought a country house that had only three quarters of an acre of land, but on it resided a magnificent one-hundred-year- old Baldwin apple tree. We were warned by the previous owners that this old- fashioned tree produced apples that were perfect for pies, but only every third year and that when this third year arrived, it would produce so lavishly we would not know what to do with all the apples that would end up dropping from the tree, rotting only to be crushed underfoot.
I waited anxiously for that third year of my apple tree’s season. I turned on the huge upright freezer in the basement weeks in advance in anticipation of filling it with unbaked apple pies. And as the apples started turning from solid green to a faint blush of pink, I made my second apple pie. The apples were perfect, but they were sitting in a puddle of juices that soaked the bottom crust, despite the tapioca I had sprinkled on it before adding the apples. I considered adding more cornstarch to the filling but disliked the idea of corrupting the texture and flavor of the apples. That was when inspiration struck. Why not reduce the juices! I had noticed that while sitting with the sugar and spice mixture, the apple slices had begun to excude liquid. I surmised that by concentrating this liquid, the sugars would caramelize slightly and the liquid would become syrupy, so that the baked filling would be juicy but not runny. My fruit pies have never been the same since. I found that not only does this technique work for apples, it also is excellent for peaches and nectarines or any other juicy fruit. And only about half the usual amount of thickener is required. In fact, when making buckles, I use no thickener at all.
I went on to make twenty-four apple pies that season, some with Cheddar cheese in the crust, the rest with just a plain flaky butter crust, which in the end we preferred. When I baked the first of the pies I had frozen I discovered the third great secret: Fruit pies baked from frozen have crisper bottom crusts. (The reason is that the bottom crust, being closer to the bottom of the pan, starts to bake before the fruit has defrosted and bakes longer than it would normally.)
Three years later, when the next bumper apple crop appeared, I went back into production but time allowed only making six pies, so I offered baskets of apples as gifts. And then we found our dream house a few miles away, up in the mountains, surrounded by acres of hemlock, pine and maple—but no apple trees. So for my fall apple pies I buy local apples like Macoun, Stayman- Winesap, Cortland or Jonathan. Other great baking apples I’ve discovered that are available around the country are Rhode Island Greening, York Imperial, Northern Spy and Newtown Pippin. My cousin Sue, who always brings the Thanksgiving apple pie, likes to combine three or four varieties of apple. She also adds brandy-soaked raisins to her filling. In the winter, I use Granny Smith apples from the market, which also make a marvelous pie using the concentration technique.
A few weeks ago we decided (some three years after having sold the old house) to take a ride over to see if the “new” owners had changed the landscaping. When we drove by we both gasped and cried out in unison: “The Baldwin apple tree!” The beloved old apple tree had disappeared. Not even a stump remained. I guess the new owners must have experienced that third year of rotting apples underfoot and put their foot down. In any event, they sure couldn’t have been pie bakers.
Make this pie whenever you have the yearning. Or, if ever you want to sell your house, have it baking in the oven as prospective buyers come to visit: The aroma of apples, butter and cinnamon emanating from the oven permeates the house like none other and makes anyone feel truly at home.
For an extra-special treat, serve the pie à la mode with creamy vanilla ice cream and a generous pool of amber caramel sauce.