As American As Apple Pie...

As you may or may not have noticed, if there is one thing I do not bake with any frequency, it is pies. I was going to attempt to make one for Pi Day, but got waylaid by illness, and was therefore prevented from baking the first pie in the history of "The State I Am In." Ladies and gentlemen, the time of the pie has come.

After all, there is no dessert as intrinsically associated with pure Americana as apple pie. Interestingly, apple pie was one of the very first desserts I ever tackled on my own: when I was in high school, my friend Taryn and I got the idea that we needed to start learning how to cook, and that the appropriate first project to accomplish this task would be learning to make apple pie. I have no idea how we arrived at this conclusion, but we did. So I invited her over one day, and a box of pre-made pie dough and several pounds of apples later, we had made a mess in the kitchen, and a passable, if not spectacular pie. It was the first, and last dessert pie I ever made, and after that, I gave up on cooking all together for several years until necessity drove me to teach myself how to cook in college.

Now that my baking skills are considerably more advanced, and I'm making a conscious effort to try new recipes and take a break from Martha Stewart and her cookies, I thought it was time to tackle a pie that I found on my favorite food photography aggregation site,, a couple months ago. It combined salted caramel, which has quickly risen to hallowed status in my pantheon of favorite things since discovering it a few years ago in Normandy, with apples, and the pairing was too much to resist. Even though the recipe looked daunting, I wanted to give it my best effort.

I actually ended up taking some liberties with the recipe as it was presented online, choosing to view it as more of a ideological jumping off point. I swapped out the crust entirely for a recipe given by Alton Brown. I remembered seeing it ages ago on Good Eats, and I appreciated the fact that I could incorporate lard into it, as I've always heard that lard makes the best pie crust, and it's currently undergoing a culinary revival after years of negative press for being unhealthy. Furthermore, Alton's recipe called for apple brandy, which, as it turns out, I just purchased last week in preparation for another recipe I've got in the works. Using Alton's recipe just seemed to make more sense for me.

I also borrowed part of the methodology from Alton's recipe: he recommends mixing the apples with sugar and to draw out some of the moisture from the apples, then placing them over a colander to drain so that the pie doesn't become soggy and overly juicy from all the liquid present in the raw apples. The baker behind the site where I found the original recipe said she didn't have any trouble with using raw apples, but I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, given my inexperience with pie making.

Finally, I eschewed the inspiration pie's recipe for the salted caramel sauce itself. The original blogger had liberally adapted her recipe for the pie itself from one she'd seen on the Cooking Channel from Four and Twenty Blackbirds, the famous Brooklyn pie shop, so I felt free to ignore her exact proportions. Whereas she'd omitted butter from her caramel sauce, I wanted mine to recall the salted butter caramel I'd eaten in France, so I went hunting on the interwebs and quickly found some advice on the subject from David Leibowitz, my favorite author on the subject of ice cream, and general dessert guru. I trusted him more than some random lady blogger, and with good reason. Although my sauce turned out a bit lumpy (I've only caramelized sugar once that I can remember before), once I'd strained it per David's instructions, it was so delicious I may or may not have licked the sieve. Even if the pie had turned out to be an utter failure, obtaining this salted caramel sauce recipe would have made the entire recipe worthwhile on its own.

Basically, the only things I kept from the original recipe was the amount of sugar and apples in the pie, the assembly method, the bake time, and her method for topping the pie. Instead of creating a lattice crust for the top, as suggested by Four and Twenty Blackbirds, she had created a collage of pie crust hearts on the top of her pie. I liked that idea, but wanted to do stars in honor of the Fourth of July. Somewhat ridiculously, however, when I rummaged through my comically enormous box of cookie cutters, I discovered that I had a Star of David cookie cutter that I'd purchased with the intent of making Hannukah cookies for my Jewish friends at some point, but no ordinary five-pointed stars. I did, however, have a petite apple-shaped cookie cutter, so I decided that would have to suffice, and in the end, I think the results were pretty charming.

Baking this pie was definitely a labor of love. In total, I spent about eight hours on it yesterday (though I took a few television and cleaning breaks here and there), and dirtied an entire dishwasher and sink full of utensils and bowls, but it was totally worth it.

I brought it up to the suburbs today to share with my parents as a surprise. Though I'd told them yesterday to pick up some vanilla ice cream to go with my dessert, neither of them could guess what I had made. Dad was convinced that it was some sort of patriotic cake, along the lines of the flag cake I made last year for the Fourth, whereas Mom predicted a peach cobbler, since I'd mentioned to her that I'd bought a ton of peaches on sale at Jewel on Friday. A pie was so far out of the realm of expectation from me that nobody could have predicted it. I think that both of them were pleasantly surprised.

Dad lauded the crust, which I thought had turned out appropriately tender and flaky, with a nice hint of apple flavor from the inclusion of the apple brandy. Plus, as predicted, Alton's technique for drawing the liquid out of the apples before baking kept the bottom crust from becoming soggy and made the pie easier to remove from the pan. Mom similarly enjoyed the crust; even though she's not a crust person and usually leaves it on the plate, she ate every bite of this one. She also liked the blend of apples I'd selected, which were neither too tart nor too sweet.

For my part, I was very pleased with how the pie turned out, with only one exception -- I felt that the caramel could have had a slightly higher profile in the overall taste. It really came through in some bites, whereas others tasted more of the apples and spices, but given how delicious the caramel was on it's own, I really wanted to get a wallop of caramel in each and every bite. In the future, I might make twice as much caramel in order to put more in the pie itself, and to have some leftover to drizzle on top with some ice cream. Still, I'm going to consider this second pie of my entire baking career to be a overwhelming success. I don't know when I'll get around to trying my hand at another apple pie project, but I'll definitely be making this again, albeit with a couple more tweaks.

Salted Caramel Apple Pie
inspired by If You Give a Girl a Cookie

Salted Caramel Sauce
1 c. white sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 c. heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons fleur de sel

Pour the sugar into the bottom of a heavy 2-3 quart pot. Heat over medium-high to high heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar melts and caramelizes to a deep amber, about the color of an old copper penny. Remove from the heat, and stir in the butter until melted, then the cream. The caramel will seize when the butter and cream are added, but keep stirring until smooth. Add the salt and stir until dissolved. Store in the refrigerator until needed.

Pie Crust (adapted from Alton Brown)
6 oz. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and frozen
2 oz. lard, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and frozen
5 to 7 tablespoons apple brandy, stored in the freezer
12 oz. all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting, refrigerated
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, quickly cut the lard and butter into the flour, until the fat is in roughly pea-size pieces. Sprinkle the cold apple brandy over the flour, and continue to cut the mixture together just until the mixture holds together when squeezed, adding more liquid as necessary. There should still be large chunks of butter and lard visible. Divide the dough in half, shape into flat disks and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate at least 1 hour to overnight.

Pie Spices (adapted from Four and Twenty Black Birds)
1/3 raw turbinado sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Pie Filling
5-6 medium to large apples (I used 2 Granny Smiths, 2 Golden Delicious, and 2 Galas)
Juice of three lemons

1 egg, beaten
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling
Fleur de sel, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400.
1. Combine the apple pie spices in a bowl and set aside.
2. Put the lemon juice in a large bowl. One at a time, peel and core the apples, using a mandoline to slice the apples into 1/8 inch pieces. Toss the slices into the lemon juice and toss to coat, to prevent browning.
3. When all the apples are sliced, toss them with the apple pie spices, then place them in a large colander over the bowl to drain. Let sit approximately one hour.
4. Meanwhile, roll out half of the pie crust into a 9-inch circle and press into the bottom of the pie pan, fluting the edge. Return to refrigerator until needed.
5. After an hour has elapsed, squeeze any additional liquid from the apples, and layer 1/3 of the apples on top of the crust, compacting gently. Pour 1/3 of the salted caramel sauce over the apples. Repeat with two additional layers of apple and caramel sauce.
6. Roll out the remaining half of the pie dough and cut with the decorative cookie cutter of your choosing. Collage the crust pieces over the surface of the pie, overlapping the shapes slightly while allowing a few hints of the apples to peak through.
7. Brush the surface of the pie with the beaten egg, then sprinkle liberally with the raw sugar, and sparingly with the fleur de sel.
8. Place the pie on top of a sheet pan to catch drips (it will happen, and it will be messy; trust me, you don't want melted caramel all over the bottom of your oven), and bake for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 and bake approximately 35 minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. Let cool at least 30 minutes before eating.

(Since the crust is my favorite part of any pie, I always make sure to save some for the last bite.)

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