Sunday, October 18, 2009

Comfort Me With Apples

Apples sliced and heaped in a pastry shell with sugar and spice, ready for the top crust.
Apple pie, which will be cut before it cools.

My Grampa loved apples. He grew up in a time when every small hill farm had its fruit trees: pears, plums, apples, the varieties nameless after generations of benign neglect. When I was growing up there were perhaps half a dozen apple trees remaining of whatever home orchard had once flourished on the west-facing slope across the road from the farmhouse. It must have been decades since any pruning or care had been given. The old trees with their scaly grey bark, were twisted, their branches awry. May brought sweet blossoms, in September the gnarled trees yielded a few small apples, most of them sour and unappealing except to worms or wasps. One tree still bore early, soft-fleshed, yellow-skinned globes and we collected the soundest of these for a taste of apple flavor weeks before the several commercial orchards in town were open for picking.
The yellow apples were too watery for a proper pie, but Grampa liked baked apples. Nothing was simpler for a young aspiring cook. Gently washed, the apples were crowded into a tin and poked into the oven of the wood range. An hour later they emerged, mis-shapen, tender, and squatting dumpily in their own juice. These were served as a homely dessert--plopped into a sauce dish, the juice spooned over and drizzled with maple syrup from the syrup jug which lived at one end of the table.
In later years, I became fussier with baked apples, carefully removing the stem and core, stuffing the center with raisins or currants, sprinkling on cinnamon. It was some years before I mastered a perfect pastry.
Once in town with Grampa for the monthly provisioning, I was surprised when passing the bakery next to the "Greek's" shop where he had stocked up on Prince Albert for his pipe, Grampa paused to look at the pies and cakes lined up so temptingly. With only a moment's hesitation, he entered with me at his heels, and stated that he would like to take a pie. When asked, "What kind, sir?" he replied that apple pie was the best for a farmer like himself.
MacIntosh and Cortlands were the stock apples grown commercially at the time, ripening in September, sweet/tart and red-skinned. It was a yearly family excursion to "pick up drops"--ripe apples fallen from the trees. We were cautioned to check them carefully as we piled them into bushel boxes and baskets. Any that were too bruised or smashed were left for the greedy yellow wasps. These apples were the short-term supply, good for a glut of pies, cobblers, or for "putting up" applesauce. For winter keepers Grampa returned to the orchard for boxes of hand picked Northern Spies, which ripened at the end of the season. These were stored in a cold back bedroom, "looked over" frequently in case one should go bad and start an epidemic of spoilage. During a spell of particularly cold weather, the boxes of apples wore layers of old blankets to prevent freezing.
These Northern Spies were the mainstay of winter eating and cooking--large, with yellow flesh and a firm texture. When I stopped at the farmhouse on my walk home from the one room school house these apples were part of an anticipated afternoon snack. School let out just before Grampa started the evening chores. He could be depended upon to trudge up from the barn, rummage out the box of Royal Lunch crackers and a wedge of cheddar. Two or three apples were peeled, the red skins slipping off in an endless spiral. Cored and sliced, the pieces were offered, turn about, on the point of the jack knife which might moments before have been used to cut the twine binding a burlap grain sack or to flick a bit of mud from a horse's hoof.
When J. and I married, his parents owned a farm in the next town from my grandfather's. It too, had its few old apple trees. Several trees were the Wolf River variety. Typically the trees "rested" every other year, but since at least one tree was usually off cycle, we could look forward to a crop of these huge knobby apples.
I have since learned that this variety was first cultivated from a "sport" noticed in the 1870's in Fremont, Wisconsin. Tradition states that a William Springer on his way from Quebec, Canada to take up land along the Wolf River brought with him apples, either purchased along the way or carried from his old home. They are thought to have been a vintage variety called Alexander. Mr. Springer thriftily saved his apple seeds, planted them along his stretch of the river, and noticed that one or more of the resulting trees produced a very large apple. [History seems to gloss over the length of time needed for these apple trees to mature from tiny seedlings!] As cultivation of Wolf River apples became more widespread in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the saying sprang up, "One apple for a pie!" As I recall, that is a bit of a stretch, but surely the pie maker didn't have to handle many apples they were so big. [During the farm years I had learned to make fine pastry, so while I rolled and fitted crusts J.'s mom peeled and sliced the apples.]
During the 1970's and '80's a greater variety of apples began to appear in New England orchards: Paula Reds, Red or Golden Delicious, Empire, McCoun---not new hybrids, but the cautious Yankee orchardists were branching out!
I continued to buy apples at the same orchard my Grampa had patronized until the owner sold out and retired. The property changed hands several times I beleive and the once bountiful orchard was neglected.
The Champlain Valley of Vermont and upstate New York is apple-growing country, and it was never far to a "pick-your-own" orchard or to a farm stand. I brought home Cortlands for cooking, Red Delicious to eat out of hand, and the Northern Spies for the winter months. Good as they always were, they were never quite as special as when passed on the point of a Barlow jack knife to be savored with sharp Cabot cheddar and flaky Royal Lunch crackers.
Nearly Perfect Pie Crust
4 cups unbleached flour
1 3/4 cups shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold water
I egg
1 Tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice
Blend the flour, shortening and salt. Add the egg and vinegar to 1/2 cup water and whisk until blended.
Lightly stir the liquid mixture into the flour mixture until it is absorbed. Form into balls, roll on floured surface with a floured rolling pin.
This recipe was published in the Vermont Home Extension Bulletin in the 1970's. Several years ago a variation using butter in place of shortening appeared in one of the glossy "country" magazines.
I use butter-flavored Crisco, or a combination of shortening and butter on occasion. This will yield two 9" pies or, if you roll your pastry thin, there will also be enough for a one crust "shell."


  1. Mmn........comfort me with apples too!


    Beautifully written...

    See, I don't agree with your daughters comment that you 'wallow in nostalgia' at all.

    I think you understand how much you appreciated the chance to experience those things first hand so much that its just a part of who you are.

    And even if you do. Its allowed if it delivers language and feelig like you show here.

    I would just make sure she doesn't get any of that pie. It would probably taste too nostalgic for her anyway!!

    Good morning by the way {6.55 here}


  2. That pie is so mouth wateringly yummy ... must try your pastry recipe ...never tried vinegar/lemon juice in it. Loved reading your nostalgic journey back to childhood..

  3. I have just returned to read this again, as my head wasn't firing on all cylinders this morning. it still isn't (hence mournful blog post earlier on). I shall read this yet AGAIN in the morning, and enjoy each word, and every sentiment and memory - it is so beautifully written and deserves my full attention.