Not long ago, a friend sent me a poster for the Bucktown Apple Pie contest, asking if I was going to enter. I had seen signs around the neighborhood but hadn’t given it another thought until that moment. Why not? I thought. Up until last month, I had officially made three scratch pies in my life, only one of which was apple.
As I mulled over what to make, my thoughts drifted to a beguiling caramel apple pie I had seen on a bakery menu a few years ago. “Maybe I’ll try a salted caramel apple pie,” I thought. And before I knew it, I had paid the $20 entry fee and was researching proper baking apples along with recipes for fleur de sel caramel and pie crust.
Test pie # 1
The caramel was my first project. If you have a deep cast iron pot, wooden spoon, some granulated sugar, cream and butter, you can make caramel. In addition to the usual butter and cream, I finished mine with a generous sprinkling of fleur de sel to counter the sweetness of the sugar.
I prepared crust number one using the basics: cold butter, cold water, flour and salt. I was careful not to overmix it, and allowed it about an hour in the fridge before I cut it into two pieces and rolled it out to make my top and bottom crusts.
For the apple filling, I referred to an old friend: The Joy of Cooking. In it, they recommend macerating skinned, sliced Granny Smith and Gala apples with granulated and brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon juice for at least 30 minutes, then reducing the liquid in a saucepan with butter and pouring the velvety results over the apples before baking.
Because I am inexplicably averse to pre-cooking the apples, I was really attracted to this idea. I also drizzled about a half cup of the cooled caramel over the apples, piled them into the crust and gingerly laid the second crust over the top. I cut around the edges of the pan with a paring knife, sealed the edges with my fingers and pressed them with a fork. I carefully cut six slits in the top.
Pie number one was baked, the house filled with the smell of cinnamon and apples, and my optimism level inched upward. After removing and cooling the pie, Sean and I tasted it. Not bad, though not great either. I was pleased with the flavor of the filling and the fact that I had chosen to forgo the cornstarch thickener. But it was still missing something.
It was at the All Things Baking trade show, which I was covering as an editor, where I had my first breakthrough. Before a gala dinner on the second day of the show, I found myself in the lobby of the hotel with a glass of wine and my editor, along with John Roesers number III and IV, who own the 100-year-old Roeser’s bakery in Humboldt Park. My discussion with John IV inevitably drifted to the pie competition and my first, somewhat successful, attempt. He drilled me on the usual list of questions. What kind of apples was I using? Was the caramel from scratch? And, the million-dollar question: How are you making your pie crust?
“Flour, cold butter, cold water and salt,” I replied.
“Hmm. How do you like your pie crust, like when you order pie?” he asked.
“Super flaky, like it shatters under my fork flaky,” I replied.
“Then you gotta make it with lard.”
Aha! I should have known.
Test pie #2
That Sunday, I went shopping for lard. “You making tamales?” the butcher called out as I piled containers of chilled pork fat into my basket. “No, apple pie,” I replied. “Your husband is lucky,” he called back, laughing.
I picked up two bags of local apples that day at the farmers’ market, and headed home with a renewed sense of purpose. I quickly learned that lard-based crust is much harder to work with than butter-based crust. It sticks to you, the counter and your rolling pin, and it tears easily, so you have to work really quickly and be sure to chill it down as much as possible before working with it.
The results, though, were well worth the effort and the mess. The pie browned beautifully as it baked. (To prevent overbrowning on the edges, I wrapped them in foil after the first 30 minutes of baking.)
After cooling the pie, I cut myself a small slice. To my delight, the crust shattered at the lightest touch of the knife’s edge, flaking gorgeously as I cut. The savory crust provided a perfect salty, fatty counterweight to the caramel-laced, just-tender apples. I was finally getting somewhere. The results from my five eager taste testers, however, were all the same: up the caramel.
Pies #3 and #4, heartbreak and wine
Feeling much more confident about my prospects post-lard, I began prepping the morning before the competition: mixing, chilling, rolling and sticking. I enlisted Sean to help me peel, core and slice over 6 pounds of apples that evening, with our newly adopted puppy Penny gazing up watchfully underfoot.
Despite the large burn on my right forefinger and the assortment of small cuts all over my hands from various pie mishaps, I knew the process by heart and was feeling pretty self-assured by the time my friend Maggie came over later that evening bearing a bottle of wine and lots of encouragement.
The first pie went into the oven at around 9:30. To encourage even browning on the bottom of the pie, I placed the pie pan on top of a pizza stone on the very bottom rack. We sat on the couch, sipping our wine and chatting as the aroma of apples and browning crust filled the house. I then prepped the second pie, which went in just before 11 pm.
“I think this is definitely going to be your show pie,” Maggie said assuredly as we admired it through the oven window. I agreed, perhaps fueled a little by the wine. When it came out, bubbling, brown and lovely, I set it on the cooling rack, thinking I might even have a chance to place in the contest. I checked on it a few minutes later to learn that the top–and my wine-induced confidence–had slightly collapsed.
The next morning, in a slight haze, we dropped off my less-than-perfect salted caramel apple pies. Maggie and Sean gracefully reassured me through a small emotional roller coaster, which lasted most of the morning. 10:15–pre-dropoff: “I’m never doing another one of these competitions. Why did I put myself through this stress?” Thirty seconds later: “You know, even if I don’t place, this was really good for me. I’m not a baker so I really put myself out there.” In the car on the way over: “I hate apple pie. Mine looks terrible. I don’t want to turn it in,” etc.
And while I didn’t win or even place, I am glad I did it. I now have something to contribute to my mom’s wonderful Thanksgiving spread. And, who knows? This amateur baker might just have another go next year. Bacon apple pie anyone?
Stay tuned for the complete step-by-step recipe, salty caramel and all!