“A lot of people have never really had the chance to taste a decent apple pie, but after a minute’s sensual reflection will know positively what they would expect if they did. They can taste it on their mind’s tongue . . . ”
~ M.F.K. Fisher, “Mom, The Flag and Apple PIe.”
Rhapsodizing yesterday about apple pie as a supreme American icon brought back some fond memories.
My mom’s not a baker, but two of her younger sisters made very fine apple pies. It was all pretty mysterious, though, since I never actually saw Aunty Ella or Aunty Inez in full baking mode. Their mouth-watering creations simply appeared in all their glory at family potlucks.
Alas! Eating homebaked goods does not come without its risks. We knew, early on, to be cautious of the “Aunty Ella phone call.” Sometimes she would invite us over in the middle of the week to help her polish off baked goods that had been otherwise rejected by her family. Christmas fruitcake from the Depression era and overbaked rock-hard cookies come to mind. We called those toothbreakers “prison cookies,” because my uncle worked as a prison guard and sometimes brought home cookies baked by real hardened criminals. (We assumed Aunty Ella had channeled their recipes.)
To be fair, though, Aunty Ella was a good baker most of the time, but somehow, I don’t remember eating that many of her apple pies. It was Aunty Inez’ apple pies that we truly coveted.
Imagine a warm-from-the oven golden double crust neatly and uniformly crimped, cradling a bevy of perfectly spiced apples. The true test of any baker is in the crust — if someone can bake a good double crust apple pie, he/she can bake almost anything.
I daresay apple pie might not be my absolute favorite, since in the past I’ve dallied with banana cream and flirted with many a pecan. But the power of the apple pie myth was always part of my DNA. When I left home for college I didn’t take my teddy bear (I didn’t have one then), I took my apple pie. Mind you, “leaving home for college” meant an hour’s drive from red-dirt Wahiawa to the UH Manoa campus. (If you consider the size of O’ahu, one hour’s drive is fair distance.)
Before leaving for the dorm in my sophomore year, I nicely asked Aunty Inez to bake an apple pie to take with me. My favorite aunty 🙂 complied (it always helps to play the poor starving college student card). I arrived upon the scene, apple pie in hand, and my roommate, Claire, had a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Thus, we were properly equipped to face a new school year.
A few months later, dorm fever set in. Gayle K. was the only one who had a car. She always wore peasant blouses with “Mine” or “Yours” prominently hand-embroidered on the yolk. One day when she was wearing a “Yours” blouse, I approached her about freeing us from our academic prison. We planned a pie run to Ferdinand’s in Waikiki, since they were known for their exquisite apple pie a la mode.
At the appointed hour, several of us piled into Gayle’s car, salivating and hyperventilating with anticipation. Funds were limited, so we opted for take-out slices without ice cream. Since the parking lot lacked the proper ambiance, we cruised over to a public park adjacent to the Waikiki Shell, where Johnny Cash was performing that night. Ferdinand’s buttery melt-in-your-mouth crust never tasted so good, savored on the cool grass under a canopy of twinkling stars with Johnny singing especially for us.
Fast forward a couple of years — I’m in grad school, living in an off-campus apartment with 3 roomies. We basically survived on Hamburger Helper, fried Spam, spaghetti and pizza. But we dreamed about real food from home. One night I mentioned how I missed Aunty Inez’ apple pie, the best in the world. Donna, the senator’s daughter, insisted that no one could top her mom’s pie. Back and forth, taunting and teasing, until we decided to settle the argument with an official pie-off.
On the appointed date, I brought in Aunty Inez’s pie, and Donna brought in her mom’s. We also threw in a “ringer,” splurging on a whole pie from Ferdinand’s. For impartial judges we called in members of the baseball team (what could be more American)? Each pie was given points for crust, filling, appearance, and overall flavor.
The Ferdinand’s pie was outed right away. Its reputation and distinctiveness were legendary and fooled no one. But competition was stiff between the homemade pies. In the end, Aunty Inez prevailed. Donna married one of the baseball players, and to this day, Aunty Inez is still waiting for her promised trophy. You’d think worldwide pie fame would have been enough.
I must admit I’ve never actually made Aunty Inez’s apple pie recipe. Probably because I know it will never taste the same. Why mess with a mystique? But just for you, for alphabet soup, she’s giving it up today:
AUNTY INEZ’S APPLE PIE
1-1/2 cans sliced apples
3/4 cup sugar
2 T flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1-2 T butter
Mix canned apples, sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour mixture in unbaked pie crust. Dot top of apple mixture with cut butter and position the top crust. Crimp edge and brush top of pie with undiluted canned milk.
Bake in 450 F oven for 5 minutes, reduce heat to 350 F and finish baking for another 30 minutes.
Canned apples? Who knew?
Click here for her crust recipe (double it if you want a top crust). I usually make apple crumb pie, using fresh apples and a single crust. Now all I have to do is find some available baseball players.