It’s an early rainy Tuesday morning at The Blue Stove in Williamsburg, but tucked inside the warm, yellow-lit cafe espresso machines whir, customers set up their laptop offices, and the smell of lightly burnt sugar wafts through the air.
Rachel McBride, owner of the Blue Stove Bakery, wipes her hands on her apron and offers us coffee. She’s going to show us the secret recipe to her great-grandmother’s apple pie, just in time for Thanksgiving. “All the ingredients are in season, and I haven’t changed a thing about the recipe since it was written down,” she says.
Rachel’s pies are well known in the neighborhood. Aside from the staples such as pumpkin, apple and pecan, she often cooks something up like the cheddar bacon apple pie, or the fig goat cheese tart, that makes folks who never really considered themselves “pie people” convert on the spot. But she wasn’t always a baker. Like most small business owners we discover in these parts, her background was in the arts, which put her in an office right out of school. She found her way to pie while working on her artwork by day and in a restaurant by night. “The pastry chef left at one point, and I said, “could I maybe try the job?” The rest is, well, pretty much history.
MAKING GOOD PIE IS NOT AN EQUATION
“Making pie is a lot more like cooking than baking,” Rachel says. “You have to react.” Though Rachel’s apple pie recipe has been passed down for generations, she’s learned a few tricks along the way to tighten up the process; tricks she implies are intuitive. For an American kid who grew up with a family of self-proclaimed pie experts, I was pretty impressed with Rachel’s simple, no-nonsense approach to pie that still tasted better than my grandma’s:
She makes a simple crust, sifting flour and salt in a bowl, and adding 1 c. Crisco in two batches, the first one to make a sand-like texture, the second so the dough becomes more pea-sized. Using a pastry cutter, she mixes the dough, adding a ½ cup of cold water as she goes. Then she wraps the dough in wax paper until she’s ready to roll.
The next step is all about the apples. My grandmother used to use the most tart, sour apples around, adding enough sugar to make you think they had macerated for a week. Rachel uses a variety of whatever’s in season. She says the mix of sweeter and tart apples keeps flavors interesting. For each pie, she peels, cores and dices about 6-8 apples into ½ inch slices, then sprinkles them with fresh lemon juice to keep them from browning.
Rolling the dough is next. I told Rachel I always spend three days cleaning up after I make a pie. She doesn’t clean up at all. She cuts off two sheets of waxed paper and presses the quarter of dough into a flat pancake between the two sheets. Then she uses a large wooden rolling pin with the handles removed to roll the dough out flat while it’s still between the wax paper. She fits it into the pie pan and stabs the bottom with a fork, replacing the pre-baking process with a quick flick of the wrist. It serves the same purpose, giving the bottom layer of crust room to breathe and an excuse not to puff up. Sayonara pie weights.
Instead of pouring the apples in, she first sprinkles the bottom layer of the pie with about a half cup of sugar. This, she says, to caramelize the bottom layer as it cooks. Then she follows that up with about ¼ a cup of flour. In a bowl, she stirs up the diced apples and dumps them right into the pan on top of the crust.
Pulling jars of whole spices from the shelf, she grates fresh nutmeg over the tops of the apples, making sure to get some on the crust too. “This gives the crust some of the spice and flavor of the rest of the pie, so it’s something people want to eat and enjoy, rather than leave on their plate.” She follows that up with cloves, then cinnamon, which she puts all over the top of the apples. “I don’t like it to be too spiced, because you don’t want to take away from the tartness of the apples.”
For the top, she reverses the process of the bottom layer, sprinkling the ¼ cup of flour first, followed by about ¼ cup of sugar. Strategically, she places four pads of butter evenly around the top of the apple dome, the idea being for it to melt and mix with all the other flavors. “The pie becomes its own crock pot,” she says, cinching the top layer and slicing four even slits in the center. As a finishing touch, she brushes the top crust with milk (instead of egg) and sprinkles with a very thin layer of sugar. The pie bakes for one hour exactly, and comes out with a glazed, crispy crust.
YOUR SLICE IS PART OF A BIGGER PYE
In 1713, English poet William King wrote a poem titled “Apple Pye” about the iconic dessert:
“OF all the delicates which Britons try To please the palate or delight the eye Of all the sev’ral kinds of sumptuous far, there is none that can with applepie compare.”
As the New York Times reported in 2010, the flaky, crusty top-and-bottom dessert may have trampled the cupcake craze in just a few years, but American pie, the iconic dessert, is here to stay.