Another grey winter day, with the wind howling from the east and snow drifting across the yard and our long driveway, means we are snowbound. A snow day! Yay! What better thing to do but bake? An apple pie, say. Apples are the fallback fruit of winter, and a pie is what all apples dream of becoming.
Some people think that baking is alchemy, and that bakers are magicians. It’s true that bakers are born, not made. It has to do with the hands. A baker is born with hands tender enough to cradle a baby, as sweet-talking as a lover’s, stealthy enough to coax cookies into creation, and speedy enough to have biscuits shaped and baking before their baking powder has time to blink and rebel against rising. In the hands of a baker, flour, butter and eggs are transformed in the heat of the oven from the mundane makings of breakfast into magical components that are 99 percent inspiration and one percent mingled devils’ and angels’ breath.
Bakers are a rare breed. For many, the memory of a beloved grandmother in a flour-dusted apron is the closest they’ve come to knowing an angel. For the rest, finding a baker amongst us is an event to be celebrated. In this particular instance, it was a Facebook post by my friend Amy Jo Ehman, whose name may be familiar to many Grainews readers as a former columnist and very fine foodie. (Recently we both contributed poems to a new anthology Life of Pie: prairie poems and prose, edited by Ivan Sundal and Myrna Garanis, published by Rolling Pins Press. Betcha: all about pie! Gotta love it.)
AJ had posted a photo of one of her pies on Facebook. Truth is, she’s famous as a pie-maker, and her emails frequently mention pie-making. Her photo, the pie’s juices bubbling out of the lattice crust, sent me to the kitchen to make two, one for us, one for her. Baking pie for AJ, the best pie-maker I know, is a gift I like to give her. No one bakes for bakers. No one cooks for cooks. The intimidation factor looms too large, a cloud across the sunny face of sharing. What could you possibly cook for a chef? Or bake for a baker? Invitations to dinner are rare, usually framed in a slightly guilty gilt edge – I didn’t know what to make for you that is good enough. Like AJ, I always reply – I’m just glad of the invitation to share.
We have different hands, different styles. AJ’s pie pastry is flaky, made with butter and lard, meant to melt away. Mine, a brisée made in a classic French style, with butter, is crisp, meant to contain, then shatter between the teeth. She uses a pie plate, builds a lattice like a grapevine’s trellis to contain her strawberries and rhubarb. I make a freeform galette on a baking sheet, juices and specks of ginger and nutmeg escaping over the top.
The difference arises from the type of fat used, and the method used to incorporate the fat into the flour. Using lard mixed with butter, and leaving the bits of fat in large-ish blobs the size of fingernails, makes a flaky structure. Using butter, cut into mealiness, followed by a smearing action called fraisage, makes brisée liquid-proof while still tender. Both types have their advantages. And their heroes. So slice the pie. First we eat, then we try our hand at making other types of pastry.
This is a rustic free-form tart with one crust and lots of fruit. It is baked on a cookie sheet, not in a pie plate. Serves 6-8
1 recipe of your favourite pastry
8-10 firm tart apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Fuji)
½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp. grated nutmeg
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
a handful of raisins or dried cranberries (optional)
¼ cup butter, divided
2 Tbsp. cream
2 Tbsp. white sugar
Roll out pastry into a 16” round. Place the round on a parchment-lined baking sheet with a bit of a lip. Let the pastry rest, lightly covered with plastic wrap, while you proceed with the fruit. Set the oven at 375°F, and position the rack in the centre of the oven.
Peel, core and slice the apples. Mix with the brown sugar, spices and dried fruit. Heat half the butter in a sauté pan. Add the apple mixture and cook over medium-high heat until the apples soften, about 15 minutes. Pour onto a tray and let cool.
Tidily heap the fruit in the centre of the pastry, leaving a 1”- 3″ border of pastry uncovered by fruit. Fold and pleat the outer edge of the pastry over the apples, making an enclosing lip of pastry. You should have a small section of apples in the centre that is uncovered. Distribute the butter in small bits on the apples that are exposed. Mix together the egg and cream, and brush the ensuing eggwash onto the pastry. Sprinkle the entire thing sparingly with the white sugar. Bake until browned, about 35 minutes. Serve warm.