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Recipes and Stories

18 October 2012: Apple Pie Season

Gingered Apple Tart with Shortbread Crust, photographed by Timothy Hall
Surely one of the best fragrances of autumn is the heady aroma of the season’s first juicy, ripe apples baking in a pie. For many Americans, it’s the quintessential aroma of the season—the subtle smell of falling leaves and of toasting pecans, roasting turkey, and mulled cider all rolled into one.

Throughout our culinary history, our cookbooks, from Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery of 1795 right through to the inimitable Julia Child, have reflected our love affair with apple-stuffed pastry.

Originally considered breakfast fare, the pie that everything else is supposed to be “as American as” today knows no culinary boundaries. Unfortunately, it also knows almost no respect. You can still find it everywhere, but you’ll rarely find one that’s worth eating. What mostly passes for America’s favorite pie today is an indifferent slab of commercially made pastry encasing chunks of canned apple filling that taste of sugar and not much else, its stamped lattice top pastry limp from being warmed in a microwave.

The only thing worse is when it arrives topped with a gooey slice of that so-called “American” cheese.

No thank you.

If you’re going to eat pie, for heaven’s sake make it a pie that’s worth the calories, and don’t go settling for one of those dull factory made crusts just because your pastry skills are not what they should be. Pastry is simple stuff: all it takes is care and practice. But meanwhile, here’s a favorite from my latest book, Essentials of Southern Cooking, with a simple shortbread crust that is completely artless and practically foolproof.

Gingered Apple Shortbread Tart
Serves 6

10 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons extra-fine white cornmeal
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ pound (1 cup or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 lemons
4 large or 6 small to medium tart apples such as Arkansas Black, Braeburn, Fuji, Rome, Winesap, or Granny Smith
4-6 tablespoons turbinado (“raw”) sugar
¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger
¼ cup bourbon
Whole nutmeg in a grater

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375º F. Put the flour, meal, sugar and salt in a work bowl and lightly whisk to mix. Add the butter and work it into the flour until it makes a fairly smooth dough. This can be done in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Put in the flour, sugar, and salt and pulse to sift. Add the butter and process until it resembles coarse meal. Turn out and finish blending it by hand. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of a 12-inch round removable-bottom tart pan. Prick it well with a fork and bake 10 minutes.

Cut the zest from both lemons in fine strips with a zester or remove with a vegetable peeler and cut with a knife. Halve the lemons and juice them through a strainer into a glass or stainless steel bowl. Peel, core, and cut the apples into thin, straight slices, and add them to the juice, tossing to coat so that they won’t oxidize as quickly.

Sprinkle the crust with an even coating of raw sugar and arrange the apple slices over it in a single layer of overlapping concentric rings. Scatter the ginger among the apples as you go. Sprinkle lightly with more raw sugar, lemon zest, and bourbon. Generously grate nutmeg over it.

Bake in the center of the oven until the apples are golden and tender, about 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before removing the rim. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Recipe from Essentials of Southern Cooking (Lyons Press), Copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved
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