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The apple pie evaluators took their job seriously at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The apple pie evaluators took their job seriously at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

AFTER TWO MONTHS of intensive research, we are forced to admit failure — once again — in our perennial quest to definitively answer a question that has plagued civilization since the discovery of the cooking fire: what is the best pie apple?

Our failure was not due to a lack of effort, and we had the help of prodigious pie-makers from across the region. We began by baking, inhaling, and serving more than 2,000 five-inch, single-serving apple pies at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) for 17 days in September, and tasted not a few of them.

We talked pies with Kim Harrison, one of a team of volunteers that made the pies to raise funds for The Preservation Society in Granby, Massachusetts. We spoke with dozens of customers about the merits of one variety over another.

The Big E pies have a flaky top crust covering a filling of several varieties lightly spiced. Many people topped off their pie with vanilla ice cream, a few with thin slices of cheddar. The apples were supplied by five Massachusetts orchards: Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown, Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Nestrovich Fruit Farm in Granville, Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, and Red Apple Farm in Phillipston.

The apple pies at the Big E featured a mix of varieties. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The apple pies at the Big E featured a mix of varieties. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Most of the pies included McIntosh, a perennial contender for the gold standard since its discovery on an Ontario farm more than two centuries ago. (McIntosh was introduced  to New England in 1868 by Vermont’s Dr. Thomas H. Hoskins.)

Its flavor and aroma are so good that most people forgive McIntosh’s tendency to break down when baked, and add at least some to any varietal mix.

Akane, an early season apple developed in Japan in 1937 and introduced in the United States in 1970, was also noteworthy in this year’s pies for its lightly tangy flavor and texture.

In our informal survey of visitors, opinions about the best pie apple ran the gamut, from heirlooms like Baldwin (Wilmington, Massachusetts, 1740) to recent entries such as Pink Lady (Australia, 1989). Northern Spy (East Bloomfield, New York, in 1840, from seeds from Salisbury, Connecticut) has a particularly loyal fan base.

The closest we came to discovery, though, was the radiance of a woman purchasing 14 Gravenstein apples, an early season heirloom from Europe that dates back to at least the 1600s. The now hard-to-find Gravs were popular in New England until the bitterly cold winter of 1933-34, when many of the trees perished (along with more than one million Baldwin trees). It has never recovered as a commercial apple, but can still be found at some orchards.

Pie preferences are often passed down from generation to generation. The woman purchasing 14 Gravensteins put six in her bag at first, and as we talked she kept adding to her total until she got to 14. She planned to make two pies with them, just the way her mother did.

It was not the first time during our years at The Big E that the sight of Gravensteins has inspired such passion, and we suspect it will not be the last. I have not made a pie using just Gravenstein, but if it is as good baked as it is eaten fresh, the woman may be on to something. The apples were special, bursting with juice, with a lightly crisp, lemony tart flavor.

The flavor of nearly all of the varieties cited at The Big E, we noted, is more tart than sweet. That’s not to say that you can’t make a great pie using sweet apples, but a hint of tartness lends a pie complexity and zest.

Bakers pose with their entries prior to judging at the 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Bakers pose with their entries prior to judging at the 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

NEXT WE TRIED immersion, serving as judges in the 5th Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest October 18 at Wachusett Mountain’s annual AppleFest in Princeton, Massachusetts. We dutifully sampled 30 pies in less than two hours, using the two-bite method: an introduction to the pie, and a second impression. It is the only way to do justice to this many pies.

There were some incredible-looking pies — entries are judged on appearance and presentation as well as flavor and texture — in two categories, Apple Only and Apple And Other. Several had latticed or elaborately sculpted crusts, including the winner of Apple Only, Theresa Matthews of Gardner, Massachusetts.

Theresa Matthews' winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie is in the foreground. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Theresa Matthews’ winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie is in the foreground. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The judges, in addition to me, were Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association, for the third year; local businessman Burt Gendron, a veteran pie taster; Julia Grimaldi, representing the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources; and radio personalities Chris Zito of WSRS and Ginny Sears of WTAG, both in Worcester.

We did not know the varieties used in any pie, although we were able to identify McIntosh flavor and texture in some, and make good guesses about Cortland, an 1898 cross of McIntosh with Ben David, similar in flavor to McIntosh but larger and firmer.

Most of the entries were good to very good, with several reaching exalted status. The few low-scoring pies suffered more from lackluster crusts than poor apple flavor.

One pie pairing pears with apples tasted mostly of apples — finding a balance that allows the milder pear flavor to come through can be tricky. But apples and pears is a proven combination, well worth the effort to get it right.

Green grapes and apples, on the other hand, may go well together fresh in a fruit salad, but made an undistinguished pie filling. While there are many flavorful ways to serve apples with bacon or peanut butter, the pies that combined them did justice to neither apple nor “other.”

Other ingredients in Apple and Other were caramel, cranberries, cream cheese, raisins, walnuts, and Jack Daniels. They all worked well with this versatile fruit.

Apples in a number of pies had been sliced by a mandolin slicer, and generally this did not improve the pie’s texture. The thin, uniform slices often stick together in a stack, which can lead to uneven cooking and consistency.

Theresa Matthews used only Cortland apples in her winning Apple Only pie. Both contest winners in 2012 also used just Cortland. Could this make Cortland the undisputed champ?

Chef Gerri Griswold, rear right, looks on as people sample her pies at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Chef Gerri Griswold, rear right, looks on as people sample her pies at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

FROM THERE we conducted another experiment, at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut. Chef Gerri Griswold baked a dozen pies for our October 25 apple talk and tasting event, two each using single varieties: Cortland; Empire, a 1945 offspring of McIntosh, crossed with Red Delicious, released in 1966; Gala (New Zealand, 1934, 1970), Honeycrisp (Minnesota, 1961, released in 1991), Macoun, a 1909 cross of McIntosh with Jersey Black in New York, released in 1923); and McIntosh.

Gerri scrupulously followed the Joy of Cooking apple pie recipe for all 12 of her creations, using the same prepared Pillsbury crust. We sampled each pie several times, as did the 20 or so people of all ages in attendance. A sheet of paper nearby for our scores and comments went mostly untouched, as most people were content to savor the experience.

There was plenty of excellent pie, but no clear-cut winner. Cortland had the most support in an informal poll, but the Empire, Macoun, and McIntosh pies all had champions. The McIntosh pie had surprisingly firm texture, soft but not mushy, and holding together.

Gerri had tried a similar experiment during our first appearance at White Memorial two years ago, baking four pies using single varieties. On that day, Mutsu, a large yellow apple discovered in Japan in 1930 (also known as Crispin), was the favorite pie apple.

The pies made with the sweet Gala and Honeycrisp apples did not fare as well as the others. For most of us, they were a little too sweet and their flavor lacked character. Gerri acknowledged that were it not for the taste test she would have reduced the sugar in the pies made with these varieties.

WE CONTINUED our study this past Sunday, November 2, during Franklin County CiderDays. Sue Chadwick, who grows a wide range of rare heirloom apples at her Second Chance Farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts, kindly donated a pie for our research, one of just three left from the 20 she baked to sell at the event the day before.

Sue uses a mix of apples in her pies, and the varieties could be different every time. Even if she could tell exactly what went into each pie, it would be hard for most people to find the apples to replicate it. The pie she gave us had rich apple flavor, as good or better than any made with a single variety.

Having made such little progress, we are going back to view Andrea Darrow’s three-part video series about apple pie-making, below. Andrea, of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vermont, bakes hundreds of apple pies every fall, peeling every apple by hand. She uses several varieties, including Cortland and McIntosh, and piles them high.

Theresa Matthews with all that was left of her winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie after the judging. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Theresa Matthews with all that was left of her winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie after the judging. The Apple Rose Tarts on top were long gone. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

THERESA MATTHEWS has been working on her apple pies since she was a teenager. “My Mum was the reason behind that. She never measured for her pie crusts and I could never, ever get it right.”

Theresa’s preference for Cortland goes back at least a generation. “I’ve tried other apples, but I always go back to Cortland. I got that from my Mum as well.”

She did get it right. Here is the recipe for Theresa Matthews’ first-place pie.

Mum’s Apple Pie

Crust

3 c all purpose flour

1 t sea salt

1 T granulated sugar

1-½ sticks unsalted butter (cold)

⅓ c shortening (cold)

½ c ice cold water

one egg white

In a food processor bowl place flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening. Cover and pulse until blended about the size of peas. While running the processor, pour cold water in a steady stream until pastry ball forms. Divide into two balls, chilling for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out one crust on lightly floured parchment paper 1” larger than pie tin. Carefully transfer pastry to pie tin, and try not to stretch to avoid shrinking. Take egg white and brush onto entire bottom crust and refrigerate for 15 minutes or until filling is set.

Filling

6 thinly sliced Cortland apples

½ c unsalted butter

3 T all purpose flour

¼ c water

½ c granulated sugar

½ c packed light brown sugar

1½ t cinnamon

½ t nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a smooth paste. Add in water, sugars, and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature to a simmer. In a large mixing bowl place sliced apples. Pour sauce over apple slices and mix carefully to keep apple slices whole.

Carefully spoon coated apple slices into bottom crust, mounding slightly. Take care not to pour too much liquid to run out, reserving 2 T sauce. Brush bottom crust edge with egg whites and cover mounded apples with top crust, trim and press to seal. Cut slits for steam to release during cooking and brush glaze onto top of pie.

Cut pie dough scraps into the shapes of leaves and arrange them on the pie where the rose tarts will be placed. Brush glaze over leaves. Save remaining pie dough for Apple Rose Tarts (recipe below).

Place in preheated oven and lay a sheet of aluminum foil over pie to prevent burning. Bake 60-75 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cool. Serve as is or with ice cream. Makes one 9” pie.

Apple Rose Tarts

Preheat oven to 350°.

Inspiration from diy-enthusiasts.com/food-fun/easy-apple-desserts-apple-roses/

2 Cortland apples sliced thinly

3 c water with 1 c sugar dissolved to make a simple syrup

1 T lemon juice (to help prevent browning)

Cinnamon sugar

Pie crust dough (left over from Mum’s Apple Pie, above)

Add apple slices to a pan of sweet syrup, making sure to cover all apples. Cook over medium-low heat until apples are pliable.

Roll out remaining pie dough in a rectangle about 8 to 10 inches wide and 10-12 inches long. Cut 8-10 one-inch wide strips along dough’s length.

Dry off 6 apple slices on a paper towel before arranging on a strip of pie dough. Lay out Overlap slices on strips so when rolled they will form the apple rose petals. Take care to leave about 1/2” of dough to seal the tart once rolled. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar before rolling up tart into a rose. (Photo references available on aforementioned website)

Place tarts on parchment paper about 2 inches apart and bake for 25 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Once tarts are cool, remove from parchment and using toothpicks insert into place on baked and cooled apple pie.

*          *          *

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellAPPLES OF NEW ENGLAND (Countryman Press, 2014), a history of apple growing in New England, includes photographs and descriptions of more than 200 apple varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region. Separate chapters feature the “fathers” of American wild apple, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thorea; the contemporary orchard of the early 21st century; and rare apples, many of them photographed from the preservation orchard at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

Author Russell Steven Powell is senior writer for the nonprofit New England Apple Association after serving as its executive director from 1998 to 2011. Photographer Bar Lois Weeks is the Association’s current executive director.

Available in bookstores everywhere.

'America's Apple' coverAMERICA’S APPLE, (Brook Hollow Press, 2012) Powell’s and Weeks’s first book, provides an in-depth look at how apples are grown, eaten, and marketed in America, with chapter on horticulture, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), heirloom apples, apples as food, apple drinks, food safety insects and disease, labor, current trends, and apple futures, with nearly 50 photographs from orchards around the country.

The hardcover version lists for $45.95 and includes a photographic index of 120 apple varieties cultivated in the United States. America’s Apple is also available in paperback, minus the photograph index, for $19.95, and as an ebook.

Available at numerous bookstores and orchards, and Silver Street MediaAmazon.comBarnes and Noble, and other online sources. For quantity discounts, email newenglandapples@verizon.net.

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Scott's Yankee Farmer, East Lyme, Connecticut (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Scott’s Yankee Farmer, East Lyme, Connecticut (Russell Steven Powell photo)

I HAVE COOKED with apples for many years and written about them almost as long. Still, it felt a little audacious for me to bring apple squares to a professional chef, Luca Paris, to share live on his radio show on WKBK in Keene, New Hampshire, last Thursday. The recipe is an old favorite, but I had not made it for some time. What if the squares were just average, or worse?

Like many recipes, the ingredients list a range of apples (in this case, four to six). While this accounts for different-sized fruit, I always use the higher number; the low end of the range strikes me as the bare minimum, if you are low on apples. Andrea Darrow of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vermont, in her three-part video series on how to make an apple pie, says she likes to “pile them high” with fruit, and I feel the same. I used good-sized apples, two each of Cortland, Empire, and McIntosh (nearly any variety can be used in making this recipe).

The Empires I used were an even deeper red than this one, almost burgundy. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The Empires I used were an even deeper red than this one, almost burgundy. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

I kept the skins on, for reasons practical (the nutrients are concentrated on or just beneath the apple’s surface) and aesthetic (color). The two Empires were a deep, deep red, almost burgundy, and they gave the squares a rich hue.

To avoid stringy threads of peel I cut the apples in small, irregular chunks from the outside in until I reached the core, rather than coring and slicing them. Placing the chunks in a bowl, I chopped the skins into even smaller pieces with the aid of a biscuit cutter.

There is very little spice in these squares, just a little cinnamon. This allows the full range of naturally sweet apple flavors to come through. The different varieties impart subtly different tastes and textures to the squares; too much sugar or spice can overpower them.

The original recipe, which came to me from the late Margaret Richardson of Brookfield, Massachusetts, called for cornflakes in the middle. The crisp, light cereal flakes soak up excess moisture, add flavor, and help the squares hold together better. I substituted multigrain flakes to make them a little healthier.

The crust does not have to be perfect as long as you manage to seal most of the edges. The dash of almond extract in the glaze makes a nice contrast to the apple flavor.

I sampled a square before I left for the studio, and it tasted fine. Still, there were no guarantees that Luca or his co-host, Dan Mitchell, would like them. Luca complimented me after the first one while we were waiting to go on the air, but he might have just been being polite.

Then Dan tried a square. Then they both had another one. By show’s end, Luca had eaten two more squares — four in all — and taken some home with him. That evening, he wrote in an email, “those squares were amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!” On the strength of this endorsement, I thought it time to share the recipe.

The recipe is included in my book America’s Apple, with photographs by Bar Lois Weeks. America’s Apple can be ordered online in hardcover or as an ebook at Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

— Russell Steven Powell

Peg’s Apple Squares

1 egg yolk

milk

2-1/2 c flour (use white whole-wheat for better health)

1/2 t salt

1 c butter (use half coconut oil for better health)

1 c multigrain or corn flakes

4-6 New England apples, cored and chopped

3/4 c sugar (use raw cane sugar for better health)

1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375°. Beat egg yolk in measuring cup and add enough milk to make 2/3 cup liquid.

Mix flour and salt, and cut in butter with a pastry blender.

Mix wet and dry ingredients together until it forms a dough. Divide in half.

Roll out half the dough to fit into a 15-1/2” cookie sheet, pressing it into bottom and sides. Sprinkle with corn flakes. Top with apples.

Combine sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over apples.

Roll out remaining dough and place on top of apples. Seal edges. Cut holes in dough to let steam escape.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, until crust is brown and apples are soft.

Glaze (omit for better health):

1/2 c confectioners’ sugar

1-2 T milk

almond extract

Mix with a few drops of almond extract. Drizzle over warm squares.

***

FEBRUARY IS TIME for pruning in New England’s apple orchards. See how it is done in this two-part video series starring Mo Tougas of Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts:

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3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

A sampling of pies at the 3rd Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

3rd Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest, 2012 Mount Wachusett AppleFest (Russell Steven Powell photo)

MORE THAN 60 pies from around New England graced the tables at the 3rd Annual Great New England Pie Contest on Saturday, October 20, at the 29th Annual AppleFest at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. Both winners, Patricia Kuhn Bonita of Winthrop, Massachusetts, in the “Apple Only” category, and Denise Gokey of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in the “Apple and Other” category, featured multiple varieties of apples in their pies, but both included Cortland and Honeycrisp.

Judges were “Wachusett Pie Taster” Burt Gendron; Rick Leblanc, director of marketing for Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources; Rick Patrick, assistant director of Wachusett Mountain Ski School; Russell Steven Powell, author of America’s Apple; chef Juan Sebastian of Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, and Red Apple Farm; and Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of New England Apple Association.

Pies were rated on the basis of flavor, texture, crust, appearance, and presentation. It was the second straight year that Cortlands were used in both winning pies.

Here are the winning pie recipes:

Patricia Kuhn Bonita’s Apple Pie

Crust

1 c flour

1/4 t salt

5 T butter

2/3 c shortening

6-8 T water

1 T sugar

Filling

7 New England apples — McIntosh, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith

3 T butter

1/2 c brown sugar

1/2 c sugar

3-1/2 T flour

1/2 t cinnamon

1/4 t nutmeg

1 T lemon

Denise’s Crunchy Caramel Apple Pie

Pastry crust for a 10-inch pie

Filling

1/2 c sugar

3 T cinnamon

dash nutmeg

1/8 t salt

6 c sliced New England apples (3 Honeycrisp, 2 Cortland, and 2 Golden Delicious)

In large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients. Add apples and toss to coat. Transfer apples to pie crust. Set aside.

Crumb topping

1 c packed brown sugar

1/2 c flour

1/2 c quick cooking oats

1/2 c butter

1/2 c chopped pecans

1/4 c caramel topping

Stir together brown sugar, flour, and oats. Cut in butter with pastry knife until mixture resembles coarse crumbs (sometimes I have to mix with my hands a bit). Sprinkle crumb topping over apples.

Place pie on a cookie sheet to keep your oven clean. Cover crust edges with foil. Bake 25 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking 25-30 minutes, or until apples are soft when pricked with a fork.

Remove from oven. Sprinkle with pecans and caramel topping. Cool on a wire rack, serve warm or at room temperature. Either way is delicious!

I have been making this pie for years, and it is always requested by my family during apple harvest!

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'America's Apple' cover

THERE’S A WHOLE SECTION on apple pies and pie-making in America’s Apple, the new book by Russell Steven Powell, including an account of the 2011 Great New England Apple Pie Contest and a winning recipe.

Powell includes favorite apple recipes in his chapter on food. America’s Apple has chapters on apple drinks and heirloom varieties, plus an illustrated index of 120 varieties by Bar Lois Weeks.

For ordering information, visit americasapple.com.

***

LEARN HOW a pro does it!

See New England Apple Association’s three-part apple-pie making video featuring Andrea Darrow, Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont:

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Mount Kearsarge looms in the distance at Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, New Hampshire. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Mount Kearsarge looms in the distance at Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, New Hampshire. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

THE BIG WINNER at Mount Wachusett AppleFest’s second annual apple pie contest October 15? The Cortland. It was the only variety used by both winners: Julie Piragis of Athol, Massachusetts, in the “apple only” category, and Elinor Ives of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, whose pie was chosen as the best “apple and other” pie.

Both winning pies had outstanding crusts, were nicely spiced, and beautifully presented. Their selection affirms what chefs have known for more than a century: Cortlands make an outstanding pie. While experimenting with several apple varieties can result in unusual textures and flavors, Julie and Elinor demonstrated that a single variety of high-quality apples can carry a pie as well.

The key is to start off with the best fruit. A week after the AppleFest contest, we sampled four apple pies also made with single varieties, including Cortland. They were so good that it was hard to choose among them. But in our informal taste test, Cortlands finished last, behind McIntosh, Mutsu, and Empire (even by Gerri Griswold, who made them)!

Apples can vary from place to place, and season to season. Always begin with firm, fresh apples when making a pie, and taste them first to ensure that they are at peak flavor. Applesauce is forgiving of a less-than-perfect apple. But if you are going to the trouble of making a pie, choose the best textured, and most flavorful, apples you can find.

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Cortland, obviously, makes an excellent choice. If you think only in red or green when it comes to apples, consult a Cortland to see a stunning example of something in between. A large, beautiful apple, it comes in shades of deep red with green and yellow streaks. Its sweet-tart flavor is similar to its McIntosh parent, but a little less tangy. It is less juicy than a Mac as well, and it retains its shape better when cooked.

In addition to being a great baking apple, Cortlands are excellent for fresh eating. They are famous in salads, too, as their white flesh browns slowly after slicing.

While Cortlands owe much of their great flavor to the McIntosh, their firm texture, striping, and size are attributes of their other parent, Ben Davis. The skin of Cortlands can become waxy over time, another feature of Ben Davis. Cortlands were developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, in 1898.

Here is the winning apple pie entry from Julie Piragis:

Julie Piragis' winning apple pie. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Julie Piragis’ winning apple pie. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Apple Pie

Crust

2 c flour

2/3 c butter-flavored Crisco

1 t salt

7 T ice-cold water

Filling

Enough Cortland apples to fill 9-inch pie plate (heaping)

¾ c sugar

1 t salt

1 t cinnamon

dash of nutmeg

dash of salt

2 T flour

Put 2 T butter on top of apples and add top crust.

Mix one egg with 2 T Half n’ Half coffee creamer and brush finished pie. Sprinkle with sugar and bake at 350° for one hour or until crust is golden brown and apples are tender.

* * *

The winning recipe in the “Apple and Other” category, from Elinor Ives:

Harvest Apple Pie with Oat-Nut Crust and Cinnamon Pecan Crumble

Elinor Ives's winning apple pie. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Elinor Ives’s winning apple pie. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Filling

1/2 c butter

3 T flour

1/4 c water

1/2 c sugar

1/2 c packed brown sugar

1/4 t cinnamon

8 Cortland apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

Crust

3/4 c flour

1/2 c quick-cooking oats

1/4 c chopped pecans

1/4 c chopped walnuts

1 T dark brown sugar

1 T white sugar

1/2 c butter, melted 

Cinnamon Pecan Crumble

3 T granulated sugar

1 c plus 2 T flour

1/4 c plus 2 T packed dark brown sugar

1/4 t cinnamon

1/2 c butter, chilled and cut into chunks

1 c pecans

Preheat oven to 400°F.

To make filling, melt butter in an electric skillet or a saucepan large enough to hold all the apples. Stir in flour to form a paste. Add water, white sugar, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature, add apples, and let simmer until apples are cooked.

To make the crust, mix all crust ingredients together in a bowl and press into a pie plate.

Bake crust for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.

To make Cinnamon Pecan Crumble, combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor until crumbly, then bake on a cookie sheet at 400°F for 10 minutes.

When crust is cool, spoon filling into crust and top with Cinnamon Pecan Crumble.

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TO LEARN MORE about apples, visit our New England Apples website.

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Some of the entries waiting to be sampled at Applefest's second annual apple pie contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Some of the entries waiting to be sampled at Applefest’s second annual apple pie contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Apple pie (Russell Steven Powell photo)

(Russell Steven Powell photo)

THIRTY-FIVE APPLE PIES in less than two hours. I paced myself this year, taking two bites from each — just enough to feel confident to rate the pies on appearance, presentation, crust, texture, and flavor. My stomach was full at the end and I felt mildly uncomfortable for the next few hours, but it was worth it. I tasted some exceptional apple pie.

The pies were entered at the second annual Apple Pie Contest at AppleFest, a two-weekend festival featuring food, crafts, music, and other entertainment (and of course lots of apples), at Mount Wachusett in the north-central Massachusetts town of Princeton. The 2011 fair, which continues today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and again next weekend, is the 28th annual.

There were five other judges besides me: Rose Arruda and Bonita Oehlke from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, Jon Clements, a tree fruit specialist from University of Massachusetts Extension, food editor Amy Traverso of Yankee Magazine, and a local business owner named Bernie (whose last name escapes me).

It rained for the first 20 minutes or so of the judging, and the day was breezy and cool, in the mid-50s. A crowd gathered anyway, many of them the (mostly) women and men who had entered pies, and their families. Some stood beneath an adjacent tent that housed the afternoon’s main entertainment, a polka band that played loudly and exuberantly in the background the whole time we sampled pies.

Apple pie (Russell Steven Powell photo)

(Russell Steven Powell photo)

Event organizer Audra Lissell and emcee Greg Byrne of local radio station WSRS-FM introduced and served the pies, walking each one in front of the judges so we could take in its appearance.

Some of the pies were true works of art, decorated with sculpted pastry apples, maple leaves, and flowers, arranged in baskets or amid a tableau of evergreens and dark red apples taken from a tree in the cook’s back yard, or with beautifully fluted edges sealing perfect-looking crusts.

There were two main categories: “apple only,” and “apple and other,” for pies that added to the apples ingredients like cranberries, raisins, raspberries, pears, and pecans (one pie even had meat in it).

There were crumb tops and traditional pie pastries, and some that were almost the consistency of shortbread. Some pies had stunning woven or lattice-work tops. There were crusts decorated with faces and apple-skin coils and symmetrical vents. Some were dark or light, shiny with egg wash or sprinkled with sugar.

Apple pie (Russell Steven Powell photo)

(Russell Steven Powell photo)

There was even an entrant that had a layer of apples between a cake-like base and crumb top served side-less, like a tart. Many were simply classic, unadorned traditional-looking apple pies.

We did not know the varieties of apples we were eating. Some pies were piled high (Cortland? Mutsu? Northern Spy?), while in others the filling had settled beneath a cavernous top crust (Macoun, McIntosh?). Some were sweeter, some more tart, but these were the only clues to the apples’ identity. Some pies clearly used a single variety, others a mix.

The textures were widely variable, partly a result of the varieties used, but also a determination by the bakers to have their apples firm, tender, or soft. Spicing, too, was as varied as you might expect coming from 35 cooks. This proved to be the most challenging aspect of pie-making.

Apple pie (Russell Steven Powell photo)

(Russell Steven Powell photo)

SPICING AN APPLE PIE is a delicate business. You need to have just the right blend to accent the apple flavor, rather than overpower it. Most of the traditional choices to spice an apple pie — cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice — have intense flavors that can easily overwhelm. They must be applied lightly, and mixing them properly takes a special skill. The spice that left the strongest taste from Saturday’s contest was nutmeg, which lingered in my mouth for an hour or more after the event.

Despite the challenge of making a consistently flaky crust, there were some excellent entries, and only a few that were either too hard, thick, or gummy. Several tasted as if they contained some whole wheat flour, giving them a boldness and complexity to match the apple filling.

Apple pie (Russell Steven Powell photo)

(Russell Steven Powell photo)

I LIKE A PIE that risks almost everything on the strength of its apple flavor, contained by a flaky, buttery crust that cuts easily with a fork and contrasts in texture and sweetness. A good crumb topping lends a pleasing finish to tasting, especially if it is garnished with nuts, chopped fine or whole.

First and foremost, I want to taste apple, so too much sugar and spice can eliminate a pie from exalted status (despite the apple’s natural sugars, most cooks err on the side of sweetness). Other fruits, though, can add interest to the pie, giving it a more complex flavor, texture, and color.

Tasting an apple pie meeting these various criteria — and there were several yesterday — is sublime.

Last year I ate too much from the early entries, and by around the tenth pie I was so full that each new one became a sensory blur. But this year, despite the fact that there were twice as many pies to taste as a year ago, my two-bite system worked, and I was able to give each entry the attention it deserved.

It was truly impressive. There was not a bad pie in the bunch, and there were some exceptional ones that made me wish I could take them home with me. It was moving to look out at the expectant faces as the pie chefs and their loved ones nervously watched us sample their wares, and an awesome responsibility.

Pie preference is subjective, and despite the consistent rating categories, our scores varied widely. Still, there were clear winners in both categories and some close runners-up when we tabulated the judging.

We’ll be featuring the winning recipes later this week.

L to R: Apple pie judges Bonita Oehlke, Jon Clements, Bernie Gendron, Russell Steven Powell, Rose Arruda, Amy Traverso. (Audra Lissell photo)

L to R: Apple pie judges Bonita Oehlke, Jon Clements, Bernie Gendron, Russell Steven Powell, Rose Arruda, Amy Traverso. (Audra Lissell photo)

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REV UP YOUR KITCHENS, ladies and gentlemen We have now officially entered the year’s biggest apple pie-making zone: Thanksgiving week. These next few days are your last chance to experiment with a new apple pie or practice your favorite recipe one final time before you make your pièce de résistance this Thursday.

Make sure you make enough to have some left over for breakfast Friday morning, but remember a pie’s greatest strength and weakness: it must be eaten straight away. For tips about how to take your pie from crust to oven, view the accompanying video featuring Andrea Darrow, Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont.

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

“If you bake one apple pie a week, or two a month, that’s 25 or 50 pies you will make in the coming year. At the end of the year, I guarantee you’ll be the best apple pie maker on your block — and you’ll have more friends than you’ll know what to do with.”

— Ken Haedrich, author of Apple Pie Perfect (Harvard Common Press, 2002)

* * *

AT THE EASTERN STATES EXPOSITION (“The Big E”) this September, we staffed our New England Apples booth for the entire 17-day fair, succeeding in selling bushels of five-inch apple pies, sometimes at the rate of 135 a day! As you may guess, we fielded a myriad of apple pie making-questions, especially on the apple varieties that produce the best results.

Imagine my excitement, then, when a self-proclaimed expert pie maker stopped by to “talk shop.” I was dough in his hands as he related his secret tips for a flaky pastry crust, a perfect mix of sweet and tart apples to use, and, most exciting of all, an answer to an all-consuming question of mine: What is your favorite apple pie?

He answered without hesitation and with the enthusiastic support of his entire extended family: “Blackberry-Apple Pie.” So, here goes, as best as I can remember it.

Blackberry-Apple Pie

1 2-crust pastry shell

2 c blackberries

1/4 c sugar

2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice

*6 c New England apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

2-3 T cornstarch

2 T sugar

1 t cinnamon

pinch of nutmeg

In large bowl, mash together blackberries, sugar, and lemon juice. Add apples and toss. In small bowl, combine cornstarch, 2 T sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir this into fruit mixture. Assemble pie as usual and bake at 400º for 30 minutes; reduce temperature to 375º and continue baking for 40 more minutes or until pie juice bubbles thickly out the steam vents.

*His apple choices:  2 McIntosh, 2 Northern Spy, and 1 Baldwin. In addition to his, my favorites include: Jonathan, Macoun, Cortland, Rome, Gravenstein, Winesap, and, if you can find them, Rhode Island Greening.

* * *

Empire apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Empire apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

 

 

 

“The best pie apple is a matter of personal preference and a reflection of the quality of a given apple at a given time of year. And it’s a moving target. The Northern Spy apples in your neck of the woods might be super one year, the Jonathan apples a little better the following year. The Golden Delicious apples you find in your supermarket could be great one week, not so great a month from now.”

— Ken Haedrich, Apple Pie Perfect

* * *

The mad peeler at work

NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO now, Cindy Keating of Southampton, Massachusetts, and three of her friends got together in Cindy’s kitchen for an afternoon of apple pie-making. They had a great time, the conversation and flour were flying. But the big hit was the corer and peeler Cindy had clamped onto her counter. It was so much fun to use that one of her friends refused to relinquish it, and just kept peeling apple after apple.

No matter. They ended up with four delicious apple pies by the end of the day, and an enduring memory.

Here’s Cindy’s recipe. She can’t recall where she found it, but has made it many times since. The sour cream, she says, coats the apples and suspends them in a delicious, custard-like filling.

Sour Cream Apple Pie

1 9” pie crust

Filling:

2 c New England apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

2 T flour

½ c sugar

¼ t salt

1 c sour cream

1 egg, slightly beaten

1½ t vanilla

Topping:

1/3 c flour

1/3 c sugar

½ t cinnamon

¼ c butter

Blend together with pastry knife or fork.

Place apples in pie shell. Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Add sour cream, egg, and vanilla. Beat until smooth, and pour over apples. Bake at 425º for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350º and bake for 20 minutes more.

Increase temperature to 400º. Add topping to pie and bake for 10 minutes more.

* * *

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

 

 

 

“Making a gorgeous, delicious apple pie is one of the easiest tricks in the home cook’s bag of kitchen skills. Loan me any 10-year-old for a couple of hours, and I’ll teach him to make an apple pie — not because I’m such a great teacher, but because there’s nothing to it: you mix a pastry, roll the pastry, prepare the filling, put it in the pie shell, and bake it. In one session, you can master 90 percent of what you need to know.”

— Ken Haedrich, Apple Pie Perfect

* * *

WE’VE TOPPED THE CENTURY MARK! There are now photographs and descriptions of more than 100 apple varieties on the New England Apples website, newenglandapples.org. You’ll find a wealth of other information about apples and New England orchards, as well.

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Apple pie should be eaten “while it is yet florescent, white or creamy yellow, with the merest drip of candied juice along the edges (as if the flavor were so good to itself that its own lips watered!), of a mild and modest warmth, the sugar suggesting jelly, yet not jellied, the morsels of apple neither dissolved nor yet in original substance, but hanging as it were in a trance between the spirit and the flesh of applehood … then, O blessed man, favored by all the divinities! Eat, give thanks, and go forth, ‘in apple-pie order!'”

— Rev. Henry Ward Beecher

DO NOT be put off from making apple pie out of fear of a bad crust. While it takes some practice to make a truly great crust, chances are your audience for fresh apple pie will be forgiving of your early efforts to master the art, even if just as a flavorful way to hold the filling. Like most things, pastry making gets better with experience, so forge on!

Here are two different styles of pie crust. “Dense and Delicious Whole Wheat Oil Pastry Crust” is healthier but harder to roll out than “Rich Pie Crust,” which is why wax paper is recommended.

Andrea Darrow of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vermont, further explains the basics of good dough making in the video below, “Making A Perfect Pie Crust.”

Rich Pie Crust

makes 1 crust

1-1/4 c flour (may be half whole wheat)

1/4 t salt

1/2 c butter, cold and cut up into small pieces

1/4 c ice-cold water (or 2 T water plus 1 egg yolk)

Dense and Delicious Whole Wheat Oil Pastry Crust

makes 2 crusts

2-1/2 c whole wheat flour

1 t salt

1/2 c vegetable oil

1/2 c ice-cold water or better, milk

Measure dry ingredients into a bowl. Combine oil and water/milk in a small bowl and pour all at once into the flour. Mix the dough, divide it in half, wrap two flattened balls in plastic wrap, then chill for about 10 minutes. Roll out either on a floured surface or between waxed paper.

“Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”

Jane Austen

Macoun apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Macoun apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Here are two good choices among the many outstanding pie apples:

Many people consider Macoun the best fresh-eating apple, but it is also outstanding in pies. Macouns are esteemed by apple connoisseurs for their crispy, juicy flesh and rich, complex flavors that hint of strawberry and spices. Macouns do not store well compared to many varieties, making them in great demand during harvest in mid-September.

Named after a Canadian pomologist, this variety is pronounced as if spelled “MacCowan.” It was developed in Canada in the early 1900s, the offspring of McIntosh and Jersey Black, an American heirloom apple once known as Black Apple due to its dark color.

Northern Spy apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Northern Spy apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Another popular choice for pies is the heirloom variety Northern Spy, a larger than average apple with a deep red skin with red striping. It has a strong, sweet flavor and crisp texture. Northern Spy are good for fresh eating, drying, and juice, as well as in pies.

The first seed of Northern Spy came from Salisbury, Connecticut around 1800, and it was first grown by H. Chapin of East Bloomfield, New York. Introduced commercially in 1840, it quickly became a success, especially in the Northeast and Canada. It is a mid-season apple; harvest typically begins in late September or early October.

“To a foreigner a Yankee is an American. To an American a Yankee is a Northerner. To a Northerner a Yankee is a New Englander. To a New Englander a Yankee is a Vermonter. To a Vermonter a Yankee is a person who eats apple pie for breakfast.”

—   Traditional

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