Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pies of Christmas

Apple pie is appearing here and there in my life these days. My daughter is an expert baker of them, and Christmas with her and her family promises that I'll get a couple of chances to taste them. I have my own recipe; she has hers. My favorite was baked by the cook employed by a family friend in Alabama years ago. It had a lattice top, and seemed to us the perfect ratio of cinnamon to brown sugar. I find that in the North people are less likely to use quite enough of either for my taste, but I've spent a lifetime trying to duplicate that one I had so many years ago.

My favorite apple pie story came from Jim Adshead, my husband who died nine years ago. He was a G.I. in World War II, fighting in France and harbored in farmhouses, basements and barns with his buddies when the need arose. It must have been Christmas of 1944 that the guys were being sheltered by a sympathetic French farm family.

They were roused by the family with joyous cries in French that it was Christmas Day, and, although none of the boys could speak French, they knew they were being invited to the family's only day of celebration for years. It was a hungry and grateful group that joined the family to see the pride of the best feast they could scrape up, which was an apple pie. They could tell the mother, who was the cook, had prepared it especially for them, knowing that apple pie was an American favorite. They were thrilled to get any food at all, but the apple pie they were served was certainly not like any they'd ever seen in the States.

When Jim first told me the story he said it was a pathetic excuse for an apple pie, obviously made from dried apples and very little sugar--much less cinnamon, butter, or the spices they expected from an apple pie. But the boys were so touched by the gesture, and their hearts so warmed by the work involved, that they were effusive in their thanks and their gratitude for home-baked food was genuine and heartfelt.

Some forty years later Jim and I were living in Geneva and we were often exposed to the French version of apple pie. He then realized that this was the pie he was served that Christmas Day so long before--not, as it had appeared, made with dried apples, but the thinly sliced, artistically arranged, apples as preferred by the French, cooked with very little sugar and coated with apricot jam as a glaze. It's a pie, but it ain't American apple pie.

The French also make a tasty caramelized apple pie known as tarte tatin, which is tastier (if you like caramel) and made by browning the sugar in the pan, placing a crust on top, and then reversing the whole product using very deft hands. I've made it, just to see if I could, but the fact is I like to taste a bit of cinnamon in my apple pie.

And I did find a way to get just the right crunch of caramel on the lattice top of a pie not unlike that Alabama pie of years ago: You dot all the holes in the lattice with butter and sprinkle the top of the pie liberally with white sugar. The butter will melt and the sugar will brown and crisp--and the pie will be sweet enough for any Christmas guest you may have, even a barn full of half-starved G.I.'s.


Steve said...

What a beautiful story of a Christmas so far from home. Do I see a cookbook in the near future? I don't think I have ever made an apple pie the same way twice. It is always an experiment too.

Steve said...

A wonderful WWII story from Jim.

Mary Lois said...

I think the comments are from two different Steves--both of whom are regular readers of the blog.

To Steve #1, I don't measure ingredients, but I use equal amounts of white and dark brown sugar, less than a cup of each, about a teaspoon of cinnamon, a shaving of fresh nutmeg. Sometimes I squeeze half a lemon into the mixture if the apples seem too sweet, and cut down on the sugar.

The real trick is that lattice top with the butter and sugar. Give it a try next time.

Hmmm--a cookbook? Does the world really need another cookbook? You might enjoy my food blog: here.

Mary Lois said...

Instead of a "shaving" I should have said a "grating" above. Oh, and my sister always adds about a tablespoon of sherry to her apple pie, and I don't think she uses the cinnamon and nutmeg. Really a knockout twist.

Ron said...

By the way, what does the word "tatin" mean, as in Tarte Tatin?

Mary Lois said...

Far as I know, it's the family name of the two sisters who ran the restaurant where the pie was created. I like the alliteration myself.

Jane said...

What a great story !!! Harley made an apple pie recently with a beautiful lattice crust. I am going to attempt a pecan pie. I have never tried one and am a bit nervous.

Mary Lois said...

Pecan is the easiest pie there is. It always works and if it doesn't, only you will know because everybody will eat it all up!