Stepping away from the grim and divisive world news — and praying for harmony and happiness for all in this season of thanks-giving — I’m sharing this sweet memory from my book Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts of my mom’s apple pie. What could be sweeter?
My mother, Lee Black, was the best pie baker in the world. Well, at least in my world. As her eldest daughter and acolyte, I stood beside her at our kitchen table in Hillsdale, New Jersey, as a child in the early fifties and watched her pie-making magic in awe. Her cool, slender, manicured hands worked quickly and deftly. She knew what she was doing.
“You must work fast,” she told me softly, without looking up from the flour-strewn table. It was just the two of us in that tiny kitchen. My older brother was out playing baseball with his buddies, and my younger sisters were upstairs napping. This was my time to have my mother to myself, and I savored it. “Pie dough mustn’t be over-handled or it will be tough like cardboard,” she said. “Nobody likes cardboard pies.”
Of course, her pie pastry was always light and flaky, just as it was supposed to be. She credited her success to her experience and technique — as well as to Crisco.
I watched her cut the pure white blobs of Crisco into the bowl of flour with a hand-held pastry blender, then dribble in just the right amount of ice water, then form the crumbly mass into a smooth ball. I watched her roll the dough on the floured table with her ancient, rickety, wooden rolling pin, running her left hand over the surface of the dough from time to time, to check for even thickness.
I watched as she folded the rolled-out dough over her rolling pin and airlifted it onto her favorite nine-inch Pyrex pie dish. I watched as she trimmed the overhang with a knife, reinforced the rim with thin strips of dough gently glued on with pats of cold water, then crimped the rim with her delicate fingers before pouring in the filling, such as soupy pumpkin custard redolent with Autumn spices.
She accomplished all this at what seemed to me to be lightning speed, and I worried even as I stood at her side that I’d never in a million years be able to follow her lead. It was well known in my family that my top speed for accomplishing anything was SLOW. In fact, my mother’s affectionate nickname for me was “Molasses.” But I watched silently, taking careful mental notes, all the while knowing I’d likely never become the pie-maker she was.
I have vivid pictures in my mind of her pies — towering, ethereal Lemon Meringue, its snowy peaks tinged with caramelized streaks; mountainous, golden, double-crusted Apple, with slits in the top, allowing the cinnamon-scented steam to escape; coppery, shimmering Pumpkin that became for me the full, harvest-moon-face of Thanksgiving – all with the pretty, frilly raised edges she was so proud of. Her pies would surely have won prizes in state fairs, if she’d ever thought to enter them.
She experimented with new pies occasionally, too, because her little kitchen was her laboratory, and when it came to cooking she was always on a quest. She read her favorite magazines, Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping, with scissors in her right hand, clipping new recipes that intrigued her.
Along the way, she discovered a new, for her, way to bake an apple pie – enclosed in a brown paper bag in the oven. Paper Bag Apple Pie, then, became her personal favorite, so much so that one of my sisters later painted the recipe decoratively on a wooden plaque that proudly hung on the wall of my mother’s kitchen for decades.
While it’s true I’ve never managed to become the pie-maker that Lee was, I took the liberty of adapting her favorite apple pie recipe into a tart (and tartlets), which you can find in my book Sweet Tarts for my Sweet Hearts: Stories and Recipes from a Culinary Career (Nighthawk Press 2020). I’m sure if she were alive today she would approve.
But here and now, to celebrate the season and to honor my mom, Lee, “the best pie baker in the world,” is the original Paper Bag Apple Pie recipe that became her favorite:
Lee’s (Original) Paper Bag Apple Pie
- Prepare an unbaked 9-inch pastry shell [or use store-bought].
- Peel, core and quarter four large baking apples, then cut each quarter in half, crosswise, to make chunks.
- Drizzle apple chunks with 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
- Combine ½ cup sugar, 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon nutmeg (or cinnamon); sprinkle this mixture over apples, and toss. Spoon apples into pastry shell.
- For the topping: combine ½ cup sugar, ½ cup all-purpose flour, and ½ cup (1 stick) butter; sprinkle this mixture over apples to cover top.
- Slide pie into large brown paper bag; secure open end tightly; place on a large cookie sheet.
- [NOTE: Today’s pie bakers would be wise to use a Reynolds Oven Bag instead of a paper bag. Who knows what goes into the manufacture of paper bags these days! Use a “turkey size” Reynolds Oven Bag, carefully following the directions on the box; secure open end, and place on a baking sheet.]
- Bake at 400-425 degrees for an hour.
- Remove from bag and cool on a wire rack.
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For those in San Miguel who wish to purchase Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts, it is available at Kim Malcolm’s Aurora Books bookstore on Calzada de la Aurora 48A (near Fabrica la Aurora), as well as at the Tesoros gift shop at the Biblioteca on Insurgentes. And it is always available to all from Amazon.com (https://amzn.to/3l3zOmz) and the publisher Nighthawk Press (www.nighthawkpress.com).