When soldiers returned home from World War II and told journalists they’d fought for “mom and apple pie,” they cemented the saying “as American as apple pie,” invoking a specific, Rockwellian image of America. But a closer inspection of apple pie shows it to hold the same immigrant roots as most of America.
“Almost every food that we consume comes from somewhere else,” explains Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, an idea all too familiar to the people of the Jewish diaspora. In a 2016 article for NPR, she traced the roots of each ingredient in apple pie to debunk the idea that certain people have ownership over cultural artifacts.
The idea of pie itself, she explains, came from the British, the apples from Central Asia, and wheat from Mesopotamia. Cattle to produce the butter came over with Columbus on his way to the New World, as did sugar. It becomes hard, knowing this, not to read a deep metaphor into the mixing of these all into a quintessentially American dish — that immigrants’ stories that make up America turn it into something as sweet as the country’s symbolic, iconic dessert.
But it’s more than that — the pie evolved from its beginnings as an inedible box of suet and coarse-ground grains, used as storage, not nourishment. As it changed, it incorporated the latest innovations and ingredients, brought from various parts of the world, each one added to the pie, becoming a small part of something better with each execution. While some politicians will always preach exclusion, it seems hard to imagine they might agree with apple pie made from only the sour wild crabapples native to America.
Those wild crabapples, usable only for making cider, are a far cry from the sweet local apples that fruit each fall in Washington, ready to dip in honey for a celebration of a sweet new year. Instead, Jews use the immigrant fruit, the best eating apples honed down from what was once 14,000 varieties grown in 19th-century America to a mere hundred or so, chosen for their visual appeal and sweetness. “Shanah tovah” rings truer with sweet varieties of apple, brought through the centuries from Kazakhstan to Britain and through Europe, where their versatility and durability helped them enter Jewish cuisine, and on to America.
Like the apple itself, apple pie’s evolution through the ages becomes an American story not because of its heritage, but because of its journey. “It’s about cross-cultural understanding, celebration, and interdependence,” says Sethi. “In this era of globalization, no country is self-sufficient,” and food, always relatable, demonstrates that more than anything. “Everything we love comes from somewhere else,” says Sethi. “Our futures are bound up together.”
Early American Apple Pie
American Cookery, whose longer title includes “The best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves,” is widely considered to be the first American cookbook. Naturally, it includes the apple pie recipe of the author — Amelia Simmons, “an American orphan.” Little more is known about her, despite the book’s popularity in the 30 years after it was first published in 1796. It includes directions on how to stew a turtle, as well as an extensive pie section including (cow’s) foot, along with three kinds of apple and one of currant. As to amounts, cooking temperatures, and times, she remains vague, saying only, “All meat pies require a hotter and brisker oven than fruit pies,” and, “It is difficult to ascertain with precision the small articles of spicery; every one [sic] may relish as they like, and suit their taste.”
In 1987, The New York Times attempted its own re-creation of the recipe, skipping Simmons’s paste (dough) and loading its own flaky pastry with six apples cut into sixths, which should help to give a good starting point to anyone trying to follow the vague instructions that make up the original recipe. For the full article: nytimes.com/1987/07/05/magazine/food-american-pie.html
American Cookery, 1796
Stew and strain the apples, to every three pints, grate the peal [sic] of a fresh lemon, add cinnamon, mace, rose-water and sugar to your taste-, and bake in paste No. 3.
Paste No. 3: To any quantity of flour, rub in three fourths of its weight of butter, (6 whites of eggs to a peck) rub in one third or half, and roll in the rest.
Early 20th-Century Pie
In 1912, the Portland section of the Council of Jewish Women put together The Neighborhood Cook Book, named for and as a fundraiser for the Neighborhood House, a settlement house. While some of the entries are odd for a West Coast Jewish cookbook — lobster soup, for example — it is a thorough 333-page romp through hundreds of dishes. Under the pie section, this recipe is titled “apple charlotte,” despite very clearly being for apple pie.
Separately, under puddings and desserts, another recipe, also called apple charlotte, offers a Jewish twist on the traditional form of the dessert — soaked matzo crust filled with apples, sugar, raisins, and suet. The pie version of the charlotte comes in the next chapter, “Pastry and Pies,” which notes “the well-known apple and mince pies of our grandmothers,” before advising bakers to keep materials chilled, use pastry flour, and that butter makes for the best crust. Interestingly, the apple pie/charlotte recipe, contributed by one Nettie Koch, then goes on to recommend half-butter, half-goose fat, which indicates little consideration for Jewish dietary laws.
The Neighborhood Cook Book, 1912
Make a pie crust; using about two cups of flour, mixed with a half teaspoon of Crescent baking powder, a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of sugar. For shortening, use half butter and half goose fat (substitute all butter or half shortening for kosher version), about six tablespoons. Mix the shortening with the flour, using enough ice water to make a firm paste. Roll out half of the paste, and cover a deep granite dish with the same, adding the following ingredients for a filling: Apples, chopped fine, plenty of raisins, chopped walnuts, sugar, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt, which have been thoroughly mixed. Cover with an upper layer of the pie crust, flake the top with butter or fat, and bake with a very slow fire until brown on top and bottom.
Modern Apple Pie
Food blogger Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen didn’t grow up on apple pie, but as an adult, it’s become a family tradition — which could be why her blog has more than a dozen apple pie or related (sharlotka, tarte tatin, slab pie, tart, etc.) dishes. She still sees it as quintessentially American, though. “I just think that apples grow well here,” she says, but more importantly, they stick around in the colder, northern corners of the country — her home in New York and in Seattle alike. “I have two weeks each year I can get raspberries,” but apples she can find most of the year.
Still, she likes to keep things as special when the season does come around, which is why apple pie became something of a Thanksgiving tradition for her. “My family is really big,” she says of why she doesn’t just stick to the classic. “Eight wedges won’t cut it.” The slab pie offers a solution, a pie for the masses — or simply for a family that needs more pie. Aghast at the idea of too little pie, she asks, “What about breakfast pie the next day?”
Apple Slab Pie
Smitten Kitchen, 2013
Apple Slab Pie Crust
3 3/4 c (470 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 T sugar
1 1/2 tsp table salt
3 sticks (340 grams) unsalted
butter, very cold
3/4 c very cold water
3 1/2 to 4 lbs apples, peeled,
cored and chopped into approximately
1/2-inch chunks (about 8 cups)
Squeeze of lemon juice
⅔ to 3/4 c sugar (depending on
how sweet you like your pies)
3 T cornstarch
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
⅛ tsp table salt
2 T heavy cream or one egg,
beaten with 1 T of water
1/2 c confectioners’ sugar
1 T milk, water, lemon juice or fresh apple cider, plus a drop or two more if needed
Make pie crust: Whisk together flour, sugar, and salt in the bottom of a large, wide-ish bowl. Using a pastry blender, two forks, or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of tiny peas. (You’ll want to chop your butter into small bits first, unless you’re using a very strong pastry blender, in which case you can throw the sticks in whole, as I do.) Gently stir in the water with a rubber spatula, mixing it until a craggy mass forms. Get your hands in the bowl and knead it just two or three times to form a ball. Divide dough roughly in half (it’s okay if one is slightly larger). Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten a bit, like a disc. Chill in fridge for at least an hour or up to two days or slip plastic-wrapped dough into a freezer bag and freeze for up to 1 to 2 months (longer if you trust your freezer more than I do). To defrost, leave in fridge for 1 day.
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Line bottom of 10x15x1-inch baking sheet or jellyroll pan with parchment paper.
Prepare filling: In a large bowl, toss apples with lemon juice until coated. Top with remaining filling ingredients and stir to evenly coat.
Assemble pie: On a lightly floured surface, roll one of your dough halves (the larger one, if you have two different sizes) into an 18x13-inch rectangle. This can be kind of a pain, because it is so large. Do your best to work quickly, keeping the dough as cold as possible and using enough flour that it doesn’t stick to the counter. Transfer to your prepared baking sheet and gently drape some of the overhang in so that the dough fills out the inner edges and corners. Some pastry will still hang over the sides of the pan; trim this to 3/4-inch.
Pour apple mixture over and spread evenly.
Roll the second of your dough halves (the smaller one, if they were different sizes) into a 16x11-inch rectangle. Drape over filling and fold the bottom crust’s overhang over the edges sealing them together. Cut small slits to act as vents all over lid. Brush lid with heavy cream or egg wash. Bake until crust is golden and filling is bubbling, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack until just warm to the touch, about 45 minutes.
In a medium bowl, stir together confectioners’ sugar and liquid of your choice until a pourable glaze consistency is reached. Use a spoon to drizzle over top. Serve slab pie in squares or rectangles, warm or at room temperature.
It keeps at room temperature for at least three days.