Painting depicts apple pie ingredients: flour, butter, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg.

Gravenstein Apple Pie 8″x8″ gouache and watercolor pencil Sharyn Dimmick

Sometime in August Gravenstein apples come to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. By early September they are gone. As soon as I see them I start buying them, buying no fewer than ten pounds at a time and stashing them at the back of our very cold refrigerator to make Gravenstein apple pie.

Gravensteins are an early apple here. They come in before Pippins, before Pink Ladies. They are perfect pie apples, tart and crisp with an intensely apple flavor. I grew up eating green Gravensteins from my grandmother’s tree in El Cerrito, climbing into the crotch to pick them, picking up windfalls to trim for pies and apple sauce. When the crop was bountiful, Mom would peel and quarter apples and save them in the freezer for later in the year.

Gravenstein apple pie initiates apple pie season at our house. The season will finish when we pick the last apples from the dwarf tree in our backyard, when the market moves to winter citrus, when I can no longer scavenge fallen apples in the streets of Berkeley (It’s amazing to me how many people have apple trees and let the fruit fall where it is smushed under the wheels of cars — we seem to have forgotten what food is and where we can get it as well as how to cook).

To make apple pie you need two things: good cooking apples and flaky, tender pie crust. If you do not live where Gravensteins grow, consult farmers at your local farmers’ market for recommendations for local apples. Let them know you will be making pies with them. Pippins also make fine apple pies.

To make pie crust, follow my mother’s recipe, given below. Do not deviate from it if you want good results. It may look a little different than other recipes you have seen or tried: for one thing, it does not start with two sticks of butter and does not include ice water. It is a Swedish pie crust and includes an egg and vinegar — don’t ask me why, just trust me on this one.

What does it use instead of butter? Vegetable shortening — you know that stuff that comes in a can. You are worried about transfats. I know. You have never had Crisco in your house. Well, you need it to make Madge’s pie crust. The only acceptable substitute is lard: if you use butter instead you will get a heavy, greasy pie crust, so don’t do it — just follow the recipe. You don’t eat pie everyday and a little vegetable shortening isn’t going to kill you, so use Crisco or use lard and get on with it.

Measure into a large mixing bowl:

3 cups unbleached flour
1 tsp salt

Cut in :

1 cup vegetable shortening, plus a little butter for flavor, maybe 2 Tbsp or 3 — no more.

Stop when the shortening is in pieces the size of small peas.

Into a one-cup measuring cup, break

1  large egg

Whisk it with a fork until blended. Then add:

1 Tbsp cider vinegar and
Water until mixture measures a little more than 1/2 cup.

Whisk liquids to blend. Add to flour-shortening mixture. Stir just until blended, then work with your hands to shape crust into a large patty. Wrap the patty in waxed paper and refrigerate it while you make the filling. Do not wash the mixing bowl yet — you are not done with it.

For a standard two-crust apple pie, peel and core 4-5 large apples, cutting them into quarters and slicing them crosswise. If you want your apples to stay white, keep a cut lemon handy and squeeze it periodically onto your sliced apples. Taste your apples though — if they are quite tart you may not want to add lemon: just let them darken.

Put the sliced apples in your mixing bowl (the one that you didn’t wash). Toss them with:

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on sweetness of apples.
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg.

Preheat your oven to 375 ( 350 if using Pyrex).

Now roll out your crusts. Remove pie dough from the refrigerator and cut it into quarters. Wrap two quarters back up and store them in the refrigerator for another pie (They’ll keep more than a week if wrapped well).

Flour a bread board, table, or other work surface, or place a thin linen or cotton kitchen towel on a surface and flour that. Flour a rolling pin.

Take your first quarter of dough and round it into a circle with your hands, smashing it slightly. Now pick it up and turn it over. Take the rolling pin to it, rolling in all directions, trying to keep it circular and making sure to roll out any thick edges. Do not be afraid — use a firm, light hand. Roll it thin. When you think it is large enough, take out your pie tin and set it on top of the dough: the bottom crust has to be larger than the pie plate because it has to cover the sides and make the edge crust. When you are satisfied, fold the crust in half and again into quarters. Pick it up, plunk it in the pie tin and unfold it again. If it tears, don’t worry you can patch it with more crust glued in place with a little water. If you guessed wrong, you can patch in crust above where yours ends and roll out a rim crust with your fingers by rolling scraps into a rope.

Now add the apple mixture to your bottom crust. Dot apples with a little butter. Roll out the top crust and place on top of the apples. Make sure to attach the top crust at the edge of the pan. Slash the top several times with a knife, prick holes with a fork or channel Martha Stewart and make cut-outs (Guess which of these things I don’t do?).

Bake pie for 45  minutes. Serve warm. Top with ice cream if desired.

Food notes: this recipe makes a tart pie. We like them that way: the taste of the fruit comes through. We scant the sugar in every pie we make and we always taste the fruit as a guide to how much sugar to add. Our pies do not have the gluey sweetness and texture of commercial pies you may have eaten.

Madge’s recipe makes four crusts: we have never cut it down. We either make two pies at once, or save the crust for another day and another pie — lemon? Quiche? Chicken pot pie? Tomato tart!

While you are enjoying your apple pie I will be traveling to New Mexico on September 4 for a writing retreat with Natalie Goldberg. I will be in silence for five days, unable to check my email or read and respond to your comments. I will attempt setting my blog robot to send you a recipe while I am gone and I will respond to all questions and comments upon my return on September 12. I’ll miss you, believe it or not. I leave you with an unfair question for pie fans: What is your favorite pie?

– Sharyn

Painting Note: For information on “Gravenstein Apple Pie” or any other original painting, please contact me here.