Apple Pie Filling

Creating your apple pie filling should be a personal quest that requires little more than a keen sense of taste, an imagination, the internet, and a little voodoo.  Almost like magic, blending apples with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg becomes a little bit like your holiday calling card – it may vary a bit from year to year, but it should always be true to your sense of originality and flair.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  And her name is Dusty Baker. (Or his name, if you’re a man…)

So, from one Dusty Baker to another, here are some tricks for coming up with your own apple pie filling that will wipe out memories of pies of old and create new mainstays on your holiday table.

  1. Peeling/Coring/Slicing: If you bake apple pie at least once a year and aren’t too strapped for space, consider purchasing an apple peeler/corer/slicer.  You can get them for about $20 (Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Tabla, and most stores like T.J. Maxx and Home Goods and discount stores all carry them) and they save you SO much time, especially when slicing enough apples for a deep apple pie.
  2. Pick at least two kinds of apples. There are no best apples for apple pie, but blending a variety and knowing what you’re putting in there definitely helps.  Have fun exploring what is local and seasonal so that your pie is unique to the hills and plains of wherever you’re camping out during the autumn season, and try to blend three kinds together: an apple pie mainstay like Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, something tart like Empire or Cortland, and something that’s sweet and refreshing like Mutsu or Honeycrisp.  No matter the apple, if it’s local, try it.  Look for apples that are firm and as consistent in shape as possible, which makes them easier to peel (if they’re too soft they’ll fall apart when being sliced, and if they’re lumpy the peel will come off unevenly).
  3. Par-bake your apples before filling: Par-baking the apples helps them soften and become more infused with flavor.  It also shrinks them so that, after they’ve been placed in a pie shell, there’s less collapsing and the crust isn’t suspended in mid-pie-air.  AND it helps to reduce some of the liquid that could potentially puddle inside a pie.  To par-bake apples, prepare them by peeling, coring and slicing them thinly.  Lay them out on 2 cookie sheets with deep rims, sprinkle with your blend of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and toss to combine.  Then place them in an oven preheated to 350 degrees and bake for about 15 minutes, until they’re just soft.  Let them cool while you prepare your crust.
  4. Not all cinnamon is created equal. In fact, what is commonly sold in the market in the United States is not cinnamon at all, but rather Vietnamese cassia, one of the many kinds of Cinnamomum but not true cinnamon itself.  One day I grabbed several types of cinnamon from Penzeys and went to work tasting them purely and blindly to pick what I felt would be best for my personal apple pie blend.  For mellower pies, I choose mellower cinnamon.  For the Punch Yo Mama Kentucky Apple pie, I chose a blend of mild Ceylon cinnamon (the only true cinnamon, evidently) and Tung Hing China cinnamon, which is darker and packs the punch delivered in the title of said Kentucky pie.  As cinnamon is very good for you (it aids digestion and circulation and helps regulate blood sugar levels ), I’d say have fun and explore.  CLICK HERE for a nifty article from my favorite food mag, Saveur, who devoted a gorgeous spread last year to the spice.
  5. Use whole nutmeg: When possible, have a nutmeg or two on hand and grind yourself right onto the apples.  They’re not expensive and easily found in grocery stores, and the flavor will be much more full.  In general, ground spices have released the oils original to the spice and lose flavor rather quickly.  Buying your baking spices in the fall is a great way to make sure they’ll be fresh through the holiday season.
  6. Be creative with your sugar: In general, I suggest finding an alternate sugar that you’ll use when baking instead of white cane sugar; it obviously requires a good deal of insulin to process and wreaks havoc for those with blood sugar problems such as diabetes and hypoglycemia.  Alternatives such as palm sugar, date sugar, xylitol or maple sugar will be enough to sweeten your apples.  Or go completely au-natural and omit sugar altogether.  I drizzle molasses onto my apples when they’re filled in the crust to add some complexity, and don’t add any additional sweetener as a result.  If you are going to add sugar, add as little as possible.  This will also let the true nature of your apple blend shine forth!
  7. Play with the amount of spice: The amount of cinnamon and sugar needed to best season your filling depends on what kind you use.  Consider tasting your sweeteners and spices, then your kinds of apples, and estimate the amount you’ll need from there.  2 teaspoons of cinnamon may be adequate for a mild pie with many apples, but 1 tablespoon may make it zing.  Nutmeg and clove are easy to overdo, so go sparingly and maybe add more after the apples are par-baked.
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