Fireworks! Parades! Barbecues! Flag-waving! It’s our nation’s birthday, and celebrating the Fourth of July with any of the above is as American as apple pie. But is our beloved classic dessert really American?
There were no apples in the New World until the early European explorers brought the seeds, and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all made pie-like pastries. So what’s American about apple pie?
Before refrigeration the earliest pies featured a tough, inedible crust, which was used to preserve a meat filling. The colonists made cider from apples, but by the eighteenth century American apple pie recipes began to appear.
There are many theories as to the origin of the phrase “as American as apple pie.”
One holds that Abraham Lincoln invented it during the Civil War. Fruit pies had been eaten in Europe for centuries, but sugar was scarce in the New World. Eventually when sugar supplies improved, the American apple pie became a symbol of prosperity.
As the growing of apples became a major industry in this country, apple pies became more common and eventually came to symbolize the American way of life. Their popularity got an additional boost with Prohibition when apple-based desserts replaced hard cider.
Any dish with a crust that encloses or holds a filling is by definition a pie. That means pizza, empanadas and knishes would fall into that category. Okay, but are they American?
Yes, according to Joan Nathan, author of The New American Cooking (Knopf, $35), who describes American cuisine as a multi-cultural mosaic in which old meets new. “I have always been interested in the larger picture of how other ethnicities have affected America and the way we eat,” she writes. “With myriad immigrant groups, we are living now in one of the most exciting periods in the history of American food.”
Nathan traveled through forty-six states, speaking to chefs, farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs and home cooks of all nationalities on her quest to define American cuisine.
“I gathered wild rice with Ojibwe Indians in northern Minnesota, I ate a Japanese-inspired omelet with a musician in the heart of the Ozarks and I ate Sunday dinner with a family of Cambodian farmers in Lowell, Massachusetts,” she said. “I’m able to go to these people’s homes and get a snapshot of their lives and share something for generations to come, because it’s not going to be here anymore.”
American cuisine is really many cuisines. “What is more American than ethnicity today? It permeates our food,” Nathan told me. Her foray to Orange County brought her to Zov’s Bistro in Tustin and Taco Loco in Laguna Beach. “A taco is as American as apple pie,” she said.
“The singular characteristic of good American food…is simplicity,” she wrote in U.S. News & World Report. “Even with the cornucopia of new ingredients, the best cooks incorporate them into their cuisine without great pretense or fuss.”
For a precious (but in a good way) take on American apple pie, how about serving it in individual jars? Shaina Olmanson is a home cook, photographer and food blogger (www.foodformyfamily.com) whose cookbook, Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine (Harvard Common Press, $16.95), offers darling adaptations of your favorite classic desserts presented in single-serving jars. Use any wide-mouth glass canning or mason jars for dazzling presentations of these petite Classic Apple Pies, Pains au Chocolate or Peanut Butter and Jelly Parfaits. And because the jars are reusable, your dessert is eco-friendly too.
Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins learned to create their Medieval Apple Tart from Madame Bouchard of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, France. “Whenever we bake it,” they write in The Silver Palate Cookbook, 25th Anniversary Edition (Workman, $19.95), we are reminded of that afternoon in Madame Bouchard’s country kitchen. She stretched and rolled her fresh strudel dough by hand while her husband peeled the apples….We’ve substituted phyllo pastry for the strudel, but the result is just as delicious.”
Medieval Apple Tart, as American as…well, you know!
Classic Apple Pie
Makes 8 individual pies
1 recipe Classic Pie Dough (see www.ocjewishlife.com)
6 cups peeled, cored, and thinly sliced apples (about 6 medium)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup packed light or dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Have ready 8 wide-mouth 8-ounce jars. Place dough on lightly floured pastry mat or parchment paper. Roll out to 1/8 inch. Cut 6-inch circle of dough, center over jar, and carefully press onto bottom, up sides, and over lip of jar. Repeat with remaining 7 jars, collecting dough trimmings and rerolling and recutting as necessary.
2 Place sliced apples in large heatproof bowl. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook, whisking continuously, until mixture turns golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add sugars, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt; cook until mixture comes to a simmer. Pour over apples. Toss to coat.
3 Spoon apple filling into jars over pie dough. Roll out remaining dough to 1/8-inch. Cut 8 circles of dough about 1/2 inch larger than diameter of jars. Cover pies with dough, trim excess, crimp edges to seal, and slice top to vent. Brush top with egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.
4 Place jars 2 inches apart on large baking sheet. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until crusts are golden brown and apples are cooked through. Serve warm or chilled.
Medieval Apple Tart
Serves 4 to 6
12 phyllo leaves, fresh or thoroughly defrosted
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing pan
1 cup sugar
Approximately 6 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Calvados
6 medium-size tart apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 Unwrap phyllo sheets and cover with damp towel 10 minutes. Melt butter in saucepan over low heat.
2 Preheat oven to 425°F.
3 Using a pastry brush, lightly butter 14-inch baking pan. Lay a phyllo sheet on pan. Re-cover unused phyllo with damp towel each time. Brush phyllo with some of the melted butter, and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the Grand Marnier. Repeat, using 5 more phyllo leaves.
4 Arrange apples in center of top sheet of phyllo in circular mound about 6 inches in diameter. Brush with butter and sprinkle with some sugar and Grand Marnier.
5 Stack 6 more phyllo sheets on top of apples, repeating the buttering and sprinkling with sugar and Grand Marnier. The top (twelfth) sheet of phyllo should only be buttered.
6 Trim off corners of phyllo sheets so you have a large round, about 8 inches in diameter. Turn up edges of phyllo and pinch lightly to seal. Be tidy, but don’t fuss; tart should look rustic.
7 Set pan on center rack of oven and bake until golden, 30 to 40 minutes. If pastry becomes too brown before this time, cover loosely with foil.
8 Serve immediately, or reheat gently before serving.