One Person's Quest For the Perfect Apple Pie
F&W's editor in chief enlists star baker Peggy Cullen to help realize a decades-old dream: re-creating the perfect pie of her childhood.
I have wanted a recipe for my childhood apple pie ever since I was old enough to know that Lynnwood Browne, the pie maker, would someday die. Lynnwood, a West Indian ex-dancer who wore a toupee, was our family cook and all-around helper for 34 years. He was not a great talent in the kitchen—we ate a lot of boiled or broiled dinners—but he did excel at a few things. His fried chicken and his brownies were paragons. And his apple pie was unforgettable. The crust was flaky and light; the apples were a rich brown, luscious and tender; and there was a mysterious, spectacular layer of caramel-like goo along the bottom that has stuck in my memory to this day.
My desire to re-create that pie would probably have passed long ago if I weren't the editor in chief of a food magazine. It would be just one item on the list of memories that I revisit in my imagination from time to time—the trip I took to Russia, the antiques shops I went to with my father, the feeling of holding my grandfather's hand. At F&W, however, food memories are cosseted, coveted, shaped into stories. My food-memory bank, unfortunately, is filled with ersatz dishes. Where is the inspiration in Chef Boyardee? The idea of a pie quest grew. I wanted to join the ranks of cooks who can create nostalgia out of flour, eggs and butter; the puzzle solvers who can turn memories into recipes.
I needed an interpreter—a channeler, really. So I went to one of the best bakers in the universe, Peggy Cullen. Peggy's schedule was packed with finishing a book, traveling and preparing for a family visit, yet she agreed to take this project on. (One benefit of being the editor of F&W is that people say yes even when they might want to say no.) The task seemed easy to me: I was very specific, and Lynnwood was very conventional. He didn't use any fancy French techniques or hard-to-find ingredients. But Peggy had her doubts. As I was to learn later, she worried she'd never be able to please me. After all, I'd been hankering for this pie since Lynnwood died 10 years ago. How could anyone possibly satisfy such a craving?
My memories were vivid, but maybe there were details I was missing. I decided to see if other members of my family could add pieces to the puzzle. I started with my mother. She bought all the household groceries, so maybe she'd remember the kind of apples? A particular spice? Something? I knew it was asking a lot, since my mother isn't much of a cook or even much of an eater. "You're calling to ask me a cooking question—are you kidding?" she replied. Convinced I was in earnest, she conceded, "You need lard and God knows what else—apples, I guess. If you want, I can go check on the brand of lard. I still have the container." It had been in the refrigerator for at least a decade. "The only other thing I remember is that when Lynnwood didn't like what he'd made, he'd turn it upside down and drop it on the floor. Not when your father was around, of course."
My cousin Pat, a good cook and an excellent reporter, seemed like a more reliable source of information. "There was nothing dainty about this pie," she recalled. "It had a good edge, not too thick, just thick enough. It had chunks of apples, not slices. It had exactly the right amount of lemon juice. Whatever it was thickened with, it didn't have too much liquid." Then she turned food detective. "How did he do it? Let's see." And she spelled out what she imagined his recipe would be. I passed along her comments to Peggy. Perhaps this would be an easy assignment after all.
But when I looked at Peggy's first attempt, I could see it wasn't right: The crust sat on top of the apples like snowfall on a mountaintop—there was supposed to be a gap. The crust seemed more like shortbread and was sprinkled with granulated sugar. The edges looked too perfect. There was no goo. I was disappointed. More than that: I was sad. But things got better when I tasted the pie. The apples were perfect.
Five pies later, still no success. The caramel was proving elusive. Peggy said, "I tried brown sugar alone and various proportions of butter, flour and brown sugar streusel. Nothing worked. I even tried channeling your long-dead cook. I thought I heard him say 'Try cake crumbs,' so I did, combining them with butter and brown sugar. Another gunky mess."
In all, Peggy made nine attempts at this pie. She brought the four finalists to our photo shoot. What if I didn't like any of them? Would I be crestfallen? Would she? The pies did look right. It was like having a flashback: I could see them sitting on the sideboard in my parents' dining room (it helped, I guess, that I'd brought my mother's plates and silverware), and I could feel the old emotions of expectation and joy. Then I started tasting the pies. Two of the four were swooningly good. Were they just like Lynnwood's pie? Maybe not. Were they delicious? Absolutely. I felt my interest in historical accuracy wane. I just wanted a really good pie. The best pie ever. And I may have found it.