Mother's Day Tribute to Nana: Nana's Pie Crust

It was the last week of edits before I would send off my first cookbook manuscript to the printer. I was stressed out, and trying to make pie wasn’t helping.

I am not a baker. Up to that point, I’m not sure I had ever made my own piecrust. Baking requires a precision that is often lost on me; if you mess up a sauce, there are dozens of ingredients you can throw into it to balance out, complement or drown out a flavor. If you mess up something you’re about to bake, the gods of physics and science burst out laughing and hand you a rubberized ball of goop.

There were two recipes that still needed to be tested before I could safely include them in my new book that HAD to come out before Christmas. One of those recipes was my grandmother’s apple pie. The filling I had no problem with: apples, cinnamon, sugar, butter. It cooks itself, inside the crust. Or rather, it would cook itself inside the crust, if I could just get the crust to work.

My grandmother, Nana, died when I was about 14. A devout Catholic, Nana prayed the rosary every day. Her faith helped her survive more than one bout with cancer: not everyone can endure the removal of 70 percent of their liver and the subsequent chemotherapy. Although my family was apprehensive when Nana went into the hospital for the last time, we thought eradicating the tiny spot on her lung was nothing compared to what she had already survived. All of us were surprised when there were complications.
Suddenly, she was gone.

If anyone knew apple pie, it was Nana. She had grown up on an apple orchard in Cowiche, a small orchard community outside of Yakima. She is the first person I ever remember baking with. Although it had been nearly 15 years since she died, it felt important to me to dedicate my cookbook to her. I wanted to include her apple pie recipe, if only I could figure out how to make it.

The crust recipe had come to me via my aunt, with just a list of ingredients and no directions. If you’re a baker, maybe a list of ingredients is enough. When you are a novice and unsure, you are screwed.

I made the crust three times, and it wouldn’t come together. I can’t even say what the problems were now, but I’m sure at least once it was too gummy; another time my measurements were probably off and it chipped off the pie plate like concrete. All I really know is that suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with grief: a deep, yearning sadness to be held one more time in Nana’s arms; to have her tell me it was ok, and then help me roll out the dough.

Suddenly, she was there. I felt my grandmother standing with me, not with a missing part of a recipe, but with the love I had always felt from her. I started to cry, not out of sadness, but out of love for this woman who had given me so much: comforting hugs, a passion for food, and the knowledge that anything tastes better with an extra heaping cup of love. I realized at that moment that any kitchen could contain that love, not just her own that I couldn’t sit in anymore. My kitchen – wherever it is, with whomever I chose – could be a place of love and laughter, experimentation, and good food. Although it does not always have it to be perfectly made, it is certainly always perfectly intentioned.

I dried my tears and tried again. This time, I got the piecrust recipe to work. In October 2010, Savoring Chelan was published; Nana’s apple pie recipe is included. It is dedicated to Nana, the first person that made me feel at home in her kitchen.

Nana’s Apple Pie

You can either pre-bake this crust for custard-filled pies or bake with the filling for fruit pies. To save time, make the dough in advance and refrigerate.

Prep time: 45 minutes
Set time: 45 minutes to 12 hours
Cook time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Makes one 9” pie

2-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup Crisco
1 egg
1-1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup cold water

5 large Golden Delicious apples, cored, peeled and sliced
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter
Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sharp cheddar cheese

Combine the flour, salt and shortening in large bowl. Blend with a pastry blender, pastry cutter or knives until crumbly.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, cider vinegar and water. Drizzle over the flour mixture and mix thoroughly. The dough will be soft and a little sticky. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour.
Shape the dough into two patties, wrap in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 45 minutes, or in the refrigerator overnight.
When chilled, take one patty out of the refrigerator and roll out on a floured surface. The crust should be slightly bigger than the pie pan. When you’re finished with the first crust, repeat process with the second crust.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Carefully place an uncooked piecrust in a 9-inch pie pan and fill the pan with the sliced apples. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar over the apples. Divide the butter into about 10 small pieces and place them on top of the apple mixture. Roll out the second crust, place it over the apples and cut off all but about a 3/4 inch of dough around the edges. Seal the edges with your fingers or a fork.
Cut diagonal slits in top crust for venting during cooking. Brush the top of the pie with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar.
Bake for 15 minutes at 425°F. Lower the temperature to 350°F and bake for 1 hour, or until top is golden brown.  
Serve the pie hot with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or topped with a slice of cheese.

This recipe appears in both of Morgan's wine-pairing cookbooks: Savoring Chelan and Savoring Leavenworth, both available in hardback on Amazon. Savoring Leavenworth is now also available for Kindle, just in time for Mother's Day.

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