Patti Woods for The Boston Globe
It’s mid-October in Vermont and the air is crisper than a glass of cold apple cider. Perhaps it’s this fresh fall air that caused me to oversleep this morning. I thought I had set my alarm for 8 a.m., but alas, I awoke just before 9, so now I must scramble to get myself together before heading to Scott Farm, located in Dummerston, just north of Brattleboro. I’m going to participate in an Heirloom Apple Pie class.
Let me state for the record that I hate apple pie. It’s not so much the pie part as it is the fruit. I don’t like cooked fruit of any sort. So why am I giving up three hours on a perfect fall Saturday to do this? For one, my husband and son love pie. And two, I love making it. There’s something about the alchemy of baking, of taking powders and liquids and transforming them into buttery, flaky things of delicious beauty.
The farm, owned by The Landmark Trust USA, is one of those places that is so earnest it makes you want to weep. Between the over 500 acres of craggy apple trees, the antique whitewashed barns, and the bearded orchardist, Zeke Goodband, it doesn’t get any more New England than this. Today, 12 of us — all wearing flannel shirts, I notice — will gather in the barn, with the same goal: to bake the perfect apple pie.
We’ll be using three different types of heirloom varieties — that is, non-commercial apples that have been grown for over 100 years. This is Scott Farm’s claim to fame. Kelly Carlin, operations manager of the Trust, explained that heirloom apples went out of favor for several reasons: one, during Prohibition, many orchards were cut down so that cider wouldn’t be made; two, in the 1920s, the Department of Agriculture asked orchardists to reduce their apple varieties to make them easier to regulate; and three, after World War II, the public wanted big, red apples. They weren’t interested in the knobby, uneven, often ugly varieties of fruit.
Our first job is to select apples from crates on a side table. There are plump, red Northern Spy, named after James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Spy.” Next there’s Belle de Boskoop, a pale yellow-to-red apple from the Netherlands, also great for cooking and recommended for strudel. And lastly, there’s Calville Blanc d’Hiver, a French apple with a Champagne-like flavor and crown shape. We’re told this was Julia Child’s favorite apple for her famous Tarte Tatin. Now we all have choices to make: a traditional pie or a lower-sugar pie made with apple cider? Skin on or skin off? Slices or chunks? Our instructor Laurel Roberts Johnson explains that the cider pie really shows off the flavors of the heirloom apples, so I go with that. I mix the apple slices with flour and the cider reduction, and now it’s time to face my fear.
I’ve never had much success with rolling out pie dough, let alone crimping it to make it look good. I usually resort to filling a frozen grocery store pie crust and slapping a second crust on top. Tasty, yes, but not much to look at. And, to be honest, that feels a lot like cheating. Laurel shows us how to roll the dough, flecked with dots of butter, rotating it a quarter turn each time. It’s much easier to do this on a stainless steel table than on my cramped counter at home. I fit the bottom crust into the pie plate, fill it with apples, then roll out the top crust and drape it across the heaping mound of fruit. Here’s where we learn some secrets. First, we use small scissors to trim the crust. This is so much easier than using a knife. Next, we roll the edges of the top and bottom crusts to form a seal so the apple filling won’t ooze out the sides. Lastly, Laurel demonstrates her fluting technique: using thumb and pointer finger on one hand, she pinches the dough, while pushing out with the pointer finger on the other hand.
With the oven warmed and ready, Laurel slides our masterpieces into the oven. While they bake, we create another crust to take home, for another apple pie or two pumpkin pies. After just under an hour, Laurel opens the oven doors to reveal our creations. They are gorgeous and golden and professional-looking. Visitors to the farm pop into the barn to look around and ooh and aah when they see what we’ve been doing. “We made these!” I say, pointing to the pies now cooling on the counter.
I ease my pie into a box and rest it on the back seat of my car. For a moment, I contemplate buckling it in. After posting a picture of it on Facebook, I head home to deliver my chef-d’œuvre. My husband and son willingly forgo lunch in favor of big slices of pie. “Oh, that’s good,” my husband says, scraping the plate clean. My son is quiet. He’s too busy eating. And now it’s my turn. Usually I’ll nibble a piece of crust just to say I tried it. This time I take a big forkful of glistening apples and flaky crust. It’s magnificent. This is what I imagine a traditional Thanksgiving apple pie should taste like. Not too sweet, not at all mushy. It’s vibrant and apple-y and best of all, I was the one who made it.
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