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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Desserts, on November 7th, 2009.

apple pie ala mode My friend Debbie used to work for me. She was a whiz at typesetting on one of the very early computerized typesetters, and she also did some early programming of WordPerfect forms. This was in the 1980’s. But during that time we became friends, even though I was her boss. We have stayed in touch over the years, and I’ve never forgotten the wonderful apple pie she used to bring to our office potlucks. So I asked her recently if she’d come to my house and make the pie and piecrust, I’d document the process with photos, and we’d each make a pie. AND, I’d post the story on my blog. Bless her heart, she said “yes!” Debbie has an interesting background – she was born in Venezuela to American parents. She learned to speak Spanish, obviously, from a very young age. She’s a VERY accomplished artist, a wife, and a mom to 3 grown kids and grandma to several grandchildren too. She cooks some South American specialties (like fried plantains, and smashed fried plantains too). Maybe another day I’ll get her to show me how she does those! So, here’s part of the dialogue we had going on pie-day.

– – – – – – –

Carolyn: So, Debbie, where did this recipe come from, this pie, your famous apple crumb pie?

apple pie debbie Debbie: I have no idea where the original came from, but it goes w-a-a-ay back. The only recipe I have is on a piece of paper in my own handwriting. The directions are vague. I must have tried it at someone’s house and asked them what was in it. Since I’ve had the recipe, I’ve done lots of experimentation and received advice from different sources – what kinds of apples to use, how to line them up in the pie shell, etc. – to come up with my current version. The pie crust recipe came from my friend Betsy who I’ve known since the 70’s.

Carolyn: What’s unique about the pie?

Debbie: Hmmm. I suppose part of its secret is the use of two kinds of apples – Granny Smith and another kind of crispy apple. A non-acidic apple. That part was in my notes, actually; the non-acidic part. I still use Red Delicious for the crispy ones, but have been a little unhappy with the texture, so have used Fuji sometimes. You must not use a soft apple, even a Golden Delicious. It must be crispy. I’m still experimenting with apple varieties to find a firmer, crisper apple instead of the Red Delicious.

[Sidenote: it was at this point that I told Debbie the story about Red Delicious and what happened to the breeding of them and why they’re so mealy and un-delicious anymore. If you’re interested, go look at my post about it.]

Carolyn: Well, I remember when you used to bring this apple crumb pie to our office potlucks we had a few times a year, and it was the topping that was special. And the fact there was never a crumb leftover by the time we were all done with it!

Debbie: Yes, the crumb topping isn’t as common in apple pies, although there isn’t anything unusual in it – just flour, sugar and butter, crumbled up and sprinkled on top, with a little bit in the layer below it. I started sprinkling the crumb mixture in the lower layers thinking that the flour would thicken the juice from the apples – nothing worse than a runny pie.

Carolyn: When you slice the apples, do you put them in a bowl of acidulated water to keep them from getting brown, or does it matter?

Debbie: Oh, no, no water. If you soak the apples in acidulated water, the pie will be too watery and soggy. I learned that the hard way! I sprinkle fresh lemon juice over the apples as I slice them, and just toss them around with my free hand to get most of the apple surfaces. Plus, just that little bit of acidity from the lemon juice counters the sweetness of the apples. I think it makes a good combination.

Carolyn: Tell me about your pie crust.

Debbie: Actually, I’ve made different kinds of pie crusts over the years, but have in the last few years settled on this one made with vegetable oil. No shortening. No butter, or egg either. A little healthier, I think. Just flour, oil, water and salt. It’s a very easy dough to work with – the dough is soft and pliable. But once it’s baked, it’s firm enough to hold its shape when you wedge a piece out of the pan.

Carolyn: Is there any special technique you use to layer in the apples. Like any particular pattern?

Debbie: Yes, definitely. I place the apple slices in circles around the outside edge and work in, slightly overlapping the apples with the outside edges, the thicker edge of the apple facing out. Some of the cinnamon sugar mixture is sprinkled on top of each of the 4 layers. I don’t toss the apples with the cinnamon mixture, but sprinkle it on each layer. Maybe it would work to toss it all, but that’s just the way I remember doing it. I think, a long time ago, I tried mixing the cinnamon mixture in the apples before placing them in the shell, but something must have gone amiss causing me to return to the sprinkling method.

[Later . . .]

Debbie: So what do you think of the pie?

Carolyn: Oh my goodness, this pie is SO, SO good, Debbie. It’s been years since I’ve had your apple pie, and it’s every bit as good as I remembered. I love the crumb topping – nice and crispy, crunchy. The pie shell is flaky, but it’s also firm. I noticed how easily the slice came out of the pie plate. Everything held together so I got even the first slice out with no trouble at all. That’s an accomplishment! There’s just the right amount of gooey-ness to the apples. No liquid to leaking out at all and the bottom crust isn’t soggy at all; just perfectly cooked apples inside. The cinnamon adds just the right amount of high note. I love cinnamon. The vanilla ice cream adds a nice foil to the apples. Got to be vanilla, though. Nothing fancy. Do you ever serve this with whipped cream?

Debbie: Nope. Ala mode is the only way! I’m glad you liked it!

Carolyn: Thank you so much, Debbie, for coming over to my house and baking with me.

[The next day Debbie emailed that she’d had fun too, and that instead of lunch, she had a slice of, you guessed it, apple pie!]

Here was our pie-baking process. First we made the pie crust.

apple pie dough

It comes to a ball very easily – really easily – you knead it some and then you plop it out on a flat, floured surface.

apple pie dough ball

It looks like it would be dry, but once you begin rolling it out, you’ll see. Very easy to roll, even for me who is moderately pie crust challenged.

apple pie shell

Don’t turn over the top edge – it will make it too thick. But, gee, isn’t that a PERFECT lookin’ crust? I thought so, thank you! Okay, teach’, do I get an A so far?

apple pie slices bowl

You set aside the pie crust, then start peeling, coring and slicing the apples. In the bowl above you can see the two different kinds of apples, the greener ones are Granny Smith; the yellow ones are Red Delicious. I’d just sprinkled a little bit of lemon juice over them. A half a lemon is enough for one pie. Just toss the apples around a bit so the lemon juice gets on most of the surfaces.

apple pie fill slices

Note how the slices are arranged in concentric circles but the outer edges are lifted up and overlap. Debbie was just sprinkling the sugar and cinnamon mixture on top.

apple pie sprinkle

There’s a better shot of the cinnamon sugar mixture. Divide it up between all 4 layers.

apple pie crumb 2

The crumb topping was mixed up and about 1/3 was sprinkled on the next to the last layer. Another layer of apples went on top. I got demerits for my apple layering . . . see below on the finished pie.

apple pie crumbs center

Here’s the top – we gently poured the crumb mixture in the center and lightly moved the crumbs outward so they almost completely covered the apples.

apple pie crumb topping

There. All done and ready for the oven. I got demerits for not-fine-enough crumbs. Should have kept mixing them up (by hand) until they were more like bread crumbs. I left too many bigger chunks.

apple pie baked

Talk about golden brown, huh? Salivary glands are working in overdrive! That was my pie, and Debbie told me that I hadn’t quite positioned the apples correctly to the outside edge on the top layer – you want no gaps where topping can sink down through. Right there at the bottom, you can see a hole between the crust and the apples. More demerits. Hmm. Can I re-register for this class – to just audit? I don’t want a letter grade, okay?

apple pie top view

Oh, but was this ever tasty! Most folks wouldn’t notice all my mistakes, and they surely didn’t make any difference to the taste. Thank you, Debbie!
printer-friendly PDF

Apple Crumb Pie

Recipe By: From my dear friend, Debbie M.
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: It is important that you use a combination of a tart (Granny Smith or Pippin) and a non-acidic apple for this pie (Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp or Pink Lady). Both have different textures and taste. Do NOT use a bowl of water to acidulate the apples – use only fresh lemon juice to keep them from getting brown; otherwise the pie will be too watery and thin. You can also use an all-butter crust if you prefer, or purchase a ready-made shell. This pie dough is very soft and malleable and forgiving. When you cut it the crust is very flaky. My friend Debbie has worked on this original recipe for about 25 years.

VEGETABLE OIL PIE CRUST:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
FILLING:
3 large Granny Smith apples
2 large crisp apples — a non-acidic apple like a Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady
1 whole lemon — use juice of half only (reserve other half for another use)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
CRUMB TOPPING:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsalted butter — softened
1/2 cup sugar

1. CRUST: Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and mix with fork, then knead lightly with hands until it comes to a ball.
2. Sprinkle flour on flat surface and place dough on top. Flatten into a circle with your palms. Then, using rolling pin, roll out dough until it’s large enough to fit inside a 9-inch pie plate. Place in pie plate, then trim edges and use to fill any gaps in dough. Do not turn under top edges (makes that edge too thick). Crimp edges and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 400.
4. APPLE FILLING: Core and peel apples, then slice each into thin slices (each quarter apple should be cut into 4 pieces). Place in large bowl and sprinkle them with lemon juice as you cut, then toss apples briefly to keep them from getting brown.
5. In another small bowl combine the cinnamon and sugar and stir to mix well. Set aside.
6. CRUMB TOPPING: In a medium bowl sift flour and sugar together. Cut in the butter until it resembles small crumbs. You can use a pastry blender, a fork, or your hands. The crumbs should be very fine, like bread crumbs.
7. ASSEMBLY: Place apples around perimeter of shell and work inward, slightly overlapping each piece, with the wider edge facing outward. When the bottom is covered, sprinkle about 1/4 of the cinnamon/sugar mixture over the top. Repeat with layering, making sure there are no holes or gaps on the top layer. Sprinkle each layer with cinnamon/sugar mixture. When you finish the next to last layer, add cinnamon/sugar, AND sprinkle about 1/3 of the crumb topping on that layer. Then add final apple layer. Sprinkle with remaining cinnamon sugar mixture and gently pour remaining crumb topping into the center of the pie. Very gently push crumbs out to the edges until the apples are almost covered completely.
8. Bake for 40-50 minutes until the crumb topping is lightly browned. Remove and allow to cool for at least an hour. Ideally eat it when it’s still warm (but leftovers at room temp are just fine too). Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Per Serving: 487 Calories; 22g Fat (39.7% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 70g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 21mg Cholesterol; 137mg Sodium.

A year ago: Rack of Lamb with Mint Crust

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  1. Debbie Mitchell

    said on November 8th, 2009:

    Carolyn, I feel honored to be in your blog site. Thanks so much! The pictures came out great, and I think they’re explicit enough for anyone to follow. See you soon!

    Gosh, you’re welcome. I had a ton of fun, and the pie is now history! . . . carolyn t

  2. Tracey Tilson

    said on October 28th, 2015:

    I am so excited to try this pie! I really enjoyed the interview and the photos of the process were really helpful. Thank you so much for sharing the recipe!

    You’re welcome! Hope you enjoyed the pie!! . . . carolyn t

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