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, I wonder?
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,” who describes American cuisine as a multi-cultural mosaic in which old meets new. She used the same “mosaic” imagery in “The Foods of Israel Today” when discussing Israeli cuisine. American cuisine, which is reflective of the many nationalities of our population, defies definition as well.
“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. “A taco is as American as apple pie.”
While writing “The New American Cooking,” Nathan served as guest curator for “Food Culture USA!” part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. D.C. where the new American cuisine was on display on the Fourth of July.
“The multiethnic table at the Folklife Festival makes American cuisine seem complex,” she wrote in U.S. News & World Report. “But…the singular characteristic of good American food…is simplicity. Even with the cornucopia of new ingredients, the best cooks incorporate them into their cuisine without great pretense or fuss.”
The Vermont Apple Pie featured in “The New American Cooking” is from Amy Huyffer, who uses McIntosh apples exclusively for the dish. “My decision to move back East,” she told Nathan, “after years of living in Wyoming and Oregon was based in no small part on the unavailability of a good Mac west of the Mississippi River.”
Nathan also includes an Italian crostata made with a butter crust called a friolla from Anne Luzzatto, whose mother-in-law in Venice taught her to make it when she spent her summers there in the early 1980s. “She brought me into her kitchen in Venice with its wonderful Italian marble table,” she told Nathan. She has been making this rich tart for dinner parties ever since.
An Apple Strudel from Macedonia-born Maria Kantzios features phyllo dough. Together with her husband Jim, the couple opened Athens Import and Bakery in Cleveland after their arrival in the U.S. in 1951 where they sold made-from-scratch phyllo dough. After years of experimentation, Jim and his cousin George Pappas perfected a machine for rolling out the very thin dough still in use today.
Italian crostata, Greek Apple Strudel – they’re as American as…well, you know.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “COOKING JEWISH: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
Vermont Apple Pie
- 1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup sugar
- Dash salt
- ¼ cup cold milk (approximately)
- 2 lbs. McIntosh apples, peeled, cored, and sliced (about 8 cups)
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons maple syrup
- Grated zest of 1 orange or lemon
- 2 Tablespoons orange juice
- 2 Tablespoons flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- Vanilla or maple ice cream
- To make the crust, cut the butter into small pieces and toss into a food processor along with the flour, sugar, and salt.
- Pulse until the texture is like very coarse meal. Pour on the milk a tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the dough comes together in a ball. Be careful not to add too much milk or the dough will be impossible to roll out.
- Shape the dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees
- Toss apple slices in a large bowl, along with the brown sugar, maple syrup, orange zest, orange juice, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves
- Roll a little more than half the dough on a floured board into an 11-inch round. Carefully fold it in half and then in half again. Place the dough in a 9-inch Pyrex pie plate, unfold, and press in all around, scraping off any odd ends.
- Spoon the apples into the pie plate.
- Incorporate the dough scraps in the remaining dough and roll out into another round as thin as the first, fold in half and then half again and carefully lay it on the apples. Unfold and crimp the edges to seal by pinching with your thumb and second finger. Make a few half-inch slits with a knife on top of the pie to let steam escape.
- Place the pie on a foil-lined baking sheet, slide it into the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until the crust is well browned and the filling is bubbling, about another 40 minutes or more.
- Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
Serve with vanilla or maple ice cream.
Adapted from “The New American Cooking” (Knopf) by Joan Nathan
1 tart (10 to 12 servings)
- 3 Granny Smith or other good cooking apples (about 1½ lbs.)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup apricot preserves
- Preheat the oven to 425°F and grease a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
- Peel, core, and slice the apples into crescents about ¼- to 1/8-inch thick. You should have about 24 pieces.
- Put the sugar, butter, egg yolks, flour, and salt in a large bowl and rub everything together with your fingers or combine the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process in quick pulses until the dough forms a ball. Either way, do not overwork the dough.
- Flouring your hands, shape the ball of dough into a round and pat into the tart pan. Working with your fingers and a cake knife or wide spatula, spread the dough evenly around the pan and up the sides. The dough should be about ½-inch-thick up the sides and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan, then trim and flatten the edges with a knife. Starting on the outside and working toward the center, lay the apple slices in an overlapping, concentric circle.
- Heat the apricot preserves in a saucepan over low heat until it has liquefied.
- Using a pastry brush, paint the apples and the visible crust with the apricot glaze.
- Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue cooking until the crust is deep golden brown, about 45 minutes.
- Bring to room temperature, unmold, and put on a platter or serving dish.
From “The New American Cooking” (Knopf) by Joan Nathan
6 to 8 servings
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 6 Granny Smith apples
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ¼ cup cognac, brandy, orange liqueur, or sherry
- 2 tablespoons raisins (optional)
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch ground cloves
- ¼ cup walnuts
- 8 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon milk
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- Vanilla ice cream
- Half-fill a large bowl with cold water and the lemon juice. Peel and core the apples. Cut them in half from top to bottom, and then thinly slice each half crosswise. Put the apple slices in the bowl of cold lemon water as you work to keep them from discoloring.
- In a medium frying pan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter with the brown sugar and ¼ cup of the granulated sugar.
- Drain the apple slices and toss them in the pan along with the liqueur and the raisins.
- Simmer slowly for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft and the juices have reduced by half. Take the pan off the heat and add ½ teaspoon of the cinnamon and the cloves. Let cool.
- Prepare the nut mixture by pulsing the nuts, the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon cinnamon in a food processor equipped with a steel blade until almost crumb-like but still crunchy.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F and grease a jellyroll pan.
- Remove the phyllo dough from the package and cover it with a damp cloth. (You should always keep the sheets of phyllo you are not working with covered; otherwise they will dry out.)
- Melt the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter.
- Brush the tops of 2 sheets of phyllo dough with butter and place one on top of the other. Sprinkle some of the nut mixture on top. Cover this layer of nuts with 2 more sheets of phyllo, each brushed with butter.
- Sprinkle the top layer with more nuts and cover it with half the apples, leaving a 1-inch border on the short side of the phyllo nearest you. Carefully fold the border in and roll up the dough and filling as you would a jelly roll, brushing with butter as you go. When you have finished rolling, carefully lift the roll and place it in the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining phyllo dough and filling to make 2 rolls.
- Mix the egg and the milk to make a wash. Brush the wash over the dough. Using a serrated knife, score the tops of the dough in 4 to 6 evenly spaced places, depending on how big you want your slices.
- Brush again with the wash and bake until golden, about 30 minutes. This can be done several hours before you want to serve it.
- When cool, slice through the phyllo. Just reheat it for 5 minutes in a 375°F oven and sprinkle with the confectioners’ sugar.
- Serve with ice cream if you wish.
From “The New American Cooking” (Knopf) by Joan Nathan
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.