View From Lodi, CA: On Thanksgiving—Apple Pie Or Bust!
November 16, 2007, 04:00 AM
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After a six-month wait, my brand new Hess Pottery hand-crafted pie plate arrived—just in time for Thanksgiving and my annual attempt to bake an edible apple pie.

What a beauty it is with its unglazed red clay finish, extra-deep capacity and sloped sides.

For the time being, I`m merely admiring my plate`s workmanship. I hesitate to use it because, truth be told, I`m an unworthy owner.

In my quest to prepare a decent apple pie, I have accumulated a massive inventory of tools, each "guaranteed" to produce results that will wow my guests.

Pie pans, you ask? Not even Julia Child owned more than I do: nonstick black steel, deep dish, ceramic, Pyrex, stoneware, glazed and unglazed.

Take your pick among my rolling pin collection: wooden ones in all shapes and sizes, tapered French, handled maple, nylon, stainless steel and solid white plastic. My current favorite is one my grandmother used, a hollow glass design made for holding ice cubes and cold water to help keep pie pastry cold.

Although I have dozens of boards on which to roll out my dough, I lean toward my marble slab that I can chill in my freezer.

My numerous unsuccessful efforts to master pie baking have made me a student of the art. I`ve read dozens—possibly hundreds— of apple pie baking articles. Most, supplemented with detailed drawings, misleadingly contain "Easy" in their title. 

I have a library shelf`s worth of pie baking books. The two that I most often refer to are a 700-page monster by Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Pie and Pastry Bible, and John T. Edge`s more manageable 150-page volume Apple Pie, An American Story.

Edge`s book is one of his four-part series on what he calls essential American food that, in addition to apple pie, include fried chicken, doughnuts and hamburgers. They are a must read.

But, despite hours spent studying pie, I can`t bake a pie anyone is brave enough to eat.

Nothing in baking is as challenging as turning out a decent pie. So much can go wrong. One small error will overwhelm whatever may have gone right and will designate the pie for dog treats.

Bakers cannot even agree on which apples to use. Recommended apples—Northern Spy, Jonagold, and Baldwins—are not readily available. You`ll have to mail order them at great expense from the Upper Michigan Peninsula.

When your finished product with its pricey apples is as lousy as if you used supermarket varieties, you`ll know what true frustration is.

In addition to the wrong apples, here`s a partial list of pitfalls that await the novice pie baker:

Will your dough be too dry or too wet?  If it is one or the other, you can`t roll it out. Will it, after rolling, more resemble a circular pie shape or the outline of Texas? Will the crust be tough, overdone on top or soggy on the bottom?  Will your apple filling be wet and runny or will the slices stick together as if they were glued?

Any of these are the kiss of death to the pastry chef.

Despite my long history of baking lousy pies, I remain undaunted and am ready to proceed fearlessly this Thanksgiving.

I have my new pan, my grandmother`s rolling pin and my marble board. My apples are Pink Lady`s from Lodi`s Smit Ranch. The only way apples could be fresher is if I picked them myself.

I`m using mellow pastry blend flour developed by the Vermont-based King Arthur Flour Company…"foolproof" or so I`m told.

If I`m successful and, despite my track record, I`m sure I will be, I`ll share the step-by-step process in my Christmas column as my present to readers.

In the meantime, I`ll add this important closing note.

Your botched pie can be put to good use. Put a small wedge in a blender, add a cup of milk and three scoops of vanilla ice cream, whiz it up…and viola, the apple pie a la mode milk shake.

Pretty tasty, if you ask me.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.