27 May 2011

When it would be crazy not to

I don’t know if it is appropriate to be talking about apple pie as we are rapidly approaching the junction of May and June, the time when apples and pies and apples in pies seem so irrelevant, so unrelated to what is happening right now as we talk: fresh local juicy stubbly deep-red strawberries galore, soon to be followed by the myriad of other berries, so long-awaited, so bright. All right, it is crazy to just think about apple pie at this point of year. Insane, even.

Yet, I made Russian apple pie twice past week, strawberries notwithstanding. I don’t know how to classify it.

I was randomly re-reading parts of A Year of Russian Feasts, by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones, and a chapter on Russian tea ceremony accompanied by a recipe for a yeast dough apple pie (a.k.a. apple pie, Russian style) got me to recall my maternal grandmother’s delicious apple pie that she would make for me as I was staying with her in our river-bank country house for a week at the beginning of each summer as I was a kid, years and years ago. But however tasty the pie was, I also recalled I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I guess for many a kid, to stay in the country side with their beloved grandmother would be nothing less than fun. Not for me, though. I was terrified of it.

My maternal grandmother, Aglaya, is a high blood pressure patient. Every day of the week I had to spend with her in the distant picturesque summer country side was marred by my fearing that she would suddenly expire from a heart attack – please, no! -- in the middle of the night, and I would be left in the scary nocturnal darkness not knowing what I would have to be doing to get help for her, for myself, or whatever (that wasn’t yet an era of mobile telecommunication). Oh, doesn’t it sound dramatic! But hey, I was a sensitive kid, and I guess you can say troubled too!

The first two or three days of that bonding week, as my mother usually thought it be, would almost always go easy, to my relief. My grandmother and I would prune and water the vegetable patches in our garden, go swimming in the river, pay visits to the remote neighbors or the unwatched gardens close by, drink tea with store-bought sweets, watch black and white TV, and play cards. But then on the fourth day – mysteriously, it would always happen on a Thursday -- my grandmother would wake up to a bad headache, high blood pressure starting building up. As the day progressed, the symptoms wouldn’t budge, even despite the large medicine in-take. By midnight, my grandmother wouldn’t stop her I’m dying-s. I felt morbid. (I’m sorry, but at the age of seven, eight, nine and ten I took those proclamations very, very, very literally.) There was one thing, the last frontier, believed to be able to help:
vinegar (a lot of which would be poured onto a small towel that would be applied to feet). I was eager to go and bring a bottle of it from our kitchen downstairs. To get down to the kitchen meant I had to take the outdoor stairs and then go around a corner of the house to reach the arched heavy kitchen door. At night with nature making weird unnatural sounds, a trek of a mere couple dozen steps felt like going down into a deep dungeon. I was ready to do it for my grandmother. I was happy I could help. Often vinegar did the trick lessening the blood pressure. Eventually my grandmother would fall asleep. I would regularly come out from my room to see if she was breathing.

The next day my grandmother would be on her feet again, preparing for my parents’ visit over the weekend. For me, it meant nothing else but joy: I would be going home soon. But besides the approaching weekend and the nearing this-year-I-don’t-have-to-do-it-anymore delirium, there was another thing for me to get pretty darn excited about: apple pie.

My grandmother has a thing with yeast dough. She is a yeast dough whisperer. If I remember rightly, never did I see a scale or at least one measuring cup in her vicinity when she would start the dough. All measurements were intuitive and always (!) worked. Of course, my childhood memories may not be crystal clear by now, but seriously! To see the dough risen and eager to crawl out from under the lid of a dented white pot was kind of arcane – and fun. My favorite part was to punch the dough down imagining I was a ghost buster at task of taming a cute monster. The sour-ish yeasty wisps emanating from it were full of promise of something good and safe and warm and lovely.

While the monster/dough was resting/rising, I’d get busy picking apples (an early summer sort) fallen from our apple tree and now lying idly on the shadowy ground. My grandmother would use them, cooked with sugar until just soft, for the filling. It was a simple apple pie. And it was tasty. Sweet apples, slightly tart at the heart, encased and relaxed between and into the two layers of the fragrant, a touch buttery, dough. Made with gusto, it was also a sign that my grandmother was doing ok again, and that she is a fighter.

I wanted to share my grandmother’s apple pie recipe with you today. I called her to ask for guidance. But she is an intuitive baker, and so it transpired she doesn’t need nor does she have the recipe. It’s why I resort to the one from A Year of Russian Feasts. Having made it twice by now, I’m happy to say the resulting pie is as good as the specimen from years gone, except that no drama and only dry active yeast is required.

All you need to do is to mix dry yeast with melted butter and a mix of lukewarm milk and water, add sugar, salt and flour, and knead it until the dough comes together and forms a ball. You then let it rest until it doubles in size, about an hour, give or take. Meanwhile, you cook tart baking-friendly apples with light brown sugar, for a deeper flavor, until they have released their juices. We tend to think that apples and cinnamon is a match, but try apples with fresh vanilla seeds. With them, an apple taste like its quintessential self. Should I be a Granny Smith in my next life, I’d spend it with vanilla seeds, I decided. Anyway, when the dough has puffed up and looks ready, form it into a ball and cut in half. Roll out the first half, place in a pie pan and send in the apples. Roll out the second half, slightly larger than the first, and cover the fruit. Pinch the dough edges together, brush the top with egg wash and bake until the pie is golden.

The pie is down-to-earth, and even basic, yet there is some simple magic going on in there, the moist fruit has bonded together with the dough, vanilla and yeasty aromas merged into one. And the butter, it’s quietly letting you know it’s there but that it’s not going to steal the show. As Cheremeteff Jones describes the pie: “a wonderfully delicate “apple sandwich”. Try it for yourself. If it seems – and it does! – insane to compel strawberries and the likes to wait, bookmark the recipe for the colder months then, when it would be crazy not to make it.

Russian-style apple pie
Adapted from A Year of Russian Feasts by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones
Yield: Serves 6-8

For the apple filling:
900 gr (2 pounds [about 5 large or 6 medium]), tart baking apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, quartered, cored, and diced in big chunks
120 gr (4 oz) light brown sugar
seeds of one vanilla bean

Combine the apples, sugar and vanilla seeds in a large saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft and the apple juices have evaporated, about 10-15 mins. (Drain if the apples are soft but the liquid is still there.) Remove from the fire and let cool. (The filling can be made up to three days in advance; keep covered and refrigerated).

For the yeast dough:
8 gr (0.4 oz) active dry yeast
60 ml (1/4 cup) whole milk
60 ml (1/4 cup) water
30 gr (1 oz) sugar
1 large egg, beaten
120 gr (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
310 gr unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
Egg wash (one more egg, beaten)
Light brown sugar for sprinkling, optional

1. Put the yeast in a large mixing bowl.

2. Heat the milk together with water until lukewarm. Add the milk mixture to the yeast and stir until the yeast has been dissolved. Add the sugar, salt, egg and butter (still warm!) and mix well until combined. Add half of the flour and using a mixer with the dough hook attachment work on low speed until combined. Add the remaining flour and mix until incorporated. Up the speed to medium and continue mixing for the next 4-5 minutes (scrape down the sides of the bowl after 2-minute mark), or until the dough is no longer sticky and forms a ball. If the dough remains sticky after 3 minutes of mixing, add more flour, 1 tablespoon (15 gr) at a time, until the dough comes together (the amount of extra flour needed can be between 1 to 3 tablespoons). Cover the bowl with plastic film and let the dough rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 175 C (350 F) and butter a 22- or 24-cm (9- or 9 ½-inch) pie plate.

4. Lightly flour a work surface. Take the dough and shape it into a ball. Cut the ball in two equal parts. With a rolling pin, roll out one part of the dough into a circle wide enough to fit into the prepared pie plate (if needed, continue to lightly flour the work surface and the dough to prevent sticking). Transfer the dough gently into the pie plate, and using your fingers, create an even 1-cm (1/2 inch) overhang. Place the apple filling evenly over the dough.

5. Flour the work surface again and roll out the second part of the dough into a circle slightly smaller in width than the first one. Carefully place it on top of the filling. Pinch and twist the edges of the dough together to seal them. Make sure to seal the wedges well, otherwise the top will disconnect while baking. Prick the top, cover with a clean dish towel, and let rise for 10 mins. Brush the top lightly with the egg wash. Sprinkle some light brown sugar (about 1 Tbsp or more), if using.

6. Bake for 30 mins, or until the top is golden brown. Let cool before unmolding. Wrapped up in plastic, the pie will keep at room temperature for up to three days.

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