1:41:13 a.m. Eastern Standard Time
Someone needs a slice of apple pie.
I am in the back bedroom, once my son’s, now filled with books and a narrow bed for guests or, like tonight, when either my husband or I snore so loud we’ve rattled the other awake. It is raining, the wind fierce. A fog horn moans in the harbor. Windchimes clash like crazy from several gardens. Every window in the house across the communal driveway is bright yellow, signaling that the twins born three months ago are up and partying. So, too, are the windows four houses down where a few elderly Asian women and a man reside with their young caretaker who drives a Mercedes Benz. In the morning, two or three line up in the driveway and practice slower-than-usual tai chi. It’s tempting to join them but, instead, I pass shyly by afraid my uncoordinated novice movements would hinder their perfect peacefulness.
The clock ticks closer to two and I am no closer to sleep.
Two remedies have worked in the past:
From my teens to mid-twenties, I used to ride my bike fast for miles through whatever deserted streets I happen to be living near. It was intoxicating to tear through the dark stillness, trespassing across lawns and down alleys, careening around the prim exteriors of slumbering houses. When I returned home, my body exhausted, I dove into a deep, rich sleep.
A warm slice of apple pie. Other pies will do, I suppose, but nothing swaddles a restless mind quite as effectively as a thin layer of pastry sinking into thick apple slices. Some people might melt cheese on top but, to me, that’s an afternoon affectation. The dead of night calls for a puddle of cream perhaps fortified, as my mom would advise, with a tablespoon or two of brandy. This is the reason I usually make two apple pies—one for right away and the other cut and wrapped into individual doses and packed into the freezer.
I sold my bike awhile ago when sheer common sense acknowledged there were too many novices careening about, ignoring the rules of the road. With the world being what it has been for the last six years or so, you would think I have baked an apple pie at least once a month. I did early on but these ever increasing hairy times demanded something stronger to knock out nightmares. It’s time, though, to gather my wits. My sister calls these days the pandemic’s stuck stage and maybe returning to an old friend would help.
Apples, of course, are not native to our country. Pilgrims sailed off with spurs packed into their trunks to remind them of their homeland. Once planted and thriving nearly everywhere newcomers settled, the fruit bloomed into a symbol of our burgeoning country. The poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way in his 1848 journal,
The apple is our national fruit and I like to see that the soil yields it; I judge of the country so. The American sun paints himself in these glowing balls among the green leaves.
My favorite description of apple pie is from a sermon that the great minister Henry Ward Beecher preached as the Civil War bolted forward. Our country, he said, must stay in
glorious unity in which sugar gives up its nature as sugar and butter ceases to be butter and each flavorsome spice gladly vanishes from its own full nature, that all of them by a common death, may rise into the new life of an apple pie. . . .transformed [into] the ideal, refined, purified and by fire fixed in blissful perfection.
Perhaps this is why the pie affects me so. Between these men is the assertion that the idealism that took root in our soil holds the solutions to our country’s problems, no matter how hard and tortuous they are. We just need to remember that our differences contribute to our linked integrity.
Right at this anxious, unruly, moment in history, wouldn’t it be beneficial if we all take time for a big old slice of apple pie? How I wish for one myself.
Into this shadowy room comes the dog. He plops his heavy head in my lap and wonders why the hell am I not in bed. His tail wags—but since we’re both up, wouldn’t it be great to take a walk?
I tiptoe into the bedroom, pass the still snoring husband, tuck my nightgown into baggy sweatpants and grope around for socks and a sweater, hook the leash on the ecstatic dog, and step out into the wind of the cold wet night. Up the deserted street, around the corner, down another street, and pass some houses that are lit enough to spy on my fellow nighthawks.
A walk is almost as good as a bike ride and, once home, my body finally acknowledges it has had enough of this night. The dog returns to his bed as I slough off my outerwear and slip back into mine, careful to tuck cold feet away from my warm husband. The nightstand’s clock says it’s 3:52:22 a.m.
Tomorrow I will bake an apple pie.
This is where a fine recipe should appear. I have one but I’ve been repeatedly told by readers and snarky web commentators that the one in my book, Pie Every Day, is an unmitigated disaster. In fact, it’s not a recipe at all. Instead, it’s an encouragement to follow your own taste sensibilities and no one’s else. Emerson and Beecher would agree that, no matter how your pie turns out (and there is no such thing as a failed pie), it will embody the country’s spirit of individualism and ingenuity.
However, if you just don’t see things my way, follow Kate McDermott’s recipe. She is a master pie baker—and her newsletter is among the best. The recipe is presented on another terrific site written by Anne Byrn.
A Common Apple Pie
Double 9-inch butter and lard pie dough
8 or 9 large apples of several different varieties except the flavorless Red Delicious. Peel, core, and thickly slice them
Juice of 1 large lemon
Sugar, the amount depending on how sweet or tart you like your apple pies to be
A mixture of spices, the usual being ground cinnamon, ground mace and nutmeg. I’ve sometimes added cardamon, a small pinch of allspice, anise and, once successfully, about 15 threads of saffron
About 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 large beaten egg white
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a baking sheet on the rack to catch any spillovers.
Line a 9-inch pie plate with half the pastry and place in the refrigerator, along with the unrolled half while you make the filling.
Mix all the apples together in a bowl then stir in the lemon juice. Gradually begin to add a tablespoon of sugar at a time, tasting the apples after each spoonful, until you’ve achieved just the right amount of sweetness. Blend the spices you want to use in a small bowl then begin to gradually add them to the apples just as you did with he sugar, tasting as you go along.
Pour the apple mixture into the prepared pastry shell. Make sure to mound them toward the center. Scatter pieces of butter among the apples.
Roll out the remaining pastry and carefully lay it over the apples. Seal the edges and slash small vent holes on top. Brush the crust with the egg white. If you like, sprinkle a little sugar over the top to make the crust sparkle.
Place the pie on the baking sheet in the center of the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and continue to cook for about another hour, or until the top crust is a golden brown.
Got a favorite pie story? I’d love to hear about it!