It seems that there has been an outbreak of bad apples in nearly every city and town all over the country. And it’s not even apple season. In fact, we’re at the wrong end of the season, still eating last year’s apples from cold storage. But I think when life gives you bad apples, you might as well bake a bad-apple pie.
Few things are more disappointing than a bad apple. You can’t really tell a bad apple from a good one, at the grocery store or even on the street, apparently. There is no reliable test for sorting good apples from bad, except for the rule that there are several varieties you should avoid. I don’t need to name names; you know the ones I’m talking about.
So where did that worn-out proverb about bad apples come from? Most sources I’ve consulted credit Chaucer as the earliest popularizer of the phrase when he wrote, “Better take rotten apple from the hoard/Than let it lie to spoil the good ones there.” There was a different version of the Chaucer version cited in a recent New Yorker article: “A rotten apple’s better thrown away / Before it spoils the barrel.” Since they are reputed to employ the fiercest fact-checkers in the land, maybe they’re right. To make matters even more confusing, The Oxford English Dictionary gives a pre-Chaucer version, dating from 1340, which translates, more or less, as “A rotten apple makes them all rotten.” But it’s the Ben Franklin’s version from Poor Richard’s Almanack, “The rotten apple spoils his companion,” that I think comes closest to describing the current situation.
Things got even more mangled a couple of centuries later, thanks to the songwriter and singer George Jackson who gave us “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.” He wrote the song that line comes from for the Jackson 5, although it was eventually snapped up and recorded by the Osmond Brothers when they were looking for something that would help them piggyback on the popularity of the J5. It worked. In 1971, their recording of One Bad Apple became a number-one hit in the US and Canada. And now almost everyone uses the line from the song when they’re talking about bad apples even though we all know that apples don’t grow in bunches. That kind of behavior is reserved for bananas.
To be fair to the songwriter, he chose the word “bunch” for obvious reasons. If you don’t get that, try singing it and substituting the words barrel or bucket or crate or grocery-store bin. It’s just not the same. But even though Jackson knew what he was doing, I doubt he imagined that he would be rewriting the proverb for a new generation. In a youtube video of them performing One Bad Apple at the 2008 Pioneer Day celebration in Salt Lake City, Marie Osmond introduces her aging brothers as “the original boy band,” conveniently forgetting that the actual original boy band they had been knocking off when they recorded that song was the J5. And there you have the history of American popular music in a single sentence. For a longer version of that, you could listen to American Pie by Don McLean. As far as I can tell, the only black person alluded to in that song is Martin Luther King. Jr, although every musician mentioned owes his (yes, they’re also all men) career to what he borrowed from African American music.
Getting back to the subject of pie, my personal message to America is: We put way too much cinnamon in our pies! What is it about the taste of fruit that makes us want to stomp all over it with a spice that obliterates the delicate aroma and flavor of a peach or a pear or an apple or, god forbid, a berry? I love cinnamon when it’s the dominant flavor in something like in cinnamon rolls or snicker doodles. Or when it’s combined with equally aggressive spices like ginger, clove and allspice in ginger cookies. Or in middle eastern lamb dishes. Or in Mexican sauces like mole. Just don’t mutilate a blueberry dessert with it. That’s cruel and insensitive.
The recipe below for Good Apple Pie doesn’t have cinnamon. It’s based on one from Edna Lewis’s excellent cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. Like me, she prefers nutmeg in her apple pie. You can make this pie with almost any kind of apples (perhaps even bad ones; I have never tried) and it will taste better thanks to the missing cinnamon. And don’t skip the nutmeg sauce because it’s easy and delicious
If you want to turn your own favorite recipe into Good Apple Pie, simply replace the cinnamon with an equal or lesser amount of nutmeg, which will enhance and respect the flavor of your good apples instead of shoving them to the ground, cuffing them, and hauling them off to spoil, in a bunch, in jail, where they might turn into bad apples.
Good Apple Pie or Deep-Dish Apple Pie with Nutmeg Sauce
Note: Edna makes this in an 8 x 8 x 2” glass Pyrex baking dish, but you can also bake it in a round glass pie dish. Just make sure it’s at least 2” deep. Her recipe for the crust uses lard because she was old-school and knew how incredibly tender and tasty crusts made with lard are. But since most cooks don’t make their crusts with lard anymore, I have substituted a reliable pasty recipe of my own for hers.
First, make the pie crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 tablespoons (more or less) ice water
Blend flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Using on/off turns, blend in enough ice water by tablespoonfuls to form moist clumps. Gather dough together and divide into 2 pieces. Flatten them into disks; wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour. (If you don’t own a food processor, just put the flour, sugar salt in a bowl, stir them together for a bit, then dump the butter chunks into the bowl and using your hands, rub the butter and flour together until the mixture looks like coarse meal, add the water and stir the dough together until it forms moist clumps, slap it into two equal pieces and roll it out. Whenever I make pie crust with my hands, I think of my favorite Julia Child remark about nouvelle cuisine: “It’s so beautifully arranged…you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”)
Next, prepare the apples and bake the pie
7 large apples (about 3 pounds) of any tart apple of good flavor
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2/3 cup sugar
5 pats of chilled butter
Preheat oven to 425°. Remove the chilled pastry discs from the refrigerator and let them loosen up a bit, about 15 minutes, before you begin rolling it. Roll one into a 10” square or circle, depending on the dish you will be baking it in. Place it gently into the baking dish shaping it to fit in the bottom and up the sides. Roll out the top crust, transfer it to a large plate or cookie sheet, and put it in the refrigerator.
Mix the nutmeg and sugar together in a small bowl. Peel and core the apples, cutting them into quarters and then slice each quarter into 3 or four slices. Place half of the sliced apples on top of the crust in the baking dish, sprinkle them with half of the nutmeg and sugar mixture, then add the rest of the apples. Mound them up slightly higher in the middle so the pie will have a nice rounded top. Take the butter pats out of the refrigerator, cut them into smaller pieces and distribute them evenly over the apples. Sprinkle the rest of the nutmeg/sugar mixture over the top.
Take the top crust out of the refrigerator and place it on top of the apples. If it’s a little cold and stiff, give it few minutes to relax down over the apples. Crimp the edges of the top crust over the bottom one, like your mother taught you. If she didn’t, go watch a Martha Stewart video online and she will show you how to do it in a really fussy way. But that’s not how Edna rolls.
Trim off any excess dough from the edges of the pan and eat it, raw. With a sharp knife, cut a few slashes in the top of the crust—any pattern you like or perhaps the initials of your secret love—but don’t get carried away. You’re just trying to vent off some steam while the pie is baking.
Place the pie in the middle rack of the oven for about 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400° and bake it for another 40 minutes. Let it cool for a half hour and serve it plain or with the nutmeg sauce.
While the pie is baking, make the nutmeg sauce
2/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsps cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 cup boiling water
1 3-inch strip of orange peel, dried or fresh
3 tablespoons brandy
Place the sugar, nutmeg, cornstarch and salt in a 1-quart saucepan, stir well, and pour the cup of boiling water over them slowly, stirring as you pour. Add the orange peel, put the pan over a burner on medium and bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat a bit and allow it to simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the orange peel and set the sauce aside in the pan until just before you are ready to serve it with the pie. Then put the pan on the burner again, reheat it, but don’t let it boil. Stir in the brandy and pour some of the sauce over each slice of pie.