Apple pie may not be the most logical thing to make while in Italy, but I found myself with a craving for it as soon as a chill came into the air, and the first rosy apples appeared in the market. My host mother, however, insisted that I not turn the oven on as long as it was still slightly warm outside, so I patiently waited until temperatures began to dip into the 40's at night to ask her permission to bake. Finally, last weekend, as I was sitting in my room upstairs, wrapped in a blanket with my hot-water bottle on my lap, I decided it was time.
First, I had to find a pan. As much as I wanted to make apple pie, I knew it would be difficult to find the appropriate pan in Italy, since Italians really don't make pie. (Pie is not particularly pretty, and as I have discovered, Italian desserts are infinitely more elegant in appearance than American ones.) My host family offered their pans, but they were mostly too large or too deep for a pie. Worried, I began to consider other options - an apple crisp, perhaps? Apple cake? Apple tart? Apple galette? Skip the apples and make something else?
However, I decided I might be able to buy a fitting disposable aluminum pan, so I set off on an expedition to the Esselunga supermarket near my house. After wandering the aisles for what seemed like half and hour, I was bewildered, quite ready to give up, and, frankly, looked like a crazy person. At that moment, I caught sight of the aluminum pans, tucked away on top of the meat refrigerator case, and retrieved a set of three 8 or 9-inch pie-esque pans. They would have to do.
Next came the recipe. My sometimes-employer back in New York, food writer Melissa Clark, had sent me her recipe for the perfect all-butter pie crust. I was excited to use it until I realized I would have to double the proportions in order to make a double-crusted pie. As delicious as it sounded, I didn't want to make my host family pay for all that butter, so I opted for a slightly less rich crust, ultimately melding Melissa's recipe with one I found on Epicurious. The recipe for the filling was essentially improvised.
Then came the time to convert my mish-mash of a recipe into metric units. This was not a difficult task, although, as I knew from one summer of converting an entire cookbook for Melissa, it can be tedious. Using this website (http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/gram_calc.htm), I calculated how much flour, butter, sugar, etc. I would need by using the chart of common baking ingredients toward the bottom of the page. (A simple unit conversion calculator does not work when baking, since a cup of butter and a cup of flour have very different weights.)
Finally, I had to write the list of ingredients in Italian so that my host mother could go to the supermarket to purchase them.
This is how it turned out:
280 g burro, senza sale
315 g farina
100 g zucchero bianco e 50 g zucchero di canna (o solamente 150 g zucchero bianco)
1 cucchiaio cannela
un'po del sale
1 chilo delle mele verdi (7 o 8 mele)
Pretty straightforward, right?
After all those obstacles, everything else came together quite nicely. I laid out all my ingredients (except for the apples, which were outside) on the kitchen table, and my host mother came to sit and watch.
She had just made a typically beautiful apple dessert that morning - it was composed of a golden crust topped with pastry cream and rings of thinly sliced apples, all of which were then baked. She found the amount of butter in the pie crust somewhat appalling, and the whole concept of a dessert made of basically plain fruit plus sugarless dough seemed to perplex her a bit. "È strano" ("it's strange"), she said. We did share some good laughs, however, when my roommate and I made a mess while cutting the cold butter into the flour and struggled to peel the apples with serrated dinner knives (she helped us a bit with this part).
The crust didn't hold together terribly well, so the pie was pretty much the epitome of a crude American dessert. The Italians, however, would call it brutto ma buono ("ugly but good", which happens to be the name of a classic Tuscan cookie).
Freshly baked pie (before)...
Clearly it was molto buono, because we nearly decimated it minutes after I took the photo above.
My host parents even gobbled up the tiny apple "tart" I made with the leftover crust and apples. They insisted, however, that my roommate and I take the leftover pie to our room and eat it for breakfast (which we very willingly did). Somehow, despite all the olive oil they consume every day, my host family was still too scared by the butter in the crust to consider eating pie two days in a row. For those who would like to try it, though, here's the recipe:
Very Basic Apple Pie
295 grams all-purpose flour
250 grams unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 to 8 tablespoons ice water
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (you may need more or less depending on the tartness of your apples)
6 to 8 medium apples (a combo of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious or any crisp baking apples, such as Macouns), peeled, cored, and sliced (toss the prepared apples with the lemon juice in a large bowl to prevent them from browning)
75 grams granulated sugar (you may also need to modulate the amount of sugar depending on the tartness of your apples)
50 to 75 grams Demerara sugar (or light brown sugar)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or to taste)
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
Pinch of salt
Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl, then work in butter with a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingertips until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Sprinkle with ice water, starting with the minimum amount, and mix lightly with a fork or your hands until the mixture just becomes together. Add more ice water if needed, but be careful not to over-mix, or the dough will be tough.
Divide the dough into two parts, and wrap each one in plastic wrap, flattening into a disk as you go. Ideally, you should chill the dough for 30 minutes. If you don't have time, proceed to roll out the dough now, although it will be a bit difficult to work with and will result in a tougher crust.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toss the apples with the sugars, cinnamon, flour, and salt in a large bowl and let sit. If you haven't already done so, roll out one piece of the dough on a lightly floured work surface, then drape it over the rolling pin and transfer it to a pie pan. Leave a generous inch or two of overhang and gently press the dough into the pan. Pour the apples into the crust, then roll out the second piece of dough and lay it on top of the apples. Cut off the excess dough (use this to make a mini-apple tart or cinnamon roll), crimp the edges, and cut a few slashes in the top crust.
Place the pie on a cookie sheet to catch any juices and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. Allow the pie to cool for at least 10 minutes before eating, although it's best enjoyed while still somewhat warm.