In high school I met and played doubles tennis with a girl who became one of my best friends of all time. I distinctly remember the first time she invited me over to her house for a family dinner. (We didn’t often have family dinner at my house by the time I had reached high school and when we did, it was either missing one or two of our family members or the TV was on during dinner.)
When Donna and I appeared for her family dinner, the dining room table was elaborately set complete with a pewter water pitcher and (what I thought of as) chalices for drinking water. We prayed, (God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food – over the years that is still the only part of the prayer I can remember), and then we had salad, the main course and side dishes and then everyone cleared the dishes so that we could eat dessert. There was always dessert.
Throughout the dinner we talked with Donna’s sister and her parents. There was no TV as a distraction. There was no dining and dashing. Everyone took their time eating. There was just conversation, laughing and food. Family dinner at Donna’s house became my refuge over the years.
Whenever Donna and I happened to be home from college on the same weekend or during breaks, Donna invited me to her family dinners. And I gladly accepted the invitations. Donna moved away from Wisconsin in 2005 after graduating from graduate school. But when she returned home from Virginia, there were always family dinners. And I was always invited.
The more I hung around with Donna’s family, the more unique I realized they were. Not unlike the Waltons, it seemed, when my family felt more like the divorced-version of the Griswolds. (Don’t get me wrong – I did not have it bad growing up. I had it great, in fact. I just didn’t have what Donna had.) After family dinners, Donna’s dad would bust out his guitar (with little coaxing from us) and pluck-away at his favorite tunes while the rest of us either listened or sang along. He took requests and always obliged my repeated requests for Southern Cross, by Crosby, Stills and Nash. If I remember correctly, he and I were the only ones singing when he would play that song. But neither of us minded nor cared.
In 2006 after watching the movie Waitress (starring Keri Russell) I began baking pies. Like art, I found that baking pies could be therapeutic. I experimented on my family and Donna’s family whenever they would let me.
In August 2008 Donna moved back home to be closer to her family and took a job as a guidance counselor at our old high school. Family dinners resumed. Then in October 2008 I moved to California. But still, whenever I came home for a visit, I snuck in at least one family dinner with Donna’s family if at all possible.
Donna’s dad, Bud, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2010. During one of my visits home after Bud’s diagnosis in September 2010 I was either invited to or invited myself to (this was not uncommon for me to do so and Donna’s family didn’t seem to mind when I did it) family dinner and I said I would bring pie. I asked Bud what kind of pie he favored, and he replied, apple pie.
Holy tricky pie if ever there is one. I was nervous but determined to make a darn good pie. I ended up making an apple pie with a crumble topping – it seemed more fool-proof. It turned out really well. I also brought some sort of lemon pie, if I remember correctly, which also turned out well.
After two and a half years enduring the ups and downs pancreatic cancer brought him as well as a hell of a fight on Bud’s part (we were all ecstatic when he was cancer-free last winter), Bud passed away on September 20. I flew home to attend the funeral service and to be with my Donna’s family (which after so many years and so many family dinners feels like my family).
While hanging out with Donna’s family after the viewing on Monday night, Donna invited me for family dinner. We settled on Thursday night. I told her I would bring dessert – pie obviously. When I asked Donna’s mom, Benny, what kind of pie, I should bring, she didn’t hesitate to reply, apple pie.
As I was baking this pie, I prayed to Bud. Please, Bud. Watch over me as I make this pie. Let this pie not turn out like applesauce pie (which happened the last time I made an apple pie). It was really important for me to appear with a knock-out apple pie at Donna’s family’s dinner that night. Now more so than ever it seemed.
Donna’s sister, Megan, gave me apples she picked from the Elegant Farmer to use in the pie (thank you, Megan!) as well as two Williams-Sonoma cookbooks to browse on my quest to get this pie right. I borrowed and stole from the Williams-Sonoma cookbooks, Martha Stewart and some of my own baking knowledge to get the below recipe that I hoped was fit for a king. In other words, a pie Bud would be proud of. And you know what? He would have said I did real good.
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- Basic Pie Dough for a Flakey Pie Crust
- 5 1/2 lbs. firm tart apples (about 14), such as Empire or Granny Smith
- Juice of 2 lemons (optional)
- 1 c. sugar, plus more for sprinkling
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 3 T. chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- half and half
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Peel and core apples, and cut into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch thick slices. Place slices in a large bowl; sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. (You can skip this step if you work fast enough. I found I didn’t need to do this.) In a small bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg; toss with apple slices.
- Place apple mixture into prepared pie plate, mounding it in a tall pile. Dot filling with butter. Place your second rolled out disc of dough over the apples. Tuck edge of top dough between edge of bottom dough and rim of pan. Using your fingers, gently press both layers of dough along the edge to seal, and crimp as desired.
- Brush surface of the pie with half and half then sprinkle with sugar. Using a paring knife, cut several vents in top of dough to allow steam to escape. Place on a baking sheet, this will catch any juices that may overflow during baking. Bake until crust is golden, about 15 minutes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking until crust is golden brown and juices are bubbling, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven, and let cool completely before serving.
I wasn’t sure what kind of apples I was dealing with when I was peeling and slicing the apples. But I knew that some were more firm than others. The firm ones I cut to 1/4-inch thickness while the softer ones I cut to 1/2-inch thickness (assuming they would cook faster). This technique seemed to work well. I did think there were a few apple slices I bit into that were probably more firm than you’d desire – but I didn’t mind these slices at all. Probably because I don’t like mushy cooked apples.
Since the last pie I attempted was a complete flop, I decided to cook the pie to the minimum amount of time suggested. (Last time I didn’t feel the pie was bubbling so I continued to cook it for the maximum amount of time suggested and the insides turned out like mush. My poor dad had to pretend like he liked the pie.) Cooking the pie to the minimum amount suggested turned out to be the right choice. Again, there were some apple slices that were firmer than others, but I didn’t mind those one bit.
The only real downfall of this pie was the fact that the apples sank leaving a gap of air between the top of the apples and top crust, which became apparent when you cut into it. I have yet to figure out what to do to combat this problem but I eventually will. Someday.
I chose this mile-high pie because I was hoping it would be an impressive sight – and because I was estimating there would be 14 people at dinner. I figured the more apples in the pie the more I could stretch the pie to fit 14 people. I was right – the pie got lots of oohs and aahs when it was presented. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pie as big is this one. It doesn’t sound like anyone else had either.
We had plenty of pie for all the pie-eating folk around the dinner table (also because I brought a Caramel Custard Pie along as well). Benny’s sister-in-Law by title (but sister by heart) Mary Ellen declared the pie better than an Elegant Farmer apple pie. If you’re from the Milwaukee-area, you know this is a true compliment. If you’re not from the Milwaukee-area, I feel like I should advise you that the Elegant Farmer (who boasts on their website that they are home of the best apple pies) beat Bobby Flay in a pie making challenge. (Which basically means my pie is better than Bobby Flay’s, right?) This pie will not steer you wrong if you’re looking for an impressive, go-to pie.
This recipe and blog are dedicated to the loving memory of Bud (6.11.47 to 9.20.12), who would have loved digging into this pie. Apple pie was his favorite. Bud was a loving husband, father, brother, uncle, boss, friend and mentor. Bud, you have touched the lives of so many. Thank you for sharing your life, love, family, laughter and generosity with us for as long as you did. You will never be forgotten. Especially around the dinner table.Spirits are using me/larger voices callin’/what heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten. -Crosby, Stills and Nash