250 Treasured Country Desserts by Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff

Absolutely Basic, Absolutely Perfect, All-American Pie

I saw some strawberries in the supermarket yesterday.  Strawberries in January!  I didn’t stop to look at the labels to see where they came from: not near Vermont, that’s for sure.  

Okay, I will admit to the occasional Valentine’s Day splurge for strawberries from Texas or California. But early January? Who needs them?

What we need—all we need—when the sweet tooth beckons is apple: apple eaten out of the hand, in a cake, in a tart, and most certainly in an apple pie. There is nothing more satisfying than apple pie, whether it is served hot from the oven with coffee in the gloom of a wintry afternoon, reheated gently and topped with ice cream for an indulgent dessert, or eaten without apology for breakfast.

What we need is apple pie.

Early New Englanders ate apple pie daily and by the 1830s, apple orchards were considered as standard a feature on the average farm as a flock of chickens.  New Englanders consumed prodigious amounts of apples in the form of apple cider and apple jack.  Fresh, unpasteurized apple cider naturally ferments into hard apple cider; if allowed to freeze, the water separates from the cider, resulting in a more concentrated, alcoholic drink, or applejack.

I digress.  Apples are almost always available: fresh and local.  Over 1000 varieties of apples have been developed in the US, though only about 250 varieties can be found in commercial heirloom orchards these days.  Before refrigeration was developed, before railroads and roads crisscrossed the US, before supermarkets eliminated regional favorites in favor of uniform, ship-anywhere varieties, New Englanders planted varieties of apples that produced apples from late summer through late fall, with the late fall varieties good for keeping in root cellars and springhouses—some, like the Northern Spy, especially good for pies.

I make pie whenever the apples I have bought seem to be languishing in the refrigerator.  McIntosh, Gala, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Northern Spy, Maiden’s Blush. Cortland, Granny Smith, Honeygold, Pink Lady, Rome.  It is all good in a pie.   

The first slice always falls apart.

The pie disappears all too quickly.

Apple Pie
Serves 8

Use 4 pounds of apples so you can mound the apples generously in the pan.  This recipe makes an absolutely basic, absolutely perfect, all-American pie. 

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie, homemade or store-bought

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3½ to 4 pounds tart, crisp apples, peeled, cored, sliced ¼-inch thick (8 cups)

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

1 teaspoon milk

Cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream, to serve

1. If you are making your own pastry, prepare the pie dough and refrigerate. 

2. In a large bowl, combine ¾ cup of the sugar, the flour, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Add the apples; sprinkle with the lemon zest and lemon juice. Toss together to mix thoroughly. If the apples are too tart, add a little extra sugar.

3. Preheat the oven to 425°F with a rack in the lower third of the oven.

4. To prepare the pie shell, lightly flour a work surface. Roll out the larger portion of the chilled dough to a thickness of about 1/8-inch. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate, leaving a 1-inch overhang. (Fit purchased pastry into the pie pan.) Spoon the apple mixture into the pastry, mounding it higher in the center. Dot with butter. Roll out the remaining dough into a circle about 1 inch larger than the pie plate. Moisten the edge of the bottom crust with water. Fold the dough circle in half, lift off the work surface, place the pastry across the center of the filled pie, and unfold. Trim the edge ½ inch larger than the pie plate and tuck the overhang under the edge of the bottom crust. Crimp the edges with a fork or make a fluted pattern with your fingers. Make several decorative slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any juices that overflow.

5. Bake the pie in the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to bake for 30 minutes. Brush the top of the pie with the milk and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, until the crust is golden and the juices are bubbly.

6. Cool the pie on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature with slices of Cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream.

Recipe adapted from 250 Trasured Country Desserts by Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff.  ©2009 Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff.  All rights reserved. 

Use It Up Season

Maple-Pear Tea Cake. Plate by Mar Harrison
Old accounts of life in Vermont—everywhere really—used to note that spring, before the new crops started to yield, was the “hunger season.”  Stores of food were mostly gone, with the exception, perhaps, of some limp root vegetables, sprouting potatoes, and rotting apples in the root cellar. 
These days, in North America at least, hunger is more likely to be a year-round consequence of an unequal economy and not diminished food stores.  Still, neither forest nor fields are offering up fresh local foods just yet.  For the thrifty homesteader and localvore, it is “use it up season,” time to make sure you have eaten all the fruits and vegetables, jams and pickles you have put by, to make room for this year’s harvests.
I have a tendency to save frozen berries for a “special treat.”  So they are one of the items that tends to linger in the freezer.  Not so with tray-frozen wild blueberries, which were eaten as a snack by the handful and gone before the first frost.  Canned pears is another item that tends to linger, perhaps because of my insistence on canning in “healthy” apple juice rather than a sweet sugar syrup.  Sprinkle it with sugar, I say, if that’s what you want!
This year’s maple syrup crop was meager at my house—only a couple of quarts.  But the yield from 2011 was so great that even though I gave away plenty as gifts, there is still more in the freezer.  So when it was time to bake a treat for the Ripton Community Coffeehouse concert this month, a Maple-Pear Tea Cake was the obvious choice.
Ingredients for Maple-Pear Tea Cake, including pears canned in apple juice
I'm no Marie Antoinette.  I know that cake has nothing to do with real, physical hunger.  But in this season, when we hunger for working in the garden and renewing our outdoor lives, a sweet treat is always welcome. 
Maple-Pear Tea Cake
Serves 8 to 12
The combination of maple syrup and pears is heavenly, and this cake proves it.  A pint of pears yields one loaf; a quart would yield a double batch.
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoons salt
2 large or 4 small pears, peeled (if fresh) and diced
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg, beaten 
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Butter a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan.
2.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add the pears, tossing them to coat with the flour.
3.  Beat together the maple syrup, brown sugar, melted butter, egg, sour cream, and vanilla.  Stir in the dry ingredients. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. 
4. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake has begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
5.  Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.  Invert onto a wire rack and finish cooling.  
A very moist slice. Plate by Mar Harrison
From 250 Treasured Country Dessert.  © 2009 Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff.  All Rights Reserved.


Pie for Breakfast




Say, did you hear the one about the definition of a Yankee? 

To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.

To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.

To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.

To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.

To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.

And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.


This aphorism is ascribed to E. B. White, though some credit the punch line to Robert Frost. I’m not sure who said it first, but I do know that by that definition, there are very few Yankees left.


Perhaps, for good reason.  The tradition of pie for breakfast is a farm tradition, where breakfast was served after the morning chores were done. "The man who enjoyed a slab of pie at seven-thirty had been up milking cows since four o'clock," wrote Louise Andrews Kent of Calais, who wrote cookbooks and articles for Vermont Life under the name of Mrs. Appleyard. "He had already done what most men would consider a day's work, and he would still be working 12 hours later."


And, if most men today aren’t up at 4:00 a.m. doing chores any more, most women aren’t getting up with their men at that time either, to stoke the cookstove, make the coffee, and get the breakfast ready for the family and any hired help.  Both the decline in the farm culture and the women’s movement has changed all that. 


Jan Albers in her wonderful book, Hands on the Land, writes about all the ways people have changed the landscape of Vermont. She tells the story of a farm wife in East Corinth who wrote, “I had an aunt that her husband didn’t think he’d had breakfast unless he had hot apple pie.  She was sick once and he came in from the barn one morning and the hired girl was bustling around trying to have a pie ready for breakfast.  And he told her she didn’t have to bother…that they could get along without it.  And my aunt, she was in bed, but she heard him say so.  So she said to herself, ‘Old man, if the hired girl doesn’t have to make pie, your wife doesn’t have to.’  So he didn’t get any more pie for breakfast.  He’d get it for dinner and supper but not for breakfast.”


Double-crusted fruit pies are the traditional breakfast pie, in part because they could be served hot fresh out of the oven, or reheated after sitting in a pie safe for the better part of a week. Pies were made assembly-line fashion in the farm kitchen and enough were made at a time to last the week.  According the American Pie Council, a Vermont housewife, itemizing her baking for the year 1877, counted her yearly total as 421 pies (plus 152 cakes and 2,140 doughnuts). 


Does anyone have pie for breakfast anymore?  According to a 2008 survey conducted by Crisco and the American Pie Council, 35 percent of Americans say they’ve had pies for breakfast. Ask around Vermont and just about everyone has had pie for breakfast one time or another; they just don’t make a regular habit of it any more.


It’s blueberry season right now and music festival season.  Dinners are scattered affairs; our schedules are fractured.  So when our son Sam arrived with 4½ pounds of tiny wild blueberries that he had foraged, pie for breakfast sounded ideal.  I needed a recipe that wouldn’t mask the delicate flavor of the wild berries, so I made the Fresh Blueberry Pie from 250 Treasured Country Desserts, which I wrote with Fran Raboff a few years ago.

The recipe calls for 3 cups of fresh berries lining the crust, with a glaze of 1 cup cooked berries.  The glaze seeps in between the fresh berries and holds it all together – just barely.  The flavor is pure fresh berries, slightly enhanced.  A dollop of whipped cream on top does no harm.


Here’s the recipe.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, or coffee break.  It’s a fine way to enjoy this season’s fresh blueberries.


Fresh Blueberry Pie

Serves 6

            The deep blue berries glisten under a glaze of blueberries.  The fresh flavor of the berries are undiminished in this delicious pie.  This recipe first appeared in 250 Treasured Country Desserts by Fran Raboff and Andrea Chesman (Storey Publishing) © Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff.  All rights reserved.


4 cups fresh blueberries

1 cup water

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Fully baked 9-inch pie shell

Whipped cream or ice cream, to serve


            1. Rinse and thoroughly drain the blueberries. Spread 3 cups of the berries on a towel to dry while you prepare the glaze.  Set aside 1 cup of the berries.

            2.  Combine 3/4 cup of the water and sugar in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the 1 cup blueberries, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

            3.  Dissolve the cornstarch in the remaining 1/4 cup water.  Add to the berry mixture and cook, stirring, until the mixture boils; the liquid will thicken and clear, becoming somewhat transparent.

            4. Spread the 3 cups of uncooked blueberries in the pie shell.  Spoon the thickened berry glaze mixture over the fruit. 

            5.  Chill until served. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.