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Miss American Pie

How apple pie became our national dessert and how to make it right every time
Apple Pie
Photo: Stephen Gross

This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food and drink.

The saying "as American as apple pie" is a bit misleading, since pies came over from England (along with early colonists) in the 1600s. But, hey, we consider that "old" here in the New World (cue laughter from Romans, Mayans, Chinese, etc.), and apple trees were everywhere in the United States (thanks, Johnny Appleseed!). So in addition to making cider, everybody made apple pies.

Pie sage Kate McDermott, who has devoted her work to learning as much about pie as possible and sharing that knowledge through her website, Art of the Pie, and a series of workshops and Pie Camps, says that beyond the hundreds of varieties of apple trees all over the country, part of what made the dish so popular was its versatility. "Apple pie can take just about any kind of spicing or flavoring," she says, and works equally well whether swinging savory or sweet.

Apple pie has always been special to McDermott, who started Art of the Pie with a quest to make the best apple pie possible. She's now working on a book by the same name (2016, The Countryman Press) and says apple is one of the pies she practices most.

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"When I'm making apple pies, I'm thinking about my personal history, and it's deep; it's a rich history," McDermott says. Apple pie, she continues, is part of the American spirit, tied inextricably to the harvest season: "Pie signifies gathering family and friends together over something simple and humble," she says. "Pie can carry so many hopes, dreams, celebrations and memories."

Feeling particularly inspired? Here are a few of McDermott's tips for mastering the art of apple pie.

Variety Is the Spice of Pie: Make your pie filling with more than one type of apple. McDermott uses up to eight varieties of apples in a pie—some sweet, some tart, some that hold their shape, some that don't. "Make every bite an adventure!" she says.

Peels Are Perfect: McDermott sees no reason to bother with the extra work of peeling the apples. Most skins become soft during cooking and their tannins add flavor to the pie, while dark skins also add a rosy blush to the filling when baked.

Stop the Slump: When apples are baked, they can leave a gap between your filling and crust, a phenomenon McDermott calls the "Grand Canyon." It doesn't bother her, but if you prefer a slump-free slice, make the filling and precook it in a braising pan on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, or until a fork just starts to slide in easily. Let the filling cool completely, then place it on the bottom crust, attach the top and carry on.

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