Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leaf Lard + Stayman Winesaps = Iconic Apple Pie


Trendsetter that I have always been, my beloved fat of choice for fruit pies is, at long last, making a comeback. It had gotten to the point where it was near-impossible to find even the commercial (hydrogenated) lard, and recipes that once called for lard—Mexican dishes and many old-fashioned baked goods—had been rewritten to call for Crisco or oil: for shame! But now, lard, like butter, is enjoying a resurgence as a natural food. People are actually making lard again! I have not yet found a local source—I am confident, or at least hopeful, that there is one—but carefully rendered pure leaf lard is increasingly available by mail order.   Thank you, sane and dedicated pig farmers.

Leaf lard is the exceptionally white and pure visceral fat from around the kidneys of the pig. A few words about lard, and leaf lard in particular, will, I hope, do its bit to help restore lard to its rightful place in cooking and baking. Lard was, of course, the most common fat in America before the development of stable oils, widely available commercial butter, and (don’t get me started) margarine. It was used just as one would use butter, not merely for baking or cooking but also to spread on bread (think lardo as served now as a special item in some Italian restaurants).  But lard’s decline in demand was not simply a matter of new, improved products replacing the old; its disappearance had as much to do with smear (no pun intended) campaigns as anything else.

This was ironic, given lard’s properties and characteristics versus many oils, butter, and margarine. For example, pure rendered lard has zero (that’s 0) transfats; it has a much higher percentage of “good” fat (monounsatured), and lower percent of saturated fat (the “bad”) than butter and the trendy coconut oil. It yields a flaky, rich pastry that has particular affinity, in my opinion, for pome and most drupe fruits, poultry and meats (as in empanadas or meat pies), and most berries. It is excellent for frying chicken and potatoes, and as a fat in old-fashioned cakes, cookies and breads, from biscuits and rolls to those containing fruits and nuts.  It adds depth without flavor; no, it doesn't taste like pig. And last but not least, lard, as an agricultural by-product of pigs that can be raised and produced locally, is sustainable and reflects a minimal-waste philosophy.

In time for the holiday baking, I had recently ordered my leaf lard (and some interesting smoked lard that makes very nice roasted potatoes) from FannieandFlo, when I spotted some Stayman Winessaps among the many apple varieties at the store. They were a local offering, unadorned by stickers or shine, priced 20 cents below any other variety. While everyone else grabbed their new-fangled Galas, I grabbed those. Along with Gravensteins and a few other old varieties, the Stayman Winesap is a fine baking apple.  With lard and good local apples in hand, there was only one thing to do: make a pie.

Classic Apple Pie with Lard Crust

You can make a butter and lard crust like this one, or, as I did for this pie, an all-lard crust.  Don’t put a lot of spices in your pie (especially clove or allspice); cinnamon, perhaps a touch of nutmeg if you  must, is all an apple pie needs.

Pastry for a double-crust 9” pie

2 ¼ c a-p flour
2/3 cup cold leaf lard
1 tea salt
6 T ice water

8 large apples (Cortlands, Macouns, or other crisp and tart-sweet baking apple can be used)
scant cup of sugar
cinnamon to taste
3 T a-p flour
pinch salt
1 T lemon juice
2 T unsalted butter

Make your crust in the usual way, by cutting the fat lightly into the flour and salt, then bringing it together with the cold water. Divide and chill, wrapped in plastic or wax paper. I prefer to make my pastry a day or more ahead (freeze it if you don’t plan to use it for a few days, then thaw in the refrigerator.

While the pastry is chilling, put the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt into a a large bowl. Peel, core, and slice your apples about 1/4” thick, tossing them into the sugar mixture as you go. Add the lemon juice and toss. Always taste the juices before you fill your pie, adding additional cinnamon or a speck of salt if needed; you don’t want your pie to be over-spiced, but you don’t want it bland either.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Roll out and fit the bottom crust into the pie plate; fill with the apples and pour in the juices. Dot the apples with the butter. Roll out the top crust and fit it over the apples. Trim the pastry as needed; turn it under to sit on the rim, and crimp. With a fork or small skewer, poke some holes into the crust to vent steam. If you have time, refrigerate the filled pie for 10 or 15 minutes.

Bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 45-60 minutes, or until it is golden, fragrant, and the juices begin to bubble through the vent holes. You can use a tiny bamboo skewer inserted into one of the vent holes to check that apples are cooked if you are not sure. Remove the pie and let cool completely before serving.

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