Every Christmas my mom would bake eight pies: four apple and four pecan. Now, we wouldn’t eat all of those ourselves. Two would be given away to pie-less people and two would be placed in the deep freeze for some emergency of the future. Pies and money were similar in my mom’s mind. Save a fourth of everything in deep savings for some future need.
When baking these pies, she had a quite a memorable ritual she followed.
First she would prepare the dessert table in the dining room. She’d cover the corner table with her mother’s crocheted table cloth and light some red cinnamon-laced candles. She’d tell us every year, “See this table cloth? Took your grandmother a year to crochet it. She made the whole thing while watching Gunsmoke.”
Next she’d put on some Christmas music on the old phonograph. Usually Bing Crosby or Perry Como or Doris Day. Then she’d close off the kitchen and announce to any of us kids in there: “I’m going to bake now. You’re either a help or a hindrance. If you’re gonna, help, help. If not, get on outside.”
I’d generally stay because there were rewards to be had in testing and tasting. I served as quality control. At the age of 9, just sitting in the warm kitchen amidst the aromas of baking pies had no olfactory equal in childhood.
My mom always cooked kind of dressed up. She wore a collared, mid-shin length dress with a blue and white, checked apron over it. Made her look, to me, like a Butter Krust bread wrapper. She looked like Betty Crocker without the pearls and the low heels. She’d wear a comfortable pair of beige Keds, instead.
As I was partial to her apple pie, I’m gonna tell you, right quick, how to make it like she did. You should feel honored because this is a treasured family recipe, lovingly snipped from the pages of Good Housekeeping in 1912 by my grandmother.
First, you need to put some wassail on the stove to give the room the proper Christmas aroma for pie baking. Next you’re gonna need a formica table with a blue, broken-ice pattern and chrome trim. Cover half the table with wax paper, get out your flour and rolling pen and make some pie crusts. Go about it vigorously so there’s flour floating in the air. Line your pie dishes with the crust, snip off the excess, push in the crimps around the edges, and pop ‘em all in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you’re only baking one pie, you can stick the crust in at 400 degrees for five minutes.)
Now, if you’re like my mom, never one to waste time, while those are baking, you can grab a nine-year-old boy and rush out to the clothes line and bring in the laundry, fold it and put it away before the pie crust is ready.
Back to the pies: Cut, peel and core five Granny Smith apples, cut into slices. Yell for your husband to turn the record over so you can hear Dreaming of White Christmas, which is certainly a crazy thing to be dreaming about anywhere south of Austin. You’re more likely to get a Christmas tan.
In a big stainless steel bowl, mix the apple cubes, white and brown sugars, cinnamon and nutmeg all together. Nutmeg is the secret ingredient – it smells magical all mingled with the wassail warmed up on the stove. Now pour this mix into the pie shells and add a crumb topping that has lots of butter and sugar and cinnamon. You’re almost done with your Dutch apple pies.
Put them in the oven for 40 minutes at 400 degrees. When they’re done, set ’em up by there by the screened window to cool.
Now you can get started on the pecan pies, but that’s not my specialty so you’ll have to look up that recipe.
I’m just waiting for the apple pies. As soon as they cool, I’m gonna try a slice, with some Blue Bell vanilla ice cream of course. Life doesn’t get much better I’d say.
May your holidays be equally blessed.
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.