Growing up in the Carolina foothills, under the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, a surer sign of autumn than the changing leaves was the arrival of crisp mountain apples. By the first cold snap of October, the unheated front room of my grandmother’s house was fragrant with boxes of carefully wrapped apples for keeping through the winter. One of the best aromas of the season, however, was in the kitchen—the heady perfume of the first apple pie baking in the oven. There’s a conjurer’s magic in that, and it only takes one whiff of it to know why that pie became the ultimate symbol of the American hearth and home. Those mingled aromas of toasting pastry, warming spice and apples slowly bubbling their way to perfection is just plain irresistible.
Ironically, the pie that everything else is “as American as” isn’t really American. Both pastry and cultivated apples were imported from Europe by the early colonists, but we’ve made it our own. From Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery of 1795, believed to be the first American cookbook, right through to the inimitable Julia Child, our cookbooks have reflected our love affair with apple-stuffed pies and tarts.
Nowadays apples are mostly associated with the Carolina hills and Washington State, but in the early days, Americans cultivated them wherever the climate was cool enough for them to flourish. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson grew several dozen varieties at Monticello, and even sent home for Newton Pippin apples and twig grafts for his Paris garden while he was Ambassador to France, claiming that the French had nothing to compare to them. Jefferson’s experimental gardening was admittedly unusual for his day, but his passion for apples wasn’t. Most farms grew several varieties—some early bearing and others late, some for cooking, others for drying. The lion’s share, however, were reserved for cider which, until the early twentieth century, was one of our most popular beverages.
Before World War I, thousands of apple varieties were grown in America, but as cider’s popularity waned in favor of other beverages, many of those varieties vanished. Today, despite the renewed interest in heirloom fruit, we may only find half a dozen varieties in our markets. Unlike cider, apple pies have never gone out of style. We may be tempted to stray by some sophisticated chocolate creation, but whether it’s a homey turnover rolled in cinnamon sugar, a thickly-stuffed double-crusted pie, or fancy tart for company, served with or without ice cream or a slab of cheddar melting over it, we always come home.
Gingered Apple Shortbread Tart
Shortbread crusts are a blessing for anyone new to pastry since it’s completely artless and sinfully easy.
10 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons extra-fine white cornmeal
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ pound (1 cup or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into bits
4 large or 6 small to medium tart apples such as Arkansas Black, Braeburn, Fuji, Rome, Winesap, or Granny Smith
4-6 tablespoons turbinado (“raw”) sugar
¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger
¼ cup bourbon
Whole nutmeg in a grater
Buttered Pecan, vanilla, or dulce di leche ice cream (optional)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.
Whisk together the flour, meal, sugar and salt. Add the butter and work it into a smooth dough. This can be done in a food processor fitted with a steel blade.
Put in the flour, sugar, and salt and pulse to sift. Add the butter and process until it resembles coarse meal.
Turn out and finish blending by hand. Press evenly into the bottom and up the sides of a 12-inch round removable-bottom tart pan. Prick with a fork and bake 10 minutes.
Cut the zest from both lemons in fine strips with a zester or remove with a vegetable peeler and cut with a knife. Halve the lemons and juice them through a strainer into a glass or stainless steel bowl. Peel, core, and cut the apples into thin, straight slices, add them to the juice and tossing to prevent discoloring.
Sprinkle the crust with an even coating of raw sugar, then arrange the sliced apples over it in a single layer of overlapping concentric rings. Scatter the ginger among the apples as you go. Sprinkle lightly with more raw sugar, lemon zest, and bourbon. Generously grate nutmeg over it.
Bake in the center of the oven until golden and the apples are tender, about 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before removing the rim. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a scoop of ice cream on the side if liked.