I had dinner with my friend Margaret and her husband, Howard, the other night--fried chicken at Farmshop since I know you want to know. And the chicken was good--so good, in fact, that I didn't do what I normally do with fried chicken, which is eat the fried and leave the chicken. Dessert, however, a summer berry pudding, which is stale white bread drenched in macerated berries, was just okay: the bread wasn't drenched enough, so you actually knew you were eating bread and let's face it, nobody really wants to know they're eating bread for dessert; plus, the berries weren't strained so it was just Seed City.
"Did you like the dessert?" I asked Howard.
"It was fine," he said. He's nicer than I am, at least when it comes to pudding. "But it's not really my thing."
"So what's your thing?" I asked. "Apple pie?" I pride myself on being a little bit psychic or intuitive, or maybe just a good guesser, so I was proud when Howard said, "Yes. That's exactly right." And then he said something that is sure to keep me busy for the next several weeks, and that is: "I can't find a good apple pie in Los Angeles."
I worked a summer in the Hamptons as the pie baker at what may be the most expensive food store on the planet, Loaves & Fishes. I went in never having made a crust in my life ("We'll teach you," they said, with almost palpable desperation four days before the start of the summer season), and by the end of the summer, I got to where I could put out 60 pies a day, with the crusts made in small batches, and two hours to spare. I also worked selling fruit from what is probably the premier apple farmer selling at the Union Square Greenmarket, Locust Grove Fruit Farms. In addition to a whole bunch of wonderful summer fruits, we sold 26 types of antique apples, and were the only farm then that sold quince, a fuzzy, aromatic fruit that some scholars believe was the variety that fell from the tree of knowledge, the original forbidden fruit. I earned seven dollars and hour, paid in cash, plus fruit, paid in fruit, so I took advantage of these unforbidden fruits to try to get me up around nine dollars an hour. In the fall, when berries and stone fruit were no more, I made apple bread, apple spice cake, apple sauce, baked apples, apple crisp, and of course, apple pie. I became, for a few seasons, such a guru of the apple (okay, so maybe I exaggerate) that customers would come on Saturdays to ask me what type to buy for what they were making, and other times they would bring in the fruits of their fruit labors for me to try. So when Howard made that comment about the apple pie, of course I took it as a challenge. "I'm going to make you an apple pie that will make you happy," I said.
"Many people have walked before you," Margaret warned me. "I think Nancy even walked before you," she added, referring to Nancy Silverton whose baked goods do have their fans.
I've started my research. I emailed my friend Bob Blumer who won third place in a Vermont apple pie baking contest a couple years back for his TV show, Glutton for Punishment. (He gave me his recipe, which includes bacon fat in the pie crust!) I asked Nancy what she does to elevate this humble American dessert: apple cider vinegar jelly and creme fraîche stirred into the apples. Both of which deviations beg the questions: Are we getting too fancy here? Have we lost our way?
Margaret tells me there are things Howard likes about the Costco apple pie, which I am willing to wager, without ever having seen or tasted one, contains neither apple cider vinegar jelly nor bacon fat. Margaret says I also need to try the slice they serve at Pasquale's, the famous shoe repair place on San Vicente. A baking challenge that includes bacon fat, takes me to a shoe repair shop that specializes in Christian Louboutins, and that could also involve a road trip to the apple growing orchards of Tehachapi? This is why I do what I do—because as much as I'd like to be able to tell you otherwise, it certainly isn't for the thousand dollar shoes.