As much as I enjoy learning how to survive in the throes of inconvenience by rising to a challenge, sometimes I just want things to be easy, and to stick to my comforts. In other words, there are limits to my tolerance, and although I’ve tried to model my life around concepts of adaptability, there are just some things I won’t give up. One of them is the ability to bake, and a while ago I decided that having a Chinese kitchen is no excuse for me not to. It is such an important part of my life as an amateur chef that for the first time in the history of this column, I’m going to offer a recipe that requires an oven. But don’t worry if you’re not settled enough here to own one. This dish is perfect for borrowing one, and if you keep reading, you’ll find out how to do just that.
One of the first things I learned about myself as an individual is that I can be a perfectionist. In general, I tend to procrastinate and be lazy, but when something piques my interest enough that I want to learn it well, perfectionism takes over. Perfectionism brings me immense joy as well as headaches in the kitchen, and learning to cook in China has both exacerbated the headaches and heightened the joys, especially when learning to do something that might have been much easier back home—like baking.
The area in which I’m most a perfectionist is cooking for guests, which for me means being impressive. As a cooking enthusiast, my expectations for what constitutes impressive climb ever higher the more I know about food. From my very first days learning to cook, I would look up fancy recipes that were possible with the kitchen supplies I had at my disposal, but I wouldn’t pay much attention to whether I actually knew how to do something new. The results were success by trial and error, gradual improvement through research, or sometimes just quitting in the face of defeat. For a long time, baking fell in the category of things I just could not figure out how to do well. But, as I started to grasp the fundamentals of food, the infinite number of ways to combine flour and water began to seem less daunting.
Once I moved to China, learning to survive in a Chinese kitchen shut out the possibility of improving my baking for a long time. It wasn’t until I had been here for two years that I finally realized how much I missed having an oven. I invested in a mid-sized one that cost somewhere around RMB 500, and since then my life hasn’t been the same. I feel like a queen in the kitchen now that I can bake my own cake and eat it, too. Some days I’m even tempted to credit my oven with the current happiness in life.
Of course, even if you have an oven, a major hindrance to making many baked dishes is the fact that some of the ingredients needed in just about any pastry or baked dish can be difficult to track down or expensive to keep in stock. Thus, finding a recipe that doesn’t require multiple complicated steps in an oven or a long list of imported ingredients is no small feat. That’s why I like this pie. Yet what I really love about it is the fact that it is so rare a treat in China that just about anyone I’ve seen eat it, goes nuts over it. It’s not hard to impress people with something they haven’t savored in ages.
If you’re an American or plan to attend an Independence Day celebration early this month, there aren’t many more culturally American desserts to bring to the party than apple pie. Or, perhaps you can make this mouth-watering treat for a summertime barbecue or a day at the beach; pie is great served cold, hot or at room temperature. In fact, I can’t think of an occasion when pie would not be welcomed, at any time of year. When I’m not sure what to buy a friend as a birthday present or thank you gift for helping me with something, pie always saves the day because of its rarity, and the time I’ve invested in making it, often provoke more gratitude than a typical gift.
If you don’t have an oven, find a friend who does. With this pie, you can do all of the preparation work at home and then sit and visit with a friend for an hour while it cooks. Or, bring it uncooked to a dinner party and let it bake while you break bread. If no one you know owns an oven, see if a local restaurant would be willing to let you use theirs for an hour during a slow time of day. Don’t let not owning one stop you if you want to impress yourself or someone else with a special treat.
Finally, here are a few baking tips. You can make the top layer with dough as directed below, or you can look up a crumble top and use that instead (using the other half of the dough for a second pie). If it’s your first time making pie, I suggest looking online for tutorials on rolling the crust and arranging lattice-style crust tops. Keep the dough cold as much as possible when preparing it and the filling. And last but not least, make sure you bake this juicy, savory pie on a foil-lined baking dish, especially if you’re using someone else’s oven, because the filling will seep out during baking and make a mess.
Home Made Apple Pie
Pie Crust Ingredients:
• 2.5 cups (315g) all-purpose flour
• 1 large spoonful (15g) sugar
• 1 small spoonful (5g) salt
• 1 cup (0.5lb/227kg) cold unsalted butter
• ½ cup or more cold water
• 3lb/1.4kg green apples, peeled and cut into 1cm slices
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 2 large spoonsful all-purpose flour
• 2 small spoonsful ground cinnamon
• 30mL melted unsalted butter
1. Make the crusts by combining the dry crust ingredients in a large bowl. Cut cold butter into very small cubes and add to flour mixture. Mash the flour into the butter until mixed thoroughly. Add ½ cup cold water and combine with hands or rubber spatula. Add more water if needed. Dough should be slightly sticky, the consistency of clay. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for half an hour.
2. To prepare crusts, cut dough ball in half and roll out or flatten each half. Line pie dish with one
half and trim off the edges. Crimpouter edge with a fork. Cut other half into strips.
3. In a separate bowl, combine filling ingredients. Pour into pie dish and spread evenly into a mound to fill out the dish. Cover with crossed or woven strips of dough and crimp outer edges to seal with the bottom layer.
4. Bake at 205°C/400°F for 40 minutes over foil-lined baking dish. Reduce heat to
175°C/350°F and bake another 45 minutes. Cool until warm and serve.
Serving size: Makes 8-10 servings.
Serve with: A dessert wine like Riesling.