It’s the feel of the dough that’s most important.
When the milk and oil and flour and that pinch of salt are all mixed together and I scoop my hands into the bowl to knead the final moisture into the dough, I know immediately if it will roll out or not.
If it breaks at all as I turn it in my hands, the ball falls heavy into the compost, and I go back to the bag of flour with my fork to fluff it up and begin measuring each ingredient again.
If it’s smooth and shiny and flexible against my pull, I lay it down on wax paper with another sheet on top, and begin to roll.
My Nana’s pie crust isn’t finicky per se. It just demands full attention.
It’s stubborn in the way that she was, unafraid to blankly tell you when you’re wrong. And in her way, too, it softens with approval when it stretches beneath the rolling pin and gives a little nod as it lays into the pie plate.
I pull her recipe out a few times a year: for rhubarb custard pie in the spring, for apple pie after picking in the fall, and for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Years ago, when I began celebrating Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, I carried Nana’s apple pie with me. More than her mashed potatoes with sausage, more than her pork and beef stuffing, more than anything else from my childhood celebrations, Nana’s apple pie holds the heritage of taste and tradition for me.
Made with granny smiths and one or two macs, the tartness of the apples keeps it from being overly sweet, while the milk-brushed crust laces a toasted, almost nutty flavor through each bite.
I’ve encountered many people from pie-baking families who claim their grandmother’s is the best, but whether it’s because of the countless memories this pie holds for me, or because it truly is the best, Nana’s recipe has ruined me for all other apple pies.
As I assembled the ingredients one Thanksgiving, my niece, Aiyla, asked if she could help.
I showed her how to fluff the flour and gently fill the measuring cup. Remembering the lure of the rolling pin, I handed it to her and watched as the crust grew wider. Together, we chopped the apples and piled them into the plate, then sprinkled the spiced sugar and flour over them and topped the whole thing with slices of butter before laying on the top crust.
“North, East, South, West,” my niece Noor said as she looked at the pie.
“Oh yeah, it looks like directions,” said my sister-in-law.
Confused, I looked and saw it, too: the “N” that I slit in the crust, plus the four slits along the perimeter, made the pie look like a compass. I remembered the first pie my dad made after Nana died, and how he replaced the “A” with “N” and we all ate it feeling her absence and presence at once.
Now I see how Nana’s apple pie has become somewhat of a compass for me.
I’ve made this crust in the midst of many journeys: in Northern Ireland, North Country New York, New Zealand, Alaska, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont. Each time I make an apple pie I think of her. I see her confident wrinkled hands and her silver hair twisted up in a bun and her blue eyes watching so closely. I see the quiet praise as she slowly ate each bite, and I realize the lesson she taught in every meal: what we feed each other matters.
It could be apple pie or mashed potatoes—whatever it is we bake and cook for each other, it deserves our full attention. That’s the difference between a successful crust and a broken one: how much of ourselves we bring to the table.
Nana Spring’s Apple Pie Recipe
CRUST: Makes 1 top or bottom for a 10″ pie
- 1 1/2 C flour (Note:1 1/2 C flour = 200 grams. Nana always did this by feel, but after too many failed crusts, my dad went to her house and said, “Make a crust. I’m watching how you do it.” The key was fluffing the flour with a fork, and lightly filling the measuring cups, which yields less flour than a packed cup. After much trial and error, my dad got scientific and weighed out the correct amount).
- 6 TBS oil
- 1/4 C milk
- Pinch salt
- 6-8 apples ( Granny Smiths with 1-2 Macs)
- 3/4 C Sugar
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 2 Tbsp flour
- Peel and cut apples in 1″ chunks and put into crust
- Mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour over apples
- Place 4-5 pats butter on top of apples
- Put on top crust, pinch the sides together
- Lightly brush crust with milk, then sprinkle with sugar.
- Bake at 435° for 15 minutes, then turn down to 350° for 50-60 minutes.