While living in Italy, one must "do as the locals do" in a lot of ways. Embracing our surroundings was not only part of our goal while we were there, it was a matter of survival. If you didn't watch the people around you to see how they do things, you'll never figure out how it's done. Unless you're fortunate enough to have a friend nearby to tell you what you need to know. In that case, consider yourself very lucky. We had to sort of fake it till we made it, and even then, we were obviously the fish out of water. Learning another culture's customs and traditions is a unique opportunity, and it makes you think of the different traditions and practices that your own culture or region might have. Take for example, the coffee culture. In Italy, the people take their coffee very seriously, and they're strict about it. Everyone does it the same, more or less. Tiny espressos are to be enjoyed while standing at a counter in a local bar or pastry shop while you chat with your friends in the morning. (Did you know that that same espresso costs twice as much if you sit down?) Don't expect to see anyone with a travel mug of their favorite drink walking down the street. In the Midwest, we take a more laid-back and leisurely approach. Coffee is for savoring, and everyone has their own special "recipe" for how they like it. There really aren't too many rules. You can sip it throughout your day. We have coffee shops in our grocery stores so you can enjoy a beverage while you wait in line at the deli. Both places, however, do value the ritual of a morning coffee and sharing it with friends, and that is what matters.
Why all this coffee talk and what does it have to do with pie? For one, when you step off the plane in Italy, it doesn't take long to realize that you had better start to enjoy your coffee in very small servings, and embrace the Italian way of coffee, because there's not a Starbucks to be found in this lovely country. It's all the little differences that make places more interesting, make traveling an adventure, and make home feel like home. Dessert is another ritual that goes hand in hand with coffee back home in the US. I don't know about you, but at our house, you must always offer coffee after dinner with dessert. (Do your guests a favor and keep some decaf on hand though!) It's about the experience of sharing something sweet and continuing the conversations that were had over dinner. It's the perfect way to unwind and catch up with friends, and even if the conversation experiences some awkward silences, you've always got the dessert to talk about! Ooh, this pie is so delicious! May I have the recipe?
When Michael and I were invited to dinner at an Italian couple's home while we were in Italy, we were asked to bring a main dish and a dessert that were "American". My mind was reeling about what would be the best main dish to make, and many great options were immediately excluded because the ingredients are not available in Italy. Dessert, on the other hand, was a no-brainer. What is more fantastically American than Apple Pie? My only hurdle in executing this perfect American Apple Pie project? I didn't bring any pie plates with me. After a good amount of pedaling around on my bicycle and scouring the shops, I found two aluminum cake pans that had slanted edges. They looked like a good enough excuse for a pie plate to me, so we were in business! Now the pressure was on...How embarrassing would it be to mess up a pie that I have made
millions dozens of times with no issues and then forever ruin America's reputation for desserts in the minds of these lovely Italian people who were brave enough to try it? I was nervous. I had a good, long heart-to-heart pep talk with the quirky little apartment oven before I began. It must have helped. We survived uscathed, and the pie was well-received. We sat around the table eating dessert and talking until 1 am, which means we really needed our espressos the next morning! Now for the pie...
Choosing apples for a pie can be somewhat overwhelming. You want good flavor, and good texture of course. If you happen to have heirloom apples around, here is a list of The Best Apples for Pie-making according to James Beard Award Winner Rowan Jacobsen. Truth be told though, the only apples on that list that I have used before is Northern Spy. I usually freestyle my apple selecting. I like to use a variety in each pie. I like Jonagold, Cortland, Jonathan, Braeburn, and Granny Smith. Have fun with it. I personally, do not like Honeycrisp apples in pie. They are much too sweet without providing a lot of apple flavor. They do hold their shape really well though, so if you're going to use Honeycrisp, be sure to add in some more tart/flavorful apples too, such as Granny Smith.