For as long as I can remember, fall has been synonymous with one thing in the Stagnaro household: apple pie. Some of my earliest memories involve helping my mom make the cinnamony sweet pastry creations.
When I was young, my job was layering the apples (always Cortland’s or, in a pinch, Mac’s) in my mother’s carefully prepared pie crust and coating them with the cinnamon and sugar mix. As you can imagine, I pilfered almost as much as I layered.
When I was deemed worthy, I graduated to pealing and paring, both tasks my mother was eager to pass off on someone else. I never minded, since I’d always wanted a shot at using that nifty little apple cutter.
My mom has always taken a great deal of pride in her pies, particularly in the crust. I don’t know how many crust recipes she went through in my youth, before she found one, provided by an ex-girlfriend of my brother Dennis, which met her exacting standards. Because heaven forbid the crust didn’t meet those standards. It didn’t matter how much we’d all rave about the finished product (and they were always amazing), in her eyes it was a failure.
No one was allowed any part in the preparation of the crust but her. If I was lucky, I’d get to poke the hole in the top, and add the final fluting to the edges of the crust. But only if I was lucky. If I wanted to actually help cut in the shortening or roll it out? Forget it. And having witnessed the aftermath when she wasn’t happy with a crust, I didn’t want to press the issue, lest she turn the blame on me in the event that it didn’t achieve that precise degree of flakiness.
Throughout my formative years, my mom’s pies were legendary among my friends. While I was in college, my father would fly down to pick me up, usually to the airport in White Plains. My friend Tim would always agree to drive me. He’d turn down gas money, though, preferring instead to be compensated in apple pies. Mom was always happy to comply.
I didn’t begin experimenting with apple pies myself until I moved to Northern Virginia a few months after college.
Unsurprisingly, my friends were always willing to volunteer as guinea pigs. For a time, pie became a staple of their diets. (Along with their contribution of shake-n-bake pork chops.) And with their help, I was able to perfect my apple pie baking abilities to a point where mine could (almost) rival my mom’s. (She gets incredibly cranky if anyone even suggests that mine are superior, a fact my father has yet to grasp. Either that or he just enjoys torturing her.)
Over the years, I lost touch with most of my former guinea pigs, although they remained close. Recently (thanks to Facebook) we’ve become re-acquainted. It had been six or seven years since I’d seen any of them, but apparently my reputation had lived on. (I was a little flattered when one of them told me he had reminded his wife, who I had never met, who I was by telling her “you know, the one who baked the pies.”)
But of course, having such a reputation meant there was a certain expectation of me. From that first visit, they kept demanding pie.
At the beginning of September, I got an email from Ed, one of those former guinea pigs. An avid baseball fan, Ed wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming down to see the Washington National’s final Friday home game of their rather uninspiring season. He even offered to buy the tickets, so how could I say no.
Even though it wasn’t expressly stated in the invitation, I knew what would be required in return. And I’m not talking about buying the first round of ridiculously overpriced ballpark beverages, although that was a given as well. Nope, I knew I better get baking.
The night before my departure, I dug out my apple pie recipe. And while I was excited at the outset, that initial enthusiasm faded about halfway through the pealing and paring process, which was decidedly more tedious than I had remembered. Maybe I should have just planned on making one pie, not two.
Of course, the apple prep is the easy part of making a pie. I still had the crust to deal with. As out of practice as I was, it wasn’t fun. I regret to say that not as much love went into making that particular pie as others that I’ve baked in the past, and a whole lot more blood, sweat and tears. (I obviously take after my mother.) Putting it in the oven felt like more of a relief than an accomplishment.
It was all worth it of course in the end. The baseball game was a heck of a lot of fun (despite the National’s rather dismal performance), and after a bit of post-game celebration, we headed back to Ed’s for pie.
The crust, I’m happy to say, was perfect.
It felt a bit patriotic, actually, enjoying two such American traditions in our nation’s capital. Because what could possibly be more American than baseball and apple pie.