I was living in Rome, but was home for my usual late August-early September visit in 2001. On September 10th, having dealt with the bureaocracy and lines at the Italian Consulate as I awaited my visa, I decided to head way downtown to the Financial District to pick up some paperwork from my bank and to do a little shopping at Century 21, literally right next door to the Twin Towers. I don't think anybody could walk anywhere near them and not look up and marvel at such an architectural feat. The sky was as clear as I'd ever seen it, and it was the kind of day about which people feel compelled to comment: "Isn't it just gorgeous out?" Every New Yorker here that day remembers the weather. Eerily beautiful.
Looking up at the towers, I had a flashback to when my Dad used to have an office there, somewhere around the 95th floor. I remember taking a day off of school to spend the day in the office with him, maybe once or twice a year. I'd amuse myself writing stories and letters on a gigantic electric typewriter (technology!), and we'd watch out of the oversized windows as planes approached La Guardia and were noticeably lower to the ground than we were. Imagine that! We'd ride the elevator down for lunch, and in less than 30 seconds, we'd be on the ground floor -- though I always had to swallow lots of times because my ears popped on the ride zooming through the elevator shaft at lightning speed. There was so much life, so much bustle, in those big buildings and the plaza out front. For me, as a little girl, Manhattan was anchored by Broadway theaters and ballets at Lincoln Center uptown, and the World Trade Center downtown. But really, the Twin Towers were New York City.
The morning of September 11th, 2001, I had an appointment with the Italian Consulate to pick up my visa at 10:30 a.m., before returning to Rome on September 12th. My whole family was coming into the city for dinner before my departure the following day. That morning, my roommate Jessica woke me up around 8:55. She said "you'd better come out here and see this." It did not bode well.
Jessica and I stood frozen in front of our TV, mouths agape, as we watched the first tower burn. We saw the second plane hit the south tower live on television. We were watching a horror story unfold in real time, and our minds were racing, trying to figure out who we knew down there, in the towers, in the vicinity. And my first instinct was to wonder how New York City, its policemen and women and special forces would figure out how to get everyone down from the top floors: incredibly obtuse, I know, but I couldn't accept the reality that we would lose so many innocent lives because of a couple of insane acts of hatred and some random corporate real estate decisions. I thought of all the people who worked alongside my father in the towers, some of them still working there, no doubt. Fellow chefs at Windows on the World. Colleagues and friends and fellow humans of every stripe -- everyone in New York knew someone in the Twin Towers.
And in the midst of all of this, who could eat? Not I, not us. I don't remember anything about food in those days, those weeks. I stayed in New York trying to help, signing up to feed the first responders or bring food to fire houses, but there was no room -- everywhere I turned I was put on waitlists, the excess of volunteers wanting to help actually outweighing the need or the capacity. I felt helpless again, but this time I was reassured by the outpouring of support everyone was showing. I wasn't so anxious to return to Italy on the first flight out -- I was with my people, my fellow New Yorkers, in a moment of great weakness, and great strength.
Cooking brings me great comfort. I realize it doesn't work like that for everybody, but I think cooking -- especially baking, with its methodical processes -- calms the soul. And so, on this September 11th, fourteen years later, the food-related thing I thought to share on my blog is a recipe for the most American of comfort foods: apple pie. (It's not my recipe, but Rose Levy Beranbaum is a trusted expert). My Italian friends love it. Americans can't help but love it. And of course, what's more representative of The Big Apple?
ALL-AMERICAN APPLE PIE
- 2 1/2 pounds baking apples (about 6 medium or 8 cups ), peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick *
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Flaky Cream Cheese Pie Crust (makes one single crust):
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
- 1 cup + 1 tablespoon pastry flour or 1 cup bleached All-purpose flour, (dip and sweep method)
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 cup cream cheese, cold
- 1 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
For the crust:
1. Cut the butter into small (about 3/4-inch) cubes. Wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze it until frozen solid, at least 30 minutes. Place the flour, salt, and baking powder in a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
2. Place the flour mixture in a food processor with the metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine. Set the bag aside.
3. Cut the cream cheese into 3 or 4 pieces and add it to the flour. Process for about 20 seconds or until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the frozen butter cubes and pulse until none of the butter is larger than the size of peas; toss with a fork to see it better. Remove the cover and add the water and vinegar. Pulse until most of the butter is reduced to the size of small peas. The mixture will be in particles and will not hold together. Spoon it into the plastic bag and for a double pie crust divide the mixture in half at this point.
4. Holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture by alternately pressing it from the outside of the bag with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.
5. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disk, and refrigerate it for at least 45 minutes and preferably overnight.
6. Remove the dough for the bottom crust from the refrigerator. If necessary, allow it to sit for about 10 minutes or until it is soft enough to roll.
7. On a floured pastry cloth or between two sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap, roll the bottom crust 1/8-inch thick or less and 12 inches in diameter. Transfer it to a 9-inch pie pan. Trim the edge almost even with the edge of the pan. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 3 hours.
For the filling:
8. In a large bowl, combine the apples, lemon juice, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and toss to mix. Allow the apples to macerate at room temperature for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 3 hours.
9. Transfer the apples and their juices to a colander suspended over a bowl to capture the liquid. The mixture will release at least 1/2 cup of liquid.
10. In a small saucepan (preferably nonstick), over medium-high heat, boil down this liquid, with the butter, to about 1/3 cup (a little more if you started with more than 1/2 cup of liquid), or until syrupy and lightly caramelized. Swirl the liquid but do not stir it. Meanwhile, transfer the apples to a bowl and toss them with the cornstarch until all traces of it have disappeared.
Pour the syrup over the apples, tossing gently. (Do not be concerned if the liquid hardens on contact with the apples; it will dissolve during baking.)
11. Roll out the top crust large enough to cut a 12-inch circle. Use an expandable flan ring or a cardboard template and a sharp knife as a guide to cut the circle.
12. Transfer the apple mixture to the pie shell. Moisten the border of the bottom crust by brushing it lightly with water and place the top crust over the fruit. Tuck the overhang under the bottom crust border and press down all around the top to seal it. Crimp the border using a fork or your fingers and make about 5 evenly spaced 2-inch slashes starting about 1 inch from the center and radiating toward the edge. Cover the pie loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour before baking to chill and relax the pastry. This will maintain flakiness and help to keep the crust from shrinking.
13. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees at least 20 minutes before baking. Set an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before preheating. Place a large piece of greased foil on top to catch any juices.
14. Set the pie directly on the foil-topped baking stone and bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until the juices bubble through the slashes and the apples feel tender but not mushy when a cake tester or small sharp knife is inserted through a slash. After 30 minutes, protect the edges from overbrowning by covering them with a foil ring.
15. Cool the pie on a rack for at least 4 hours before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature.
* I like a mix of Granny Smith and Cortland.
The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.