A dessert apple known as the Yellow Newtown Pippin originated in our own backyard of Queens in the village of Newtown, now called Elmhurst, in 1750. This winter apple has an aromatic pineapple-like flavor that is sweet, tart and crisp with a light-green/yellowish tinge that is often russeted; it’s not that attractive, but tasty all-around.
And who needs a good-looking apple when it comes to making apple pie?
If you want to get your culinary hands on this historic apple, it is growing at Restoration Farm in the Hewlett Apple Orchard, part of a seven-acre parcel leased by Daniel Holmes and Caroline Fanning, since 2008, from Nassau County at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, a living museum that re-creates 19th-century life.
On a late-fall tour of the orchard I met with Glenn Aldridge, a longtime volunteer and passionate orchardist, who has been growing this American apple and reviving a mix of summer and winter heritage standard fruit trees. “A neglected orchard on one and a quarter acres was added to the farm four years later,” says Aldridge. “We use standard trees instead of the dwarf fruit trees that you would see on the East End, mainly to stay true to the historic village that dates back to the Civil War era.”
The orchard also has strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches and pears. Beneficial companion plants like tansy, dill, garlic, radish, valerium, sunflowers and borage are planted to sustain a diversity of favorable insects. Aldridge’s favorite, comfrey—an excellent plant—is used as a bushy ground cover for weed suppression and to add beneficial nutrients to the soil.
“At the farm we sell grade A and grade B apples,” says Aldridge. Grade A is good to eat straight from the tree and grade B has bug or superficial damage, all perfectly good for cider, baking and sauce.
I would call Aldridge a pomologist. He spends six to seven days a week studying and cultivating the fruits of his labor. When he is not pruning and picking, he is making an apple pie or applesauce.
Now for the Pie
Aldridge makes his apple pie crust with lard and butter using a recipe from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook (1980). “Lard makes a nice flaky crust and is a by-product of pork,” he says. “I feel good I am using something that is typically being thrown out.” He does not precook the pie dough, or blind bake, before adding the filling; he adds everything at once and tops with a layer of dough with poked holes to release steam.
My approach to apple pie is similar to Aldridge’s, yet with a few twists. I cube and freeze the butter ahead of time; then pulse with the dry ingredients until you get 3⁄4-inch pieces. I quickly make two disks. For the top of the pie I use a third of the dough; the remaining two-thirds go on the bottom. Then I blind bake. This is key because it keeps the bottom of the pie from becoming soggy and creates a beautiful slightly layered crust. Thinly sliced apples are best for a dense apple flavor. If a recipe requires two pounds of apples, I use three, pressing the apples down into the precooked crust. I add a little flour to hold the juices and a pinch of clove and salt with the nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, white sugar, lemon and ginger. A wash of milk and a sprinkle of sugar on the top crust is all you need to give the pie a lovely shimmer.
I like to see what’s inside, so I make a thick lattice, which is festive for the holidays and allows steam to escape. Once the pie is done it must sit on a wire-rack and cool. If you slice in haste to taste, the juices will run out.
If making a pie from scratch is a chore, Kerber’s Farm in Huntington is your one-stop shop for apples and a homemade apple pie kit that includes a dish and all the ingredients packaged in a sustainable wooden crate. While you are at it, grab a few of their apple doughnuts and cider for the ride home.