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Cooking Off the Cuff: A Free-Form Apple Pie With French Flavors

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In the run-up to Hanukkah (or was it Thanksgiving?), The New York Times ran a clutch of videos by Mark Bittman each featuring a Famous Chef preparing something for the holiday table. Each was accompanied by a text by the chef and a detailed recipe; they are all linked at the end of Mr. Bittman's own, very non-cheffy, contribution. My favorite was the great André Soltner's pumpkin soup, not only because Jackie and I have the fondest memories of the man and his sorely-missed New York restaurant, Lutèce, but because it included two unexpected ingredients: turnips among the vegetables and a thickener of crisp croutons, which were simmered in the soup for 30 minutes before the whole thing was pureed. There's something Alsatian about using toasty wheat as a source of a particular flavor, and as a liaison.

But the video that I acted on was of Claudia Fleming making a crumb-topped apple crostata with bacon-toffee sauce. Or at least I sort of acted on it; it's more that it reminded me of a differently flavored, sauce- and crumb-less, but similarly free-form apple tart/pie I hadn't made in some time. Probably twenty-five years ago, this was originally intended to imitate the inimitable tart sold at the Poilâne bakery in Paris; such mimicry was a doomed enterprise, but I did manage to bake a good apple pie that sort of, kind of looked like its model. At least it contained apples piled up in the center of a rough circle of dough whose border was then folded around the fruit.

For me at least, it turned out that this method, where a single piece of dough both supports and contains the filling and which is baked right on a paper-lined sheet pan, removed most of the barriers to baking apple pie (rolling the dough to a particular size; laying it into a pan; rolling out more dough for a top crust; creating a seal between top and bottom). It is actually meant to look a little messy, so perfection is easy to achieve. So, for a number of years, I'd make it fairly regularly. Then came Jackie's Polish-style apple pie/cake: her famous Szarlotka. This would eclipse just about any apple dessert in the repertory, and it certainly supplanted my free-form effort.

Then, that video reminded me of it. Plus -- and this of course was key -- there was a disc of pastry all ready in the fridge: I'd made it a couple of days earlier thinking I might have the will to make a butternut squash pie. (Ha! I wound up using the squash to make nice gnocchi-like dumplings.) The pastry was made from 6 ounces of all-purpose flour, 4 ounces of butter, salt and simple syrup: For sweet pastry I replace the cold water with simple syrup if I have any in the fridge -- it is much easier to roll out than pastry made with granulated sugar.

I heated the oven to 400 degrees F (a little over 200 degrees C) and prepared the apples: Three big ones (I used a mixture of New York State varieties) or four not-so-big ones -- better to have too much than not enough - peeled, halved, cored and cut into quarter-inch slices. As I sliced them I added them to a bowl containing the juice of half a big lemon and the grated zest of the whole lemon. When they were all sliced, I added a small handful of raisins, perhaps a quarter cup of dark brown sugar, a tiny drizzle of vanilla extract, a sprinkling of nutmeg and a couple of teaspoons of good brandy -- use Cognac or Armagnac if you have any, or substitute something like calvados, rum or kirsch (or omit the booze). I tossed to combine.

As this macerated, I rolled the pastry out into a twelve-inch circle, or as close to a circle as I could get it, and set it onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper (the paper will help when you remove the finished tart from the pan. I mounded the apples into the center and spread them, leaving a border of about two inches all around. I topped the fruit with a few thin slices of butter (I could have added melted or cubed butter to the mixture too), then folded the pastry border over the fruit, pleating and pressing with my hands as needed. This can be as messy as it wants to be, so long as the apples are contained and the outermost edge of the mound is covered, leaving six inches or so uncovered at the center of the tart.

The fruit will have left some juice in the bowl, brown with sugar, tart with lemon and aromatic with brandy. Use your fingers (or a brush if you must) to spread most of this onto the pastry border, then sprinkle with granulated sugar -- this will create some crunch when the tart is baked.

Put it into the fully heated oven; if you have a pizza stone, place the sheet pan atop this to speed the crisping of the bottom. After a few minutes, lower the temperature to 375 F (190 F) and bake for about 40 minutes more, shifting it from the pizza stone to a rack about halfway through if you think of it; let it be as brown as possible without charring. Some juice may run, and this may caramelize, but it is unlikely to burn.

Let the tart rest for a minute or two, then use the parchment paper to slide it onto a cooling rack -- doing this quickly will help keep the bottom crisp. When it has cooled to tepid, a long spatula will help you move it from the paper to a serving plate.

Serve tepid or cool, not hot if timing permits. Next day, I love the leftovers straight out of the fridge, and Jackie is slowly coming round to that preference too.

Once you've got the pastry made (four times out of five, I do it in a food processor) this is probably the easiest of all apple pies/tarts to assemble and bake. It is also one of the half dozen best.

A Free-Form Apple Pie With French Flavors
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