Winter Survival: Almanzo Wilder’s Apple Pie
by Jessica Pan
There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all, Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie. — Farmer Boy, 1933
*The apple pie looked delicious, its homemade lard and flour crust glistening and golden.
“Is this one of those desserts you made for your pioneer food experiment?” Sam asked, poking it. He took a small bite. “It tastes…oh, it tastes good!” — Consultant, 2014
*Today is Almanzo Wilder’s 157th birthday, so let’s indulge Laura Ingalls Wilder’s hardworking and stoic husband with a hearty treat. I chose the spicy apple pie because Almanzo liked it so much. I trust Almanzo, because with a name like that, you know he had to develop a good personality. (Plus, apple pie sounded much more appealing than vinegar pie, another recipe found in the Little House Cookbook, Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories.)
For pie crust:
1 ¼ cup white flour
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup lard
½ teaspoon butter
2 pounds tart apples
¾ cup brown sugar
3 tsp flour
1 tbsp butter
For the crust: Chill all ingredients and bowl in refrigerator (or on ice, for authenticity). Rinse hands in cold water and dry them. Prepare a cup of ice water. Spoon the lard into the flour and blend with the fingers (not warm palms) until the mixture is uniformly course. Continue to toss as you add 3 tablespoons of ice water.
“Are you okay with making pie crust with lard and flour and mixing it with your fingers?” I asked Rachel, my trusty friend from Wisconsin.
“Do you know what lard is?”
“Of course I do! You know how? The f-ing Little House on the Prairie cookbook taught me when I was 8!”
Lard is easy to find inside supermarket chains in London, where we live, and significantly easier to get than what the Ingallses had to do: butcher the pig and then boil it. (Before you ask, the pig bladder is not essential to this recipe.)
Rachel successfully completed this task, rendering lard bits and flour into a cohesive, fatty dough in 10 minutes. As stated, be sure to not get your warm palms into the dough mix, lest it melts the lard too quickly. Roll into a ball and place the dough in your wooden icebox (refrigerator) until needed.
Scrape the skin of a lemon to create lemon zest. Set aside and then halve the lemon and squeeze the juice into a bowl. With a fork, not with a juicer (the recipe is strict about this — it is essential that you squirt lemon juice all over your hands to get this part right).
Peel, core and slice apples. We used Bramley apples, a slightly sour green apple.
There was some dispute as to how Laura would have sliced these apples — practical chunks or sophisticated thin slices. Chunks won in the end, because Laura had more important things to do, like stacking hay, sewing sheets and mooning over Almanzo. (Who can blame her?)
Toss the apple pieces in the lemon juice.
Line the pie pan with the dough, then begin layering the pie filling, beginning with apple chunks, followed by brown sugar and flour. Repeat until the ingredients are used up. Sprinkle the spices and lemon zest over the top and then cover the pie with the top crust. We used a lattice pattern, because aesthetically it is beautiful and also we ran out of the lard dough.
Bake the pie in the oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 30–35 minutes more, until crust is brown.
If you forget to reduce the heat when you are supposed to, as I did, find comfort in asking yourself, how accurate could the Ingalls oven really be? Back then, they increased the oven heat by burning different types of wood. (FYI: oak and walnut for a bright fire and birch, poplar or green hardwood for a slow one, in case this still applies to you.)
Serve with heavy cream.
Verdict: The apple pie was delicious and tart. One taster loved the filling but disliked the lard pastry — it was too heavy for their taste. The pie is not as sweet as the current norm, but I found the lemon juice, tart apples and brown sugar to be the perfect ratio, proving that some dishes don’t need a long evolution to be delicious. This pie goes perfectly with a re-reading of The Long Winter — especially if you are living through your own this year — as the apple and pastry are warm and filling.
I encourage you to make this for the Almanzo or Almanza in your life. May they, like the pie’s namesake, be the kind of person to venture into the severe South Dakota winter to fetch 60 bushels of grain for you and your starving neighbors. That’s love.
Jessica and Rachel’s book, Graduates in Wonderland (Gotham), an epistolary memoir about living in Beijing and Paris, is out in May and available now for pre-order. It also contains all of their intimate secrets. Find other general nonsense here.