"Pie for breakfast!" cried Peter; "how perfectly ripping!"
"It isn't pigeon-pie," said Mother; "it's only apple. Well, this is the supper we ought to have had last night. And there was a note from Mrs. Viney. Her son-in-law has broken his arm, and she had to get home early. She's coming this morning at ten."
That was a wonderful breakfast. It is unusual to begin the day with cold apple pie, but the children all said they would rather have it than meat.
The Railway Children, E. Nesbit
Back in early 2014, when I started blogging about food in literature, I had big plans for apple pie. I could see Sal Paradise driving across America, eating 'nutritious' apple pies at rest stops and diners along the way. But, despite the presence of pie, I’m sorry to say that didn't really enjoy On the Road. And so the draft recipe sat, all through autumn last year, untouched. I just couldn't face writing about a book I couldn't advocate for. Thankfully, as this autumn (and the apple season) approached, I remembered another apple pie, eaten by a vastly more likeable collection of characters.
Growing up, we didn't have The Railway Children in our house, so my first introduction to Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis came once I was an adult. As I was reading, I couldn't quite believe it was for the first time. I feel I somehow absorbed the story over the years: a family, forced from their home after their father's arrest for espionage and treason, move from London to the countryside, into a house by a railway line. I was so happy to finally discover it, this book that so many of my friends adored as they were growing up.
I was also thrilled to discover, upon moving to England seven years ago, the vast range of apples available to us here. My friend Anna has been working at Day's Cottage orchard for the past month, and arrived at my house with a big bag of apples (and quinces - more on those next week) last Friday. She brought three large Mere de Menage, a handful of Cambridge Queenings, a few Spouts and two tiny Pitmaston Pineapples. The Mere de Menage were ideal in this pie - they hold their shape well, and have a perfect balance of tartness and sweetness. Don't worry if you can't get your hands on this particular variety, as you can easily replace them with any crisp cooking apples.
A little note: if you're anything like me, you'll need to pick up an extra big bag. I might turn into an apple at this rate, so many have I consumed this season...
250g plain flour
2tbsp icing sugar
Pinch of salt
175g butter, chilled and cubed
1 egg yolk
1kg crisp eating apples
70g caster sugar
Large pie dish (mine is 25cm in diameter along the base)
Pastry brush (optional)
1. To make the pastry, combine the flour, icing sugar and salt in a bowl. Rub in the cold butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and 1-2tbsp of very cold water. Combine with your hands in the bowl until the mixture comes together into a dough. Turn onto a lightly floured bench and bring into a ball. Don't work the mixture too much, or knead it, as the pastry should be short and crumbly.
2. Wrap the pastry in cling film and pop in the fridge for half an hour. Don't be tempted to skip the chilling, as you risk the pastry shrinking in the oven.
3. Squeeze the lemon into a bowl filled with water. Peel and core the apples, then slice into 2mm widths. Drop them straight into the bowl of water as you continue on the other apples; this will prevent the apples going brown. Once they are all chopped, drain them and pat them dry with paper towel. Mix the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cornflour, then toss this through the apple pieces.
4. Cut the pastry in two and put one half back in the fridge. Roll out the remaining half on a lightly floured bench (if the pastry is sticking - as it is wont to do in a warm kitchen - roll it between two pieces of greaseproof paper rather than straight onto the bench). Stop rolling when you have a large circle that is around the thickness of a 50p piece.
5. Drape your pastry over your rolling pin, or keep it on the sheet of greaseproof paper, and lay it into the pie dish. Press the pastry into the corners using a small ball of spare dough. If there are any tears in the pastry, patch them up with extra dough. Place in the fridge. Preheat your oven to 210C and place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven to heat up.
6. Roll the second half of the pastry out until it is large enough to fit over the top of the pie. Whisk the egg with a teaspoon of water and paint a little of this around the edge of the pastry in the pie dish. Tip the apples into the dish. Place the second round of pastry over the top of the apples, and press the edges to seal. Trim the pastry, then crimp the edges.
7. Use the off-cuts of pastry to shape a couple of decorative leaves (I used the leaves that came on my apples as a template). Paint the top of the pie with the rest of the beaten egg, then arrange the leaves on top and paint them too. Make a hole and a couple of slashes in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape. Place it in the oven onto the baking tray.
8. Turn the temperature down to 180C after ten minutes. Bake for a further 35 minutes, keeping an eye on the top to ensure it doesn't burn. Serve immediately, if you like, but it's lovely the next morning too. The pastry is deliberately crumbly, so be ready to make a bit of a mess getting the first slice out!