You’ve undoubtedly settled on your Thanksgiving menu by now, but I’m of the mind that there is always room for another pie, especially if it’s a sweet and complex, chai spiced apple pie in flaky, buttery pastry.
My Grandma Ruth would have celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday today. Firmly rooted in my memory is the image of her, with her big glasses, and yellow apron, at home in her cheerful kitchen, happily fussing about, prepping family Thanksgiving recipes. Candied yams, and oyster dressing, roast turkey and fluffy rolls, homemade cranberry sauce, and her stellar gravy…
She reigned over the kitchen all year round, but was the queen of Thanksgiving, and especially in her element preparing the family holiday dinner each year. She loved being in the thick of it.
It’s filed next to the day that Summer at least fifteen years ago, my teenage awkwardness in overdrive, standing in my grandparents’ antique-laden kitchen in West Virginia, pouring over a smudged copy of The Joy of Cooking, gathering up ingredients to make a fresh peach pie. Listening to early jazz on public radio while we worked, the humid landscape buzzing with that classic Southern harbinger: cicadas, all too happy to provide the harmony.
It came out of the oven a bit lopsided, the crust patched here and there with my inexperienced fingers, but even the ugliest pie, filled with sugared and spiced peak-season fruit will always taste sweetly of summer. And as we gobbled bites of warm peach pie, and fireflies flittered and twinkled outside, she made me feel like I could bake – or cook – anything.
This chai spiced apple pie isn’t my Grandma’s recipe – she wasn’t actually an avid baker, save for German pfeffernüsse spice cookies and fruit cake during the holidays – but it’s the sort of wonderfully cozy homemade dessert that enduringly reminds me of family, and is best made for someone you love.
She would have adored the classic simplicity of the apple filling, the heavy dose of brown sugar, been intrigued by the chai spices, the cardamom in particular. She would have oohed and ahhhed over the braided crust and carefully cut out leaves – in the most wonderfully grandmotherly, yet truly genuine way – but the brown sugar oat crumble topping was more in keeping with her unfussy approach to cooking.
She taught me to cook by taste and smell, mostly without recipes. The joy of good ingredients, and a great pot roast. Of savory soups with a good hunk of crusty sourdough. She was famous for pocketing a leftover roll from the bread basket at restaurants, a holdover from growing up during the depression. The simple perfection of a “good piece of fish” with lemon and butter, or a wedge of triple cream brie. The importance of curly parsley, and fine china, and carefully handwritten place cards. Of quick wit, and gumption, and hope. Of patience and generosity.
She called me liver lips when I pouted, and she loved me. When she passed away barely shy of her ninety-fourth birthday last year, it happened quickly, and likely without pain, after a very good, very long life, and we were so thankful for that. That she was reunited with my Grandpa. But selfishly, I still miss her something fierce, and think about her often, especially when I’m by myself in the kitchen.
I couldn’t write about it at the time. I still have trouble talking about her, saying the words out loud, without tearing up. I wish beyond all measure I could’ve said a proper goodbye. That she could meet our little ones someday. So thankful that she met my husband, that she loved him too, that she watched me walk down the aisle.
She read this blog up until the end, and we’d chat often about my newest recipes, what was in season, Ina Garten, and what I was working on next in the kitchen. She gave me that blue, well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking, and her yellowing, dog-eared binder of handwritten recipes when she passed away, and I’ve started to cook from it, listening to her voice in my head as I read the smudged pages, dotted with her distinct, scrawling notes, ingredient substitutions, and dinner party menus, feeling a little like I’m still cooking alongside her.
Happy Birthday, Grandma! We miss you. Thank you for giving me love, and laughter, and so many good meals…
Now, about these chai spiced apple pies.
Both start with a flaky, all-butter pie crust, and are filled with sweet-tart apple slices dusted with brown sugar, vanilla, and a heavy dose of warming, wintery chai spices – cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.
While the apple filling is the same – sweet, and fragrant, and wonderfully spiced – I top one with a braided lattice crust, and the other with a brown sugar oat crumble topping. The first is more traditional, the latter reminiscent of an oatmeal cookie, atop tender, syrupy apples.
The way I’ve written the recipe, you can choose between the two, or double the recipe and make both. Basically, the best of both worlds.
Do note, that if you bake both pies at the same time, it may take some jockeying, depending on the size of your oven. Our oven has a habit of being difficult, it’s touchy, with a few hot spots, so I swapped the two around every ten or so minutes, and covered the necessary exposed areas with little strips of foil. Like a crazy person.
And while my manic pie shuffling did yield a beautifully even, golden crust in the end, even wonky pies have a habit of still tasting delicious. Pastry, and sugary, spiced apples… it’s pretty hard to go too wrong.
Lastly, I’m so thankful for you sharing this space with me, for reading and cooking alongside me. From our family to yours, I wish you a wonderful holiday with family and friends, and of course good food. Happy Thanksgiving!