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Apple Pie Trials

Jason Jacobs via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Every couple years or so I have been making it a habit to pick up a few different varieties of apples and do a scientific test to see which make the best pie. The method is to make four identical small pies, each with just one variety, and then taste test them to see which is the winner. And since Chef Jerry Pellegrino owns an apple farm, I am certain he has some strong opinions on this subject.

My go to guy for apples is the affable orchard man Dave Hocheimer of Black Rock Orchards. This year Dave suggested Winesap, Ambrosia, Crimson Gold and Stayman for me. Four distinctive apples.

In the past I always used a blend of multiple varieties when I made an apple pie. Two varieties have been stand-outs: Braeburn and Honey Crisp, but I'm always on the lookout for new cultivars. Incidentally, some popular hand eating apples just don't cut it at all: Fuji and Gala simply fall apart and fail to deliver in a pie.

My objective is to evaluate each apple with a view toward what it could contribute to a pie. My technique is to make small pies, each with only one variety of apple in it, all seasoned exactly the same.

So this year I had four new varieties to work with. And here are my results.

Winesap proved to be an almost delicate apple, with subtle flavor, a delightful almost citric acidity, and a firm texture that held up to baking.

There was nothing subtle about Ambrosia. This apple has no use for acidity but packs a ton of sugary flavor. It stayed very crisp and had a firm smooth texture.

If I could use a wine term, I would say that Ambrosia really fills in the middle palate. This would be a good apple to use as a base for your blend.

Crimson Gold on the other hand was almost nondescript. Whatever flavors it has, they linger in the background. The texture was soft, almost flaccid, but I could find a use for this apple as a filler of sorts.

Finally the legendary Stayman apple made quite an impression. For those of you who like a good tart pie, this is your boy. It offers very little sugary sweetness, but it does offer an awful lot of tart acidity. And it's good quality tartness, not just some mean nasty sourness. When cooked the slices maintained their shape quite well and had a firm texture. Well done all around.

Choosing from these four, I would design a pie this way: Ambrosia for the base of my blend and Stayman for acidic tartness. I might also include the Winesap for its subtle aromatics. Taken together I think that would be a damned fine pie.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.