Naturally Sweet Apple Pie

When I was a kid, apple pie was my least favorite fruit pie.

Sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it?

It is positively unpatriotic to not like apple pie. It is like hating your mother, or burning a flag or admitting to having atheistic thoughts while sitting in front of the baptismal font.

It just isn’t often done, certainly not back in the day. It might have led to one being investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee or something.

But, the fact is–I really didn’t love apple pie. I always thought it was kind of insipid, boring and way, way, way too sweet.

Besides, way too many people made apple pies with that godforsaken canned colorless glop that was mostly sugar and apples that apparently came from places where apples had no flavor.

It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate the goodness of a well-made apple pie.

Grandma used to tell me that the best apple pies are made with more than one kind of apples; she always liked to use Jonathans, Grimes Golden and nice tart McIntoshes. I remember her telling me to limit the McIntoshes to one or two to a pie, because when they are cooked, they break down completely into a pulp; she liked that quality because it helped thicken the pie filling so she didn’t have to use too much flour and blunt the apple flavor.

But even Grandma’s apple pies were too sweet for my taste, generally, because Grandpa liked really sweet desserts. I remember she used to put from three-quarters to one cup of brown sugar in her apple pies, and I always thought that it weakened the complex flavors of the apples themselves.

I still think that most apple pie recipes use way too much sugar, so I decided that I would experiment with using as little sweetener as possible and still make a really good apple pie.

I had read in Ken Haedrick’s excellent book, Pie, that one could use apple cider in order to really add a lot of apple flavor to the filling of apple pie; since I add cider to my fried apples in lieu of a lot of sugar, I wondered if I could reduce the sweetening in a pie using the same technique. Haedrick’s recipe called for cooking the apples lightly in cider and three quarters of a cup of sugar before draining them and putting them in the pie crust. The reserved cider and juices were them to be reduced down to about one-quarter cup and poured over the apples.

I wasn’t sure about cooking the apples, but since I had just read about doing the same thing in the most recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I decided to give it a go, and see what happened.

But, instead of following the recipe to the letter, I changed it significantly, in order to make an apple pie that more truly suited my taste. Instead of sugar, I used honey, and used only one third of the amount called for. I added crystallized ginger, powdered ginger and golden raisins to the filling, and instead of the all butter crust both the Haedrick and CI recipes called for, I used my typical half-lard, half-butter crust. (And I used utterly magnificent locally produced lard from Harmony Hollow Farms–it was softer than the lard I had been buying from Bluescreek Farms, and very rich. This made it difficult to work with, but the crust was gorgeous–shatteringly crisp and flaky with a voluptuous flavor. I will buy all of the lard I use from Harmony Hollow from now on.)

The resulting pie was quite phenominal. The crust was exceptional, and the filling, which contained four kinds of apples: Ginger Gold, Molly Delicious, Paula Red and McIntosh, was complex and very fragrant. It was both sweet and tart; the honey lent it depth and a lovely golden color and the cider, which was cooked down to a thick jelly, combined with the McIntosh pulp to create a gloriously thick juice that required only a modicum of flour to bind it.

Honey and Cider Sweetened Apple Pie


Pastry for double crust pie
9 1/2 cups of peeled, sliced apples (use at least three different kinds of apples, and include two McIntoshes in the mixture)
3/4 cup apple cider
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon minced crystallized ginger
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground dry ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch cardamom
pinch salt


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Prepare pastry dough as directed and while it is resting in the refrigerator prior to rolling it out, begin the apple filling.

Combine the apples, cider, honey, crystallized ginger, and golden raisins in a large pot and over medium high heat, bring to a boil and cook, stirring for about five minutes. (The McIntoshes will begin to break down immediately.)

Put strainer over a smaller saucepan and drain apples, allowing cider, honey and juices to fall into pan. Set aside apples.

Cook, stirring, over medium high heat, until liquid reduces to 1/4 cup and thickens to a syrup that will coat your spoon. You will notice at this time that as soon as you remove the syrup from the heat and allow it to begin to cool, it will gel. This is what it is supposed to do.

Put apples in a bowl, and pour syrup over and stir together thoroughly. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

Roll out dough as directed, and line a 9″ pie pan with the bottom crust. Pour apple filling in and top with second crust, as directed in pastry crust recipe.

Place in oven on center rack and bake for thirty minutes, then rotate pie pan 180 degrees. Continue to bake until crust is golden brown and the juices that eminate from the steam vents is thick and tawny gold in color–this will take anywhere from 35-45 minutes.

When pie is done, remove from oven and place on wire rack, and allow to cool to room temperature (or nearly so) before eating.


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  1. Sayeth Weebl:

    “Me Like Pie!”

    Here endeth the lesson…


    And it’s certainly nice to see that the appearance of your pies is now matching the wonderous flavour.


    Comment by Dan Trout — September 23, 2005 #

  2. Yes, aesthetics are important. Though I tend to consider how a dish looks to be of secondary importance to the flavor and texture of it–it is still important. No one wants to eat something that looks like it went through a war before getting to the plate.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 23, 2005 #

  3. I love this idea of using natural sugar for the pie – thanks for posting the recipe. It looks like it was totally delicious.

    Comment by Luisa — September 23, 2005 #

  4. Thank you, Luisa.

    I tend to think that apples are plenty sweet on their own without any help from big gobs of refined sugar added on top, and I really think that the complexity of the apple’s fragrance and flavor is lost if you add too much sweetness.

    So many apple pie recipes include lemon juice for no good reason–if you use some amount of tart apples in the first place and don’t add too much sugar, you have no need for lemon juice.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 23, 2005 #

  5. What is the weird blue-green object???

    My father demanded not-sweet apple pie with a shattering crust and a piece of very old cheddar on the side, so your recipe sounds like a wonderful refinement of what I grew up eating.

    Comment by wwjudith — September 23, 2005 #

  6. Your father sounds like a traditionalist, Judith.

    That weird object is the silicone spatula that I stirred the cider and honey with as it reduced to a syrup-jelly. I was trying to show how thick the liquid became–it clings to the surface of whatever stirring implement is used and when it cools it turns into jelly.

    Mayhap I should have mentioned some of that by way of explanation of the odd photograph….oops!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 23, 2005 #

  7. What a glorious recipe. Now, this could make me an apple pie lover.

    While growing up, eating apple pie was a tribulation. It was marginally better than getting those looks (“What? Are you one of those pinko commie unAmerican dislikers of Apple Pie?”). (Growing up in New Hampshire at the time, “pinko commie” was, if not actually said, frequently implied. 😉

    My mother was a superb cook of cakes, cookies and made ambrosial fudge. Apple pie was not her forte. (Now I’m in for it, I dissed both apple pie and Mom – got any American flags? :-D)

    Jackhammer-hard pie crusts vaulting emptily over a bed of crunchy and rubbery apples sitting on a gooey bottom paste, just didn’t appeal to me. My great-aunt Dora’s pies were, uh, pale. (She’s the only person I knew who both peeled and parboiled rhubarb to make pie: “to get rid of all that nasty color” – and flavor.) Her pie couldn’t be much of anything but slightly sweet; there was so little flavor at all. Her crusts were great though. In fact, I’d eat her pie crusts and leave the filling. Now, Mrs. Whitaker across the way from us made a, uh, flavorful pie, but, the closer she neared 100, the more seasoning she felt it needed. I suspect she used more nutmeg than apples.

    Needless to say (now that I’ve said it), apple pie was not one of the joyful memories of youth for me.

    Now, your pie, here, sounds ambrosial. Just reading the recipe is satisfying.
    I can’t wait to try it myself.


    Comment by Dan Jenkins — March 17, 2006 #

  8. You will like it, Dan. Later on, I further refined the recipe by adding ginger wine, golden raisins and fresh quince.

    That pie is a good one, too. I think the name of the post is “Putting History Into a Pie Crust.”

    Comment by Barbara — March 19, 2006 #

  9. I must say that this (Your) method is truly the best apply pie recipe ever and all in my family use this method. I do NOT care for those that say pile on the sliced apples over the crust and bake – they just taste awful. Here the apples are smothered in their own juices and then baked and I think its just divine !
    I will try your recipe of course the next time as my kids just love apple pie this way.
    Also u have a wonderful site !

    Comment by Carol Miranda — November 17, 2007 #

  10. I must say that this (Your) method is truly the best apply pie recipe ever and all in my family use this method. I do NOT care for those that say pile on the sliced apples over the crust and bake – they just taste awful. Here the apples are smothered in their own juices and then baked and I think its just divine !
    I will try your recipe of course the next time as my kids just love apple pie this way.
    Also u have a wonderful site !

    Comment by Carol Miranda — November 17, 2007 #

  11. Thanks for the wonderful pie recipe! It is the best apple pie I have made yet! I serve apple pie every Thanksgiving. The pie I made from your recipe is now sitting in the middle of our table. We are blessed!

    Comment by Will Rainford — November 21, 2007 #

  12. Carol–Good apple pie is wonderful. Bad apple pie–oh, it is tribulation on a plate. I am glad to know that I am not the only one to advocate partially cooking the apples, and smothering them in their own juices and using as little sugar as possible.

    I feel great kinship for your family.

    Will–talk about coincidence–my very own pie using this recipe is now in the oven. I am glad that you liked the pie–this year I did add a few dried cranberries along with the golden raisins, and I used the ginger wine, again.

    It smells amazing. I just have to say so.

    I am glad to have helped bless your family with wonderful pie this year–I will be thinking of y’all tomorrow when we sit down to our apple pie.

    Comment by Barbara — November 21, 2007 #

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