Smackdown: “Paper Bag” vs. Traditional Apple Pie

The idea of an apple pie baked in a paper bag comes to me from Barbara Mautino, the mother of one of my dearest and oldest friends, DesignerPie. From her kitchen in Los Angeles, Barbara started reading the CurvyMama blog and sharing recipes. I’ve heard of people making Thanksgiving turkeys in paper bags, but I’d never heard of baking pies in a bag until Barbara told me about it.

Paper bag apple pie

Barbara found her recipe in a cookbook she bought in 1973, put together by the Woman’s Auxiliary to the San Diego County (California) Medical Society. She sent along the recipe in an email, saying: “I found it very easy to make and the crust keeps very tender.”

I’ll include Barbara’s recipe here, because I have eminent faith in her kitchen chops. But I will jump in and say that I used her technique, but not her recipe, because I couldn’t resist the chance to try an apple pie without cinnamon. (I know; I am one of the few people in America, I think, who doesn’t dig the apple-and-cinnamon flavor profile. Come and get me; stamp “infidel” on my forehead. I don’t mind. I gotta be me!) I’ll include my recipe at the end, after I walk you through our paper bag vs. traditional apple pie throwdown and show you some pictures.

Barbara Mautino’s Paper Bag Apple Pie, via the Women’s Auxiliary to the San Diego County Medical Society

1 unbaked 9-inch pastry crust
3-4 large Granny Smith apples
1/2 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
Cinnamon to suit you
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. flour
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) butter

Peel apples.  Halve quarters crosswise to make chunks.  Combine sugar, flour, and cinnamon.  Sprinkle over apples.  Spoon into shell and sprinkle apples with lemon juice.  Combine topping ingredients cutting in butter.  Sprinkle over apples to cover top.  Put in large brown paper bag and close.  (I use paper clips)  Place on a cookie sheet and put in a 425 degree oven for 1 hour.  (I then open the bag and brown the topping a little)

It turns out that paper bag apple pies have become quite the little celebrities. The Wisconsin farmer who has made it his trademark–even though he found the recipe in Texas–has shown it off on the Food Network (they posted his recipe) and other places.  He makes paper bag pies with other fruit fillings, too.

There are some versions floating around out there that substitute an elaborate arrangement of parchment strips for the good old paper bag (way too much fuss for me, but hey, whatever works for you). King Arthur Flour notes that the paper bag pie idea has been around for at least a century.

I can tell you that I had to tolerate a vaguely alarming is-that-paper-bag-on-fire kind of smell as the pie baked. And yes, it set off my very sensitive smoke alarm, freaking out my poor cat. You’d think the cat would be used to this by now, since even thinking about turning on the damn oven seems to set off the smoke alarm. But no, he flies straight into the air from a sleeping position in one second’s time, and then disappears in a horizontal plume of fur the next second. [Sigh.]

I am happy to report, however, that the paper bag was NOT on fire, and that the pie baked up perfectly, as did its naked, unbagged sibling. My younger daughter, NaturePie, home from her three-month wilderness program, joined me in this experiment, and we decided that our smackdown should get its props by honoring the principle of a controlled experiment. So we made two pies exactly the same, except we baked one in a bag and one naked.

I had to resist the urge to turn down the oven after the first 20 minutes, since I’m used to baking double-crust fruit pies in a hot (425-degree) oven for the first 15-20 minutes, and then turning it down to moderate for the rest of the baking time, usually the better part of an hour. But these recipes call for keeping the pies in a hot oven the whole time.

The No-Cinnamon-Please Sweet-Spicy Apple Pie that we put together for our pie adventure, looking for an alternative to the traditional flavors, is still in the testing stage. I’ll post a recipe when we think we’ve got it where we want it.  But here is the general direction we are going in:

We made enough Good Basic All Butter Pie Dough for a double crust. I used 2 1/2 c. flour, 13 Tbsp. butter, a couple pinches of salt, and a few tablespoons of sugar. To heighten the pie’s apple-y flavor, I used iced apple cider in place of icewater.

We used mostly Granny Smith apples, with a few pert little red ones that I don’t know the name of (sorry).

For seasonings, we’re playing with ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, dark brown sugar, and backstrap molasses. We also added a bit of butter and flour. All this needs adjusting at the moment, so we’re just giving you a sense of what we’re up to. With that in mind:

How can you not love chilled butter?

Make your pie dough, and chill the two wrapped disks at least 30-40 minutes.

Peel and core apples. Slice in half and then into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Heap into a bowl, set aside.

In a smaller bowl, stir together the spices, then add the sugar, molasses, and honey until combined. Add the butter.

Microwave on medium, just until the butter is melted, but without overheating. Stir the mixture til smooth.

Preheat the oven to 425.

Roll out your pie dough disks. Line a pie pan with one crust and lay the other on a cookie sheet. Chill again for at least 15 minutes.

When the pie is ready to assemble, spoon the spice-molasses mixture over the apples and sprinkle the flour over them, too. Stir it all together until just combined.

Pile the mixture into your bottom crust.

Cover with the top crust, fold edges under, and do a nice little pinch pattern to seal the edges of the pie.

Cut a few vents in the top crust. Then chill the pie, preferably in the freezer, for 30 minutes or so.

When it’s time to bake, sparingly sprinkle icewater droplets onto the crust and drizzle it with coarse sugar. Slide the pie into a paper bag, fold the open end under (or staple it shut, if you like).

Not an intentional Trader Joe plug. But I do love them.

Put the pie on a cookie sheet to bake for 45 minutes or so. Take the pie out, cut away the top of the bag, and put it back in to brown, about 10-15 minutes, or until it’s your favorite shade of golden.

Compared with the naked-baked pie, the paper-bag one was decidedly paler before that browning.

After we cut away the top of the bag and browned it, though, it was perfectly golden.

Paper bag pie on the right, naked-baked pie on the left.

The pies are still too hot to cut into, so we’ll give you a taste-and-texture report tomorrow. Stay tuned!