The air is crisp and fresh. The mid-September sun melts over the changing leaf cover on the hillsides with a poignant light, unique to this time of year in the Northeast. The shift of the autumnal equinox is palpable.
This is truly one of the best times of year to be in New England. And if the stunning array of fall foliage heading toward its peak weren’t enough, the abundant harvest from a wealth of local farms evokes a heartfelt comfort, reminiscent of grandma’s kitchen—of glass jars of canned pickles, tomatoes, fruits, and jams lined up on pantry shelves; of hot, steaming bread being pulled from ovens; of freshly baked pies cooling in the window.
For those who love to cook, the offerings of autumn can bring on a fond nostalgia for those classic, down-home recipes—and might even inspire us to switch those up a bit by adding a creative spin of our own.
What better subject to start with than the ever faithful apple?
Come autumn, apples hang abundantly from groaning branches at local orchards, ready for the picking. They spill out of baskets in all their aromatic, ruddy, red, yellow, and green-cheeked glory at roadside farm-stands; beckon from heavy wooden crates at every market, the smell of fresh-pressed cider thick in the air.
With a variety of tart, sweet, mellow, and bright flavors to tempt the taste buds, and health benefits on par with culinary adaptability, who can resist?
A Brief History: How Apples Got to the New World
But first, let’s take a giant leap back in time to 17th-century America.
The arduous sea voyage of the Pilgrims has ended on the coasts of New England, and the challenges they face are great and numerous. Less significant of these, but worthy of mention, given our topic of pursuit, is the discovery that the only apple native to this land is the tiny, often tart crab apple. Though a perfectly fine fruit in its own right, the crab apple alone simply would not suffice.
By some foresight and fortune, the European settlers who followed some years later brought with them favored fruit seeds of their homeland—including, thankfully, apple seeds (or pips, as they were called).
Yet still another challenge lay ahead. After the trees the colonists so painstakingly planted reached maturity, it was with much dismay that they found they bore little fruit—due to the complete absence of honeybees in the New World!
It would take several more years, and a shipment of honeybee colonies from England, before the colonists could breathe a collective sigh of relief. The busy pollinators set to work in swarms, and finally, by the mid 1640s, the culmination of all efforts finally came to fruition: well-established, productive apple orchards spread throughout New England.
Some 160 years later, John Chapman, fondly known to most Americans as Johnny Appleseed, began his famous trek through Massachusetts and parts of the Midwest and Southeast, a journey that would last 40 years and cover a full 100,000 square miles.
Following his dream that no one in the land should ever go hungry again, he preached the gospel and planted apple trees for every person he came across. Pouches of seeds he collected from cider mills were handed to all brave souls heading west, a mission given him, he would say, by God.
Though the trees that grew from these seeds were a variety not necessarily pleasing in edible quality, the legend of Johnny Appleseed, in a sense, is one of many historical portrayals of the apple as a symbol of life.
A Savory Twist on a Classic
Of all apple recipes invoked by this season, apple pie most surely holds its prominence. But with a plethora of sweet pie recipes readily available, I took a less traveled path and chose to create something savory.
This rustic, skillet-baked pie draws on the classic combination of apples, onions, and pork. I opted to use Honeycrisp apples, not only for their perfect sweet-tart flavor balance, but also because they hold their shape well when baked. The pork comes in the form of thick-slab smoked bacon—which adapts better to pie filling—chopped up and lightly browned in a cast-iron skillet. Sliced onions follow, cooked in the bacon drippings until browned and glassy.
Everything then comes together beautifully in a single all-butter crust, tucked into the same cast-iron skillet and baked until golden brown.
All the while, fresh-pressed apple cider simmers down into syrup on the stove. After the pie comes out of the oven, wedges of well-aged cheddar cheese and a drizzle of that cider-syrup add the crowning touch.
Serve this delicious, sweet-and-savory apple pie with a side salad—late-crop arugula is a great choice for a tangy, peppery flavor component—for a perfect autumn meal.
Rustic Skillet Apple Pie With Bacon, Cheddar, and Cider Syrup
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 1/2 hours
This rustic pie is a delicious, savory way to enjoy seasonal apples. The pie is assembled and baked in the same cast-iron pan used to cook the bacon and onions for the filling, which allows the flavors to meld beautifully, and keeps the process (and clean up!) simple.
The cider syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a year. Consider doubling the cider amount in the recipe (just add another 30 minutes or so to the reduction time) so that you can have the syrup on hand through the winter—you won’t regret it!
For the Cider Syrup
- 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider
For the Crust
- 5 tablespoons ice water
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 1/4 cup white unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 9 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
For the Filling
- 3 ounces (about 3 slices) smoked bacon
- 2 to 3 small yellow onions (about 10 ounces)
- 2 crisp medium apples, preferably Honeycrisp, Cripps Pink, Gala, or Braeburn (about 12 ounces)
- Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
- Sea salt to taste
- Heaping 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 3 to 4 ounces aged, extra sharp cheddar cheese
For the Cider Syrup
In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot (enameled cast-iron is preferable) over high heat, bring the cider to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium-low and allow the cider to simmer until reduced to 1/8 of its starting quantity (i.e., 1/2 gallon of cider should reduce to 1 cup of syrup, 1 gallon to 2 cups), approximately 2 1/2 hours. Bear in mind that the surface area and size of the pot will affect the length of the reduction time—the larger the surface area, the faster the process.
Close to the end, test the syrup with a spoon: It should run off the spoon like heated honey. Be careful not to over-reduce, or you will have a thick, sticky mess on your hands. The syrup will thicken slightly as it cools.
While the cider simmers, you can prepare the rest of the recipe.
For the Pie Crust
Mix the water and vinegar together in a small glass and set in the freezer to chill.
Place 1/3 cup of the flour into the bowl of a food processor, and add the salt. Pulse several times to combine.
Cut the cold butter into small chunks and add to the food processor. Process until the mixture has become a paste and formed a ball, about 15 seconds. There should be no loose flour left.
Use a spatula, a fork, or (carefully) your fingers to break up the paste-ball into smaller chunks and distribute them around the bottom of the processor bowl. Sprinkle on the remaining flour and pulse several times, until the mixture is the consistency of very coarse grain.
Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the chilled vinegar-water over the mixture and pulse several more times. Before adding more vinegar-water, check the consistency of the dough. When pinched between fingers, it should hold together without feeling wet. Add more vinegar-water one tablespoon at a time, as needed, pulsing and checking consistency between additions.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently shape it into a thick disc. (Do not knead!) Wrap in parchment paper or plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.
For the Filling
Slice the uncooked bacon into generous 1/2-inch pieces.
Peel the onions and cut in half lengthwise. Slice the halves horizontally into 1/4 inch-thick half-rings.
Heat a well-seasoned 9-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and partially cook the bacon, until the edges are light brown but not crisp, about 3 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a small bowl and set aside, leaving as much of the bacon drippings in the pan as possible.
Reduce heat to medium. Place the sliced onion in the hot pan and sauté, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes, cool the pan with a small shot of water. Sauté onions until they are glassy and nicely browned but not caramelized, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. Using a paper towel, wipe the skillet out, but do not wash.
Wash the apples (do not peel them), cut each apple in half vertically, and remove the cores (or use an apple corer, then cut in half vertically). Cut each half into 1/8 to 1/4 inch-thick slices. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lay a sheet of baking parchment on your work surface and lightly dust with flour. Place the chilled pie dough in the center, then flip the dough over, dusted side up, and top with another sheet of parchment.
Using a heavy rolling pin, roll the dough out until it is approximately 1 1/2 inch wider in diameter than your cast-iron skillet; it should be about 1/4 inch thick.
Remove the top layer of parchment and lay the pan face down on the center of the dough. With your hand under the bottom sheet of parchment, flip the pan and dough over simultaneously so that the dough ends up in the pan, intact. Remove the parchment and gently ease the crust to fit inside the pan, leaving the excess dough to hang over the edges.
Spread the cooked onion evenly onto the crust. Layer the apple slices over the onion, and then top with the partially cooked bacon. Sprinkle cracked black pepper, salt, and dried thyme over the top of the filling.
Working in a circle around the pan, gently fold the excess dough in over the outer edges of the filling with your fingers, using a butter knife to loosen dough from the sides of the pan, if necessary.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Slice the cheddar cheese into thin wedges. Cut the pie into quarters and transfer to serving plates. Top with the cheese wedges and drizzle with cider syrup. Enjoy!
Cardinale Montano is a freelance writer living in West Stockbridge, Mass. She shares her creativity with good friends, family, and eager learners, and celebrates daily the blessings of nature in the beautiful Berkshires. She is the founder and designer at LineflaxAndRoving.com