A Farm to School Pie must be an apple pie. The apple, afterall, is the gift for the teacher. It is the fall fruit harvested just in time for school. Apples are bountiful in Michigan, which ranks third nationwide in apple production. And apples offer a bursting-with-flavor story that everyone can understand:
Students at one local school ate five times as many apples after their food service director switched to serving juicy, local apples instead of the bland ones picked to withstand shipping. The kids tasted the difference.
I am thinking about this because I have been assigned to bake a Farm to School Pie for our Oct. 8 Groundwork Center annual Harvest at the Commons event, where we auction celebrity pies, pies with a theme, and, of course, pies with local ingredients.
Here’s a heads-up on my pie, inspired by the work I’ve been doing for 12 years at Groundwork, assisting schools in buying local food for kids’ meals. My pie will be baked by my husband, Dean Conners, the baker and sweet tooth in the family. It has a bit of me in it too, though, because the recipe starts with someone important in my past. I also asked questions of a friend who is a weekly home pie baker, in order to revise it a smidgen.
First, the story. The original recipe is from one of my favorite aunts on my father’s side of the family—who was a professional cake baker out of her modest home in southern Ohio before she passed away. For those of you who follow the local food scene, she was an original in the “cottage food industry,” before there was such a term for people who made a living from home using their talents and hard work ethic. Her cooking inspired her kids, my cousins, to create a cookbook of her recipes, called Mom’s Stuff: The Recipes of Hilda M. Cox.
Aunt Hilda was of a different generation, though. In those days butter was considered evil for health, and so her pie calls for margarine. I won’t go near margarine now, since today we consider it an evil trans fat. Now, I’ll shake some Shetler’s cream in a mason jar until it turns into yummy butter.
And sweets in Aunt Hilda’s day were—sweet. So her recipe calls for twice the sugar Dean and I tend to use today. But to doublecheck, I called our good friend Conrad Heins, who bakes pie just about every week, using whatever fruit is in season or that he’s put away in the freezer or a jar.
Conrad pronounces “pie” in the same ecstatic way that singer extraordinaire Claudia Schmidt does in her poem about pie. Think of how you might see a gorgeous sunset over Good Harbor Bay and say, “Look at that sky.” Then rhyme it.
Conrad, who also is a former teacher, talks about pie with the same sense of discovery with which he talks about science and math. One of the things people often do, he said, is put in so much sugar and spice that you can’t taste the flavor of the apples.
I read him Aunt Hilda’s recipe, and he said, “That would make a delicious pie.” But it also had twice the sugar and twice the spice he would use.
So, my recipe is Aunt Hilda’s recipe, with clove and lemon juice that Conrad doesn’t use; a bit of maple syrup from our own backyard maple trees; and half the sugar and half the quantity of spice as her recipe calls for, to let the apple flavor shine through. Just like the flavor of our region’s apples shine through now for students in so many area schools.
Diane Conners is senior policy specialist in food and farming at Groundwork Center. Her latest project in farm to school programming is called 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms. It has inspired the state Legislature to fund an expanded pilot project this year that provides grant-winning schools in west and northwest Lower Michigan with an extra 10 cents a meal to buy Michigan grown fruits and vegetables.
Farm to School Pie
adapted from Mom's Stuff: The Recipes of Hilda M. Cox
Combo recipe of Diane Conners' Aunt Hilda, friend Conrad Heins and husband Dean Conners
4-6 tart apples (about five cups, peeled and sliced. Try Winesap or Ida Red)
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon lemon juice.
Put in a chilled 9-inch pie shell (Flour ground from locally grown soft wheat is available from Grand Traverse Culinary Oils).
Dot with two tablespoons butter. (It’s easy to shake a pint of local cream in a quarter mason jar and make butter…)
Cover with top crust or crumb topping and bake:
15 minutes at 425 degrees, then
30 minutes at 350 degrees
Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at Groundwork. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.