In 1935, apple pie was a matter of national concern.
In March of that year, Oregon Rep. William Ekwall reportedly said his state offered the "most delicious apples in the world," a claim New York Rep. James P.B. Duffy could little let lie. Thus an airplane — loaned by local newspaperman Frank Gannett, founder of what would later become the nation's largest newspaper publishing company — full of 75 pies baked with Rochester apples, made its way to the U.S. House of Representatives in April.
"We feel that the real test of an apple comes when it is translated into pie," Duffy announced, according to the Associated Press. "And to be the kind of pie that mother used to bake, it must be made of apples grown on the fertile , sun-kissed slopes of Western New York."
This prompted South Carolina's Spartanburg Herald-Journal to comment a few days later: "The question remains unsettled and probably will be so until the apple crop in Spartanburg County is sufficiently advanced for [Speaker of the House Joseph Byrns] to invite his colleagues to the restaurant to enjoy that triumph of Southern cookery, the green apple pie, the greatest confection that ever came from a stove ..."
Seventy-six years later, some local pride remains evident when Kristina Migoya is asked about what makes a great apple pie. A lecturing instructor in the baking and pastry department of the New York-based Culinary Institute of America, Migoya graciously agreed to help prime us in our search for the best locally baked version.
"Here in the Northeast, we're, like, so blessed with having many different apples to choose from," she says via phone. "What we use is a lot of Northern Spy." But there are others, she quickly adds: Golden Delicious, McIntosh Red, Granny Smith.
Once the selection's made, it becomes a question of filling. Asked (more or less) whether gushing goo is good or not, Migoya laughs.
"There's two camps to this thought, and, actually, this is ironic because my husband is the instructor and the head chef in the Apple Pie [Bakery] Café, here on campus, so we talk about these things a lot," she says. "He's in an environment where he needs the pie to stay together, because he needs to be able to get it to a table, right, without it oozing out everywhere.
"My feeling is a really good pie is moist — almost on that edge of collapsing and falling apart. But I think it needs to walk that fine line."
Finally, in terms of finishing touches, she says — with audible horror — that pies are commonly under-baked. Beyond that, they're under-seasoned: "Even a pinch of salt, sometimes, just accentuates sweetness in the apples," she says. "It's amazing."
And it's an amazing reaction that a pie can inspire. Just consider our dessert-loving, Great Depression-era federal government.
"Duffy had permission of the House to make an announcement of the New York State pie on the floor," the AP wrote, "before debate on the social security bill."
Scouring the city for homemade apple pie is a little harder than it sounds. The Dutch Kitchen, in Manitou Springs, is a stalwart of the scene, but we sampled its apple pie in June. Marigold Café and Bakery is Dessert Central, according to Indy readers, but it's traded its pies for apple tarts.
Undeterred, and motivated to bring you the best restaurant-baked pie during the prime pie season, we present four challengers. The establishments represented here regularly have pie available, and always do their own baking. We know there are others; send your pie picks to email@example.com, or comment online.
The Goose Berry Patch Restaurant
660 State Hwy. 115, Penrose, 719/372-3910
Crust: The sugar-coated top crust was almost indistinguishable from the filling, in texture and in flavor. It solidified as it rose toward the back, however, into a nice, buttery crumble with a minimum of crimping at the edges.
Filling: Thick and sweet — really, really sweet — with little spice or cinnamon. Certainly enjoyable, with small slices of Jonathan apples, if one-note.
Presentation: Roughly an inch-and-a-half thick, the pie came solidly in one piece, with the moist undulations of sugar on top.
Value: All told, a lovely piece of pie (slice, $2.95; whole, $11.95) despite the intense sweetness of the filling.
Smiley's Bakery & Café
323 N. Tejon St., 328-9447, smileysbakerycafe.com
Crust: Its crust was a little gummy, but nicely sprinkled with cinnamon. The top crust quickly dried as it moved toward the edge, though, into an end twice the size of the pie-proper, and rock hard to boot.
Filling: Slim and puce-colored, with a minimum of thin Granny Smith apple slices from Sysco, the filling tasted lightly tart and sweet, with help from the spice over the crust.
Presentation: Edged with melting whipped cream, thin and sunken up front, bulging and dry in the back, the pie seemed to be hurting.
Value: The most expensive of the four (slice, $4.25; whole, $16.50) also proved the most disappointing. Smiley's has other pies we've heard good things about — try those.
Susie's Westside Café
1686 S. 21st St., 442-0090
Crust: The only crust we sampled that offered a little salt; an addition that came off pitch perfect with the light cinnamon-and-sugar dusting. It also held up well over the time it took to eat.
Filling: Its roughly two inches proved the thickest of the bunch, packed with Granny Smith apples and a thick, dark brown, lightly tangy filling.
Presentation: Big and beautiful, with a nicely scalloped edge and a flaky, golden crust. Easily leaves a little to-go.
Value: One of the lower price points (slice, $2.75; whole, N/A) with some of the biggest and tastiest pie. Sure, Susie's is at the top of a huge hill, but it's worth the trip.
Multiple locations, villageinn.com
Crust: Initially, the crust comes off as nicely flaky with rich, buttery overtones. Eaten on its own, however, it quickly reveals a lingering "off" flavor that's hard to describe but unpleasant to continue to eat once tasted.
Filling: Medium chunks of Granny Smith apples fill the clear, cinnamon-flecked filling, heated to lukewarm. Medium sweet, the insides offer little to complain about.
Presentation: The pie must have exploded while reheating, as it gushed forth into a bit of a mess on the plate.
Value: Hard to beat the price (slice, $2.59; whole, $8.99), and even harder once you consider that a piece is free with purchase on Wednesdays.