Sweet desserts are great, but to me, they're even better when they come with a spicy kick. Chocolate and chiles, for example, where the spiciness is more a sensation than a taste, or poached peaches with black pepper. It's as if the counterpoint of spice highlights the sweetness by contrast, and vice versa.
For apple pie, my solution is to add a handful of crystalized ginger to the seasonings, and then reduce the cinnamon so it's not the main event but still evocative of traditional flavors. The ginger softens as the pie bakes, melting into the apples so spicy bites are a surprise but not a disruption of the texture. And as it bakes, it fills the air with that aroma of autumn, of holidays on the way and more pies to be had soon.
Apple Ginger Pie
½ pound lard
½ stick butter
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ cup cold water
(This is my gran's very reliable crust; it's easy to handle and always turns out. But if you prefer a different recipe, use that one!)
5 or 6 baking apples, sliced thinly and sprinkled with the juice and zest from half a lemon
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of cardamom
Pinch of nutmeg
4 tablespoons crystalized ginger, minced
Turn oven to 425 degrees.
For the crust:
Cut the lard and the butter into little cubes. Freeze until very cold and hard.
Mix flour and salt in a medium bowl.
Place the lard and butter in the flour, and using your hands, rub the fat into the flour until it looks like small clumps of wet sand.
Whisk together egg, vinegar and water in a small bowl. Combine with the floury fat, switching to a fork or a pastry dough blade when it gets too hard to incorporate with a mixing spoon. If the dough seems too sticky, add a little more flour. It rarely goes the other way for me, but when it has, I've found that adding a little milk or cream works well to bring everything back together again.
Divide pie crust dough into two balls. Refrigerate one, place the other on a floured surface and roll out to a roughly 12-inch circle. Place the dough into a 9-inch pie dish. If you find in the process of rolling out the dough that it seems too sticky or too fragile, just douse it with a little more flour, gather it up, and roll it out again. This is one reason I really like this recipe: you can roll it out a few times and it won't get tough.
For the filling:
Mix together sugar and spices and sprinkle over the apple slices, tossing slightly so that each slice is coated. Sprinkle in crystalized ginger.
Turn filling into the pie dish, including any liquid that's at the bottom of the bowl. Dot the slices with a tablespoon or two of butter, as you like.
Retrieve the second ball of dough from the fridge and roll out to a 12-inch circle. Cover the pie and crimp around the edges, or if you prefer, cut the dough into strips and make a lattice top instead.
Place in the oven for 25 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375 and bake for another 30 minutes or so, until the top is golden brown and the juices are bubbling.
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.