The perfect blackberry and apple pie has a sweet, tender crust and a melting, sweet-sharp filling. It is brought to the table in a deep, oval dish for all to admire, ready to be spooned into bowls with a generous hand. There should be pastry on the top, but not underneath, plenty of juice and more fruit than crust. A recipe that is free from the meddling of creative cooks, and from the twists and turns of fashion. The merest taste should take us romping back to our childhood.
Blackberry and apple pie is the pie we all grew up with. If we did not, then it was the pie we dreamed of while our mothers fobbed us off with Angel Delight. When children draw a pie, it is this rather than a wafer-thin tarte aux pommes or the American double-crust pie that they draw. Nowadays, we make such a pudding not just for its softly crumbling pastry and fluff of apples, but also for the memories that only a deep-bellied pie encrusted with pastry leaves can invoke. Few recipes are quite so capable of inducing heart-wrenching nostalgia or being such a glorious example of 'simple home cooking'.
The heart and soul of this pie is windfall apples and berries plucked from the hedgerow. There is something unquestionably right about the seasonality and the frugality of this sort of cooking. Urban cooks like me have no tree standing bent and laden in their back garden, let alone one whose fruit they can cook with. Blackberries come from the greengrocers, incarcerated in unromantic plastic punnets emblazoned with a sell-by date. It is not the same as the fruit you pop in your pocket while walking the dog, but we must make the best of what we have.
Right now, the best is pretty good for this particular urban cook, with round, fat Bramley apples still wet from the grass they fell in and tiny, sharp blackberries, both from the local farmers' market. It's a good second best. I mention this recipe only as a reminder of how good our traditional puddings are, and plead that they are not embellished or, worse, forsaken in preference for fancy-schmancy patisserie or the ubiquitous mouth-clogging chocolate tart.
The pastry is the crux of it all. Not the sweet sugar-and-egg crust so beloved of professional cooks, but something more homely. A classic butter, lard and flour shortcrust - sneered at by anyone who has done a cookery course or has been caught in the downward spiral that is fad dieting - is the most suitable for this pie. Light, fragile and crisp. Pastry that does its bit but doesn't intrude on the treasure beneath. And, the most important bit of all, the sort of pastry that stays crisp on top while happily soaking up the purple juices of the blackberries underneath.
A traditional deep-pie dish is made of china or enamelled metal. As there is no bottom crust to the pie, the fruit must not come into contact with any metal save stainless steel, as the acid in the fruit would react with it, tainting the fruit. The dish needs a wide rim to fix the pastry to and a deep belly to hold all the fruit. The classic Mason pie dish is just about perfect and has hardly changed for decades.
As the fruit softens in the oven, it is no longer capable of holding the pastry up, so a support of some sort is often used, usually a china funnel. I have never felt the need for one, perhaps because I am generous in the extreme with the filling, or perhaps I've just been lucky. The only time I used one, a rather tasteful one shaped like a squawking blackbird, the pastry collapsed around it, leaving the poor bird screaming for help through the top of the pie.
As I said, I do think the best pastry for this is one that contains a mixture of butter and lard. Of course you should use your favourite pastry, but best make sure it is not too sweet. A simple shortcrust is the most suitable - the very soft, tender pastries containing sugar and egg yolks tend to collapse. Resting the dough in the fridge for half an hour before rolling it out is a very effective way to make a pastry more manageable.
You can cook with any apple, but for a pie such as this you would want them to fluff up rather than hold their shape. For a neatly overlapping tart then, yes, use an apple with a low-water content so that the fruit keeps in segments. For a pie, it is difficult to beat a good old Bramley, or a Grenadier, though you could use a Blenheim Orange if you wanted your apples to stay in clearly defined pieces. Chunks hold up better; fine slices may just turn to mush. How much sugar you add will depend on how sweet your apples are. The only way to tell is to taste a piece. If you are like me, it is something I tend to do as I am peeling them anyway. And yes, you do have to peel the apples. I can't think of anything nastier than an apple pie where someone has left the skin on the fruit in some misjudged attempt at being healthy.
Cultivated blackberries, the sort sold in the shops, are much sweeter and more juicy than those you pick from the hedgerows. This is a good thing for dessert, but bad news for a pie, where the snap of acidity is very welcome as contrast to the sugar-crusted pastry. If you come across the variety Fantasia, then jump at it - the small black fruits have a deep flavour and a bit of a bite to them.
The official line is half berries to apples, but I tend to add slightly less. It is a ratio that works. Too many berries will give you too much juice and not enough fruit to support the crust.
Cream rather than custard for me, please. But obviously the choice is yours. Custard makes the whole dish too filling for my taste - I feel full after a couple of spoonfuls. Long before we discovered the delights of crème frache and mascarpone, double cream was offered with hot pies and this would, even now, be my first choice. There is something infinitely right about cold cream and hot pie.
Deep-dish blackberry and apple pie
You will need a traditional oval 2-litre pie dish that measures about 32cm in length. Serves 6-8. For the pastry:
250g plain flour
75g butter, cold from the fridge
75g lard, cold from the fridge
For the filling:
6 large Bramley apples
2 or 3 large handfuls of blackberries
sugar to taste
double cream to serve
Put the flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut the butter and lard into small chunks and rub into the flour with your thumbs and fingertips. You could do it in the food mixer but I can't really see why - it only takes a minute by hand. To bring the mixture to a rollable dough, add a little ice-cold water. Start with a tablespoonful, adding it gingerly (too much is difficult to correct) and draw the dough in from the sides to form a ball. You may need a couple. You are looking for a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.
Set the oven at 200 C/gas mark 6. Peel, core and quarter the apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks, then put them into the pie dish. Taste the apples to gauge their sweetness. I like my fruit fairly tart, so just add a surface sprinkling of sugar. The sweet of tooth may want to add anything up to a tablespoon per apple. Add the blackberries and toss them with the apples and sugar.
Roll the pastry out to fit the top of the dish. You want enough extra pastry around the edge to be able to cut off and cover the rim of the dish. (Plus a few scraps to make some leaves, if you like that sort of thing.) The simplest way to do this is to turn the dish upside down on the pastry and score around the top, then score a second line around the outside as wide as the rim.
Wet the rim of the pie dish - water will do - then fix the outer rim of pastry to it, cutting and pasting to fit. Wet it with water or egg. Lift the pastry on to the pie, pressing the edge firmly on to the pastry rim. Crimp it to seal with your thumb and first finger, or by pressing down with the prongs of a fork.
Cut two or three short slits in the centre of the pastry to let out any steam and, if you wish, decorate the pie with scraps of pastry cut into leaves. Brush with a little milk and dust with caster sugar.
Bake the pie for 40-50 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and pale gold, covering it as needs be to stop it browning.