Southern Indiana's best: apple pies
Join us on our journey to find the best apple pies in the 812 area.
Johnny Appleseed’s journey to the Midwest may have stopped short of Southern Indiana, but apple pie’s roots here still run deep. Apples were a staple in early settlers’ diets because they could be harvested and eaten in the fall or dried or saved in the cellar for another time. They were a bit of sweetness in a diet dominated by potatoes, peas, cabbage and leeks.
Today, apples are still an important part of Hoosiers’ diets. More than 20 orchards exist in the 812 area. On a weekend day in October, as many as 5,000 people line up for the 70 apple varieties at Apple Works in Trafalgar. But while we may bite into a pink lady for lunch or slice up a Granny Smith in salads, apple pie remains a dessert staple in Southern Indiana homes.
“Everyone knows you can’t go wrong with apple pie,” says Louise Miracle, owner of Pie First Bakery in Gosport. “Cherry pie can be too sweet. Blackberry pie, some people don’t like the seeds. Blueberry pie can be bland. Everybody likes apple pie.”
We combed through online reviews, talked to foodies and did some sampling of our own in search of 812’s best apple pies. Some bakers say the variety of apples you use makes the difference. Others swear it’s the crust. Everyone seems to have a closely guarded secret or two.
Join us, from Gosport to Trafalgar to Bloomington, as we take you on our search for the best Hoosier apple pies.
Pie First Bakery
Gosport, by appointment only
Fluffy clouds dot an otherwise clear sky, and trees sway in the wind as we make our way to Pie First Bakery’s kitchen in Gosport. Louise Miracle and her husband, Rick, own the business, and the kitchen is located on their property.
A long, gravel driveway leads to the Miracles’ houses. Yes, they have two houses right next to each other. The Miracles live in the “big house,” and Louise bakes in the “little house.” The “big house” looks as if it were pulled from the pages of a fairy tale. Its mix of architectural styles contrasts with the “little house,” a 1980s ranch.
The warm, sweet smell of pies baking fills the air in the “little house.” Tea and almond Bakewell tart slices, an English dessert, await us on a counter, and Miracle and her friend Christie Vance, who helps with baking, are in the tiny kitchen making tarts and pies to be sold at an upcoming Bloomington farmer’s market.
An apple ginger walnut pie is baking in the oven. Louise opens the door to see if it’s done. The filling bubbles through an opening in the top crust, signaling the pie is ready. The top is latticed and lumpy, and the edges are shaped like flower petals. The crust isn’t sweet. In fact, it’s slightly savory. It contrasts perfectly with the inside of the pie, which is gooey and sweet. The ginger adds a bit of zing. The soft warmth of the apples, the crunch of the walnuts and the flakiness of the crust create a variety of textures that makes this pie delicious.
Miracle started selling pies at the market in 2012, but her expertise comes from years of practice. She’s been baking since she was 4. “I always as a little kid loved to bake,” she says.
Her German grandmother, Nanee, taught her the basics, and her love for the process grew as she did. So did her antique pie tin collection. Whenever her grandchildren visit, they use them to bake pies together.
Baking pies is something she does part-time. She’s also a psychologist and occasionally teaches a psychology class at IU.
Miracle and her husband hatched the idea of starting a bakery when they set out on a journey, much like ours, to find the best pie crust and fillings. They didn’t find anything that blew them away, so they decided to start making and selling their own pies.
Every other Saturday, you’ll find Pie First Bakery’s desserts at the Bloomington farmer’s market, where you can pick from an array of pies, tarts or cinnamon rolls. Or you can special-order pies online for any occasion and either pick them up at the market or have them catered to you for an extra fee.
Apple is one of their most popular pie flavors. And while Pie First Bakery is dedicated to using the best ingredients they can find, Miracle says a great apple pie depends on more than just ingredients. “A pie has three parts: the crust, the filling and the edge,” she says. “The crust is absolutely critical.”
She takes her pies to the next level by paying extra attention to the edge. While baking, she puts tin foil around the edge to avoid burning it. Toward the end of baking, she removes the foil so it ends up crisp but not overdone. “I like the edge to be like a second dessert,” she says.
Miracle’s love of baking shows in her pies, both figuratively and literally. She places a pastry heart near the center of each pie she bakes. She makes sure each pie looks and tastes as perfect as possible, and that makes for a happy customer. But then again, have you ever seen anyone be unhappy while eating pie? “You can’t eat a piece of pie without smiling,” Miracle says.
The Apple Works
8157 S. 250 West, Trafalgar
If you Google “best apple pie in Southern Indiana,” you’ll find Apple Works’ pie rated often as No. 1. In a recent poll by Visit Indiana, their version of the classic dessert topped the list. We set out to see for ourselves exactly what makes their pie the best.
Apple Works sits just off a paved country road near Trafalgar. We almost missed the entrance, nearly passing the gravel drive. To the right of the entrance is a parking area packed with the cars of families who have made visiting the orchard a fall tradition. Beyond the parking area are rows upon rows of apple trees bearing common varieties like Fuji and honeycrisp, and lesser known ones like Jonamac and crimson crisp.
From its beginning, Apple Works has been family-centered. The orchard started in 1991, when Sarah Brown, its main horticulturalist and owner, and her husband, Rick, planted 10 varieties of apple trees on the southern end of the property. A couple of years later, the trees bore their first crop. The Browns set up two refrigerators in the middle of the field, and their daughters ran back-and-forth to fill apple orders from passing cars.
The orchard has grown since then. Now, Apple Works has 10,000 apple trees, and a large, red barn welcomes guests. Inside is the orchard’s store and a dining area with tables. It’s decorated to feel like home with a fireplace and signs with sayings like “Calories don’t count outside your ZIP code.”
Pies and jams are easy to pull off the shelf, take home and eat. But they’re not so simple to make. Even the apple trees require special attention and care. They’re subject to rots and diseases, and the soil isn’t always perfect either. Brown and her team work endlessly to make sure the trees get the proper care they need, from pruning to bringing in bees for pollination.
Their apple pies take even more work, as the apples are just one component. But what makes Apple Works’ pie better than the rest? A couple of reasons, says head baker Janis Cooper.
Reason one: the appearance. “We take a lot of pride in how the pie looks,” Cooper says. “People eat with their eyes.”
Reason two: the crust. “I know someone wants me to say it’s the apples,” Cooper says. “But it’s the crust.” It’s a secret recipe that Cooper won’t even share with friends.
But the apples count, too. Since Apple Works grows so many varieties, Cooper can use a mix of apples in the pies. “I don’t use just all one kind,” she says. “I’ll use maybe three varieties, sometimes even more.” Sweet and tart varieties of apples, like sweet 16 or Jonathan, pair well to give the pie’s flavor some depth.
They also test their ingredients before using them. “We taste our apples before we put everything else in,” Cooper says.
From the apple to the crust, what sets Apple Works’ pie apart from the rest is the care they put into them. “It’s all about timing and tasting and getting it right,” Brown says.
Bloomington Cooking School
115 N. College Ave., Bloomington
We set out to the Bloomington Cooking School to learn how we, inexperienced bakers, could make an outstanding apple pie. The school, owned by Jan Bulla-Baker, is on the square in downtown Bloomington. Classes ranging from pasta-making to knife skills cost $40 to $60, and Chef David Davenport teaches a couple each month. You can find the schedule on the website.
Classes are conversational in a sense. As you’re taught how to cook, you’re given tips that come from experience.
As we walk into the school, the first thing we notice is the smell: sweet, like fruit, but with the tiniest tanginess to it. A Dutch apple pie has just been pulled out of the oven, filling the entire kitchen with the scent. As Davenport slices into it, the topping crumbles a bit, and the crust flakes off. It’s hard to slice a pretty piece, but crumbles don’t affect the flavor. The topping, made with walnuts, butter, flour and sugar, complements the soft filling. Spiced rum adds depth to the filling’s flavor. While the crust has a flaky texture, it allows the apples and topping to take center stage.
Davenport, who used to be the chef at Nick’s, greets us with a smile. He’s been baking apple pies since he was 11 or 12, when his grandmother taught him. While he shows us how to make Dutch apple pie, he gives us tips that challenge what we’ve seen in recipes.
The first tip: Roll out your pie dough right after you make it. It gets stiff if you refrigerate it, as recipes often say to do. “Pie dough should be rolled out and put into form just as soon as it’s made,” he says. He also says sifting flour is unnecessary.
Another tip: Don’t feel obliged to use unsalted butter. “There’s absolutely no reason,” he says. It’s common for cookbooks to call for unsalted butter because they’ve copied knowledge from other recipes. “Nobody’s taken the time to think these things out.”
As Davenport walks us through making an apple pie, it’s as if we are visiting a grandparent and bonding with him over baking, except we haven’t known him our entire lives.
The kitchen isn’t anything like a grandparent’s kitchen, though. A large, stainless steel table occupies the middle of the room. Stainless steel refrigerators hum nearby, and what looks to be over a decade’s accumulation of spices clutter a spice rack near the entrance.
Davenport is teaching us how to make a Dutch apple pie, which is topped with a crunchy, sugary topping instead of crust. He says it’s also Dutch because of a special ingredient.
“What makes it Dutch?” he says. “We’re putting rum in it.”
If you don’t want to use rum, you can use vanilla extract. But the rum gives it extra flavor. Exactly how much rum should you use? While Davenport’s recipe doesn’t say an exact amount, he says to use a three-second pour.
Davenport says recipes don’t need to be followed to a T. Instead, they should simply be a guideline. And his recipe adheres to that – some parts are specific, while others, like the baking time, aren’t exactly prescribed. “This is not a precise art,” he says. “This is an art, but not a precise one.”
Put your chef’s hat on
As part of our journey to find Southern Indiana’s best apple pies, we decided to put Chef David Davenport’s apple pie recipe to the ultimate test. We learned a couple of lessons along the way.
Make sure you have all of your materials before you start baking.
The first thing we had to do was make the dough. It took only a few minutes for us to realize that we were missing a key player in our lineup – a rolling pin. We looked all over the kitchen for anything that we might be able to use and finally stumbled upon the perfect substitute, a half-filled bottle of wine. We wrapped the wine bottle up in plastic wrap and were good to go.
The first time you bake something, stick to the recipe.
Chef Davenport says recipes are only a guideline, but we followed the recipe until it came to the rum. We decided to just keep adding it until it looked like the rum had completely saturated the apples. When the pie was done baking, we each grabbed a fork and dug in. With every bite of delicious pie there was a sting of rum-drenched apples. Lesson learned: Measuring cups are your friend.
Chef Davenport’s Dutch Apple Pie Recipe
1 ½ cups flour
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ sticks butter (chilled), cut into small pieces
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
¾ cup sugar
½ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
4 apples, peeled sliced and cored (recommended Granny Smith or honeycrisp)
1 lemon, juiced
Rum or vanilla, to taste (start with a tablespoon)
1 single-crust, unbaked pie shell
Topping: Combine dry ingredients. Work the butter into the mixture. Fold in the walnuts.
Filling: Combine dry ingredients thoroughly and set aside. Mix the apple slices, lemon, and rum or vanilla. Fold in the dry ingredients into the mixture. Place in the pie shell. Top with crumb mixture. Set on baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until knife blade easily penetrates apples.
Source: Bloomington Cooking School
Nutrition Information: per serving (excluding unknown items): 345 Calories; 9g fat (23.4% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 3g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol’ 201 mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 ½ Grain (Starch); ½ Lean Meat; ½ Fruit; 1 ½ Fat; 2 Other Carbohydrates.
Baking tips from Louise Miracle
Chef Louise Miracle offers six tips to any new baker.
Tip #1 Tin foil
Miracle says this one is a “game changer.” Using tin foil can not only help keep moisture out of your counters when laid down before baking, but it can also make for an easy clean up.
Tip #2 A good rolling pin
One of the most important tools any new baker can possess is a good, heavy rolling pin. Miracle uses a heavy wooden rolling pin and a heavy metal rolling pin, but she prefers the latter. “There’s something a little more hygienic about these,” she says. “There's no chance that any little dough can get inside the wood.”
Tip #3 Hand mixing
While mixing by hand might be a bit messier, Miracle says it makes all the difference in the apple pie. “When you blend it by hand you can make sure your give it a light touch.”
Tip #4 Crimping
This is a critical part of baking. Miracle says one of her favorite crimping methods is the twisted rope. “Again, the point of the crimp is to hold the filling in so it doesn’t bubble over, and it also makes the pie look pretty.”
Tip #5 Practice
We’ve all heard the saying practice makes perfect, and Miracle says that pie-baking is no exception.
Tip #6 Mixing it up
Miracle advises using a variety of apples instead of just one type. Her favorite combination is Rome and honeycrisp. “It’s the honeycrisp texture with the Rome flavor,” she says.
Best pie apples
According to the Apple Works website, you can choose from 10 different apples to make the best apple pie. The first step is to determine if you want the apples in the pie to be firm or tender.