Despite having grown up the Chicago suburbs, I was born with that most important of advantages for a food writer: a Southern grandmother who goes by Granny. This is like a thematic trust fund for anyone who writes about food. Some Southern grannies pass down wisdom about ethereal cornbread, life-changing chicken and dumplings, or greens that are far greater than the sum of their parts. Mine taught me how to make the kind of pies you grab for a dollar at a gas station.
You might know about the commercial incarnation of fried pies from your proximity to a Hostess plant, from any of the far-inferior competitor offerings, or from that time the Incredible Hulk murdered a bunch of roller disco guys so that neighborhood kids could buy some. They’re one of my personal garbage-food weaknesses.
Granny’s version of fried pie is spectacular in a way that’ll make you want to take the long way and make it yourself. I promise you couldn’t mistake it for the wax-sleeved version. And fittingly, my granny Bedelia “Dedo” Brandt (née Coode) learned it from her own mother back in middle Tennessee at the age of eight. (In the Carolinas, there’s a version of this called applejacks.)
Despite her upbringing, or because of it, Granny’s not nearly as strident as your other grandmothers about store-bought baked items. She admits that in matters of pound cake and angel food cake, the store mix is just as good as what she can turn out. But fried pies?
“Not even close. The dough is a little sweeter and they’ve always got sugar all over them,” she said. “Without that crisp pastry and fresh ingredients, it’s not very good. I’d never buy a store-bought fried pie.”
Nor, she says, should you attempt to replicate the scale of industrial monster-pies. Her mother’s pies were formed with a pint-jar lid, which are smaller than the grocery versions. Lord knows we tried to scale them up, but with a moist filling and a soft rising crust, a 6-inch pie is untenable without loads of swearing at inanimate objects.
Her final advice to me was me to disregard any and all nutritional concerns about frying in lard, as “I read the obituaries, and all these people are dying at 89, 95, 100—I know they grew up eating like I do. Don’t believe that shit… oh, don’t write that.”
- 1 package pie crust (two crusts), rolled out to 1/8-inch thickness and cut into a dozen 3.5-inch circles
- 3 cups shortening or lard, for frying
- 2 cups (about 2 large apples) apples—skinned, quartered, and sliced (a mix of tart and sweet works best)
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp. lemon zest
- 1/4 oz. apple brandy
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 1 1/4 tsp. powdered fruit pectin
- 2 1/4 cups sugar
- 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp. Ceylon cinnamon
- 1/2 oz. whole milk
- 1/4 oz. vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
Whisk together all the ingredients for glaze, set aside.
Add the apples, cider, lemon juice, brandy, butter, and pectin to a medium pot and heat to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. When it boils, turn it down to a simmer, cover, and cook for 6-8 minutes, until the apples are tender.
Whisk in the sugar gradually until it’s combined, then bring to a boil for 90 seconds, until thick and jelly-like. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon zest, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Pour into two pint jars and let cool to set. Cooling overnight is great, but you can also spread the mix out on a sheet pan to cool faster. Setting the preserves will make it easier to assemble the pies. (Two pints of preserves will make something like 8 dozen pies, but trying to make a miniature batch of preserves is practically begging for burned sugar. And who minds extra preserves?)
Heat the shortening/lard to 375 degrees in a deep 12-inch cast-iron skillet. You must do this relatively slowly, as adjusting the frying temperature in a skillet isn’t quick or easy, and the pies can burn quickly at too high a heat. Too low, and they get greasy and lose the crisp pastry bite.
While the lard is heating, place 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of each pie shell. Fold over the pie shells and close with a fork, pressing down and dragging downward and out to close tightly. Pay special attention to the corners, where weak seams are most likely to leak.
Carefully lower the pies into the oil three or four at a time and fry 2 minutes per side, untouched. If your oil doesn’t quite reach the top of the pies, spoon a bit of oil over the top of each. Once both sides are a little north of golden brown, remove with a thin spatula.
Place pies on a wire rack above a sheet pan. When the pies appear dry, brush with the glaze on both sides and return to the rack until the glaze sets.
Serve immediately or let cool entirely before storing. I assure you that your guests will curse the name of Little Debbie and will possibly learn the words to Rocky Top.