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Latest update: 24 July 2019.
Pastis Gascon is a spectacular and deliscious apple pie that is specific to Gascony - the rural south-west corner of France. The natural borders of this old province are the Atlantic Ocean, the Pyrenees mountain range, and the Garonne river. Its capital is the city of Auch, in the Gers department. The famous musketeer D'Artagnan (whose real name was Charles de Batz de Castelmore) was born near Auch (but died mid-1673 in Maastricht / The Netherlands, during the Franco-Dutch wars).
(source: "Simply Gascony" website; retrieved July 2019)
The original pastry part of the Pastis Gascon is made of a simple dough: flour, salt, egg, water, and some duck or goose fat (or, more expensively, some vegetable oil). The dough ball is stretched by hand until it is translucent and extremely thin - only about 0.1 mm (!) - almost like cigarette paper (from the dark old days, when some folks still smoked such cancer sticks). Traditionally, the stretching is done on a large table, on top of a flour-dusted cloth or bed sheet.
(source: www.lescereales.fr, retrieved July 2019)
During the long, gradual stretching process, the dough sheet becomes as large as that table, without tearing! Note: the same manual process is used to this day, by home cooks, as well as small and industrial bakeries. As the process is so laborious, this pie is normally made at home only for special social & religious occasions.
The art and manufacture of Pastis Gascon (in commercial bakery)
The apples in the Pastis Gascon are macerated in in a syrup (a.k.a. "holy water"). Every family and baker has a secret formula (or claims to have one). The minimum ingredients are sugar and alcohol. Clearly, there is only one option for the high-proof alcohol: Armagnac, France's premier brandy. It is named after the Armagnac region in Gascony. This brandy is distilled only once, has character, and you can taste the primary fruit. Of course, there is another French brandy: Cognac, from the in Cognac region to the northwest of in Gascony. But is is distilled twice, so you can't taste its provenance. Cognac is also literally watered down to 40% (80 proof), Armagnac is not. You can probably guess my preference! And speaking of alcohol: "pastis" pastry has abolutely nothing to do with the French anis-based alcoholic beverage of that name! "Pastis" also has nothing to do with the English meat-and-vegetables "pasty", nor with "pasties" (adhesive patches for a woman's nipple, worn in some burlesque and strip-tease shows).
The history of this apple pie appears to go back to the Middle Ages. The local name varies within Gascony and even within the Gers. In some areas it is called a croustade (though often made with puff pastry) or tourtière (though with fewer apples in the filling, and not with crumpled sheets of dough on top). In some areas such as the Landes department, "pastis" is used for a brioche style pastry. The proper name of this apple pie is a continual source of discussion - wars have been fought for much less important reasons! Most importantly: everybody agrees that it is delicious! There are also variations on the Pastis Gascon, such as the Pastis du Quercy, in the adjacent region to the northeast of the Gascony. In the latter Pastis, the apple slices are soaked in plum (prune) brandy or rum, and are rolled up in a large dough sheet. The resulting "snake" is cut into sections, and coiled into a pie pan (which is why it is also referred to as Pastis Anguille - "eel pastis"). There is also an older, savory version from North Africa, with meat and spices: the pastilla.
Making dough sheets the traditional way is a time-consuming hassle. The recipe below uses sheets of phyllo dough from the supermarket.
- Preparation time: 40 minutes (note: the apples must macerate for 12 hours before making the actual pie!)
- Bake time: 40 minutes
- Makes 6-8 servings.
- 6 golden delicious apples
- Total weight before peeling should be about 1250 grams (≈ 2½ lbs).
- 1 package of phyllo (a.k.a. "filo") dough sheets.
- Standard packages are 250 grams (≈ 9 oz.). They contain 8-10 or 9-11 rectangular sheets (e.g., 35x46 cm, ≈14x18 inch)
- Do not buy a large rolled-up single sheet, and do not use partially pre-baked sheets.
- Phyllo is not puff pastry!
- Do not use sheets of brik dough (sometimes misspelled "brick" or "brique"). It is significantly thicker than phyllo, and made with a different variety and milling of wheat flour.
- 6 tablespoons (≈90 ml) Armagnac brandy
- No need to use your good "sipping quality" (other than for the cook's dram, of course). I simply use "VSOP" grade.
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) orange blossom water (F: eau de fleur d'oranger, D: Orangenblütenwasser)
- 1/2 tablespoon (7.5 ml) real vanilla extract.
- 90 grams (6 tablespoons, 3/4 stick) real butter - for buttering the pie pan and the phyllo sheets.
- 90 grams (7 tablespoons) fine crystal sugar (F: sucre en poudre) - for the apples.
- 90 grams (7 tablespoons) fine crystal sugar - for sprinkling over the buttered pastry sheets.
- Some recipes use cane sugar (F: cassonade).
EQUIPMENT & SUPPLIES
- Deep-dish pie pan: 24 cm (≈9 inch) diameter, 5 cm (2 inch) straight sides; preferably "non-stick".
- Large salad bowl
- Ladle (very big scooping spoon) - for folding over the macerating apple slices.
- Plastic kitchen film (a.k.a. cling film, plastic wrap, food wrap, saran wrap).
- Measuring spoons (the typical "tablespoon" from the kitchen drawer is not "1 tablespoon = 15 ml = 3 "teaspoons" of 5 ml).
- Sieve - for draining the macerated apple slices
- Medium size bowl - for catching the drained maceration juice.
- Small bowl - for melting the butter in the microwave oven.
- Measuring cup or large mug - for the drained juice.
- Soft basting brush
- I use a silicone brush, which is easier than a classic "hair" brush for sprinkling the Phyllo sheets with Armagnac (and is also easier to clean).
- Oven paper (a.k.a. parchment paper, baking paper, bakery release paper) - to cover the pie during most of the baking.
- Sharp pair of kitchen scissors.
- Pie/cake server.
PREPARATION / DIRECTIONS
Make the apple filling about 12 hrs before making the actual pie!
PREPARE THE APPLE FILLING:
- Peel, quarter, and core the apples.
- Cut each quarter apple lengthwise into 3 slices
- Pour the Armagnac over the apple slices, sprinkle 90 grams (7 tablespoons) of the sugar over the apples, and pour the orange blossom water over it.
- Fold over about a dozen times with the ladle, to make sure that all the apple slices are covered.
- Cover the bowl with plastic kitchen film.
- Fold over every couple of hours, and a couple of times just before making the pie.
The apples slices, macerating in Armagnac, sugar, and orange blossom water
MAKE THE PIE:
- Pre-heat the oven to 200 °C (390 °F) - without circulating fan!
- Put the sieve on top of the medium size bowl, and transfer the apple slices + juice into it.
- Drain well.
- I push on the apples with a flat hand, to get some more of the juice out of the soaked apples.
- Do not discard the juice (that would be cullinary sacriledge): transfer it to a medium size bowl. It should be about 150 ml (≈ 2/3 cup). This will be used to sprinkle on the buttered phyllo sheets.
- Put the butter into a small bowl and melt the butter in the microwave oven (should take about 1 minute).
- If you don't have a microwave oven, melt the butter on the stove in a small casserole.
- Lightly grease the pie pan with some of the melted butter (even if the pan is "non-stick").
- Open the package of phyllo sheets and unroll.
- As the phyllo sheets are very thin, they dry out quickly, which makes them fragile. So, the next steps have to be done without delay (but don't hurry!) You should not have to cover the sheets with a damp towel, or have to melt the butter again.
- Count the number of sheets - the packages are sold by weight, not a particular number of sheets!
The setup is simple - the first buttered Phyllo sheet is already in the pie pan
- With the basting brush, lightly butter the first Phyllo sheet.
- Cover the entire sheet.
- Go gently, so as not to tear up the sheet.
- Sprinkle the entire buttered sheet with 2 teaspoons of sugar.
- With the basting brush, sprinkle the entire buttered sheet with the Armagnac juice from the macerated apples.
- Transfer the sheet to the pie pan, center it, and - with your fingers - press the sheet up against the side of the pan (see photo above).
- Repeat with 3 more sheets, but each time, rotate the new sheet about 60° (1/6 of a full turn, 1/3 of half a turn) before putting it down.
- The sheets are rectangular and you do not want to stack them all in the same direction.
- Transfer the drained apple slices to the pan, and spread them out, to get an even layer. See photo below.
- Cover the pie with 2 more buttered/sprinkled sheets, again turning each new sheet.
- Butter and sprinkle another sheet, carefully crumple (i.e., not crumble) it up into a large "rose" flower, and put it on top of the pie.
- Do not crumple the sheet to much! The "rose" should be about 1/5 the surface of the pie.
- Repeat with 3 or 4 more more buttered/sprinkled sheets, and carefully arrange the "roses" evenly on the pie.
- With the scissors, cut off the dough sheets that are hanging over the edge of the pie pan.
- Carefully crumple up the larger cut-offs and use them to fill the holes between the "roses".
- Do not use the small cut-off pieces.
- Drizzle some more of the Armagnac liquid over pie.
- Put the pie at mid-height in the oven and bake for 5 minutes at 200 °C (390 °F) - make sure that the oven's circulating fan is off.
- Cover the entire pie with a piece of oven paper, to prevent the top of the pie from burning.
- Bake for another 5 minutes at 200 °C (390 °F).
- Reduce thermostat setting to 180 °C (355 °F) and open the oven door for 1-2 minutes (to drop the temperature).
- Bake for another 30 minutes at 180 °C (355 °F).
- If you have a meat thermometer, check the core temperature of the pie - it should be at least 97 °C (205 °F).
- Let cool for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle (generously) with Armagnac, for additional flavor.
- Do (not) worry - the Armagnac alcohol will evaporate (and probably accelerate global warming).
Pastis Gascon - step by step
- Some Pastis Gascon recipes briefly pan fry the raw apple slices in some butter, instead of macerating them for hours. After frying them for 2-3 minutes, the slices are sprinkled with sugar, a couple of tablespoons of Armagnac, and some orange flower water. Frying is then continued for another 2-3 minutes. The slices should remain firm, as they will still be baked. Can still be done 10-12 hours before making the pie.
- Some recipes add some lemon zest to the maceration.
- In some recipes, the apple slices are macerated for only one hour, others call for 12-24 hours.
- Some recipes recommend making the apple slices very thin: 2 mm ( = cut each quarter into at least 4 slices). This tends to make the apple filling too soft for my liking.
- Some recipes use (real) vanilla sugar instead of (real) vanilla extract and regular sugar, to macerate the apples. Some recipes do not use vanilla at all.
- In some recipes, 1, 2, or 3 buttered Phyllo sheets are placed between the apples and the crumpled Phyllo sheets on top. In other recipes, no cover sheets are used.
- Some recipes let the assembled pie dry for 3-5 hours, before baking.
- Can also be made in a square pie pan.
SERVING & GARNISH SUGGESTIONS
- Serve tepid or cold. Re-heating is not recommended, but if you do: in a regular oven and never in a microwave oven.
- May sprinkle the baked pie with Armagnac and flambé it.
- Do not do this on the stove, with the kitchen hood running (F: hotte; D: Dunstabsaughaube).
- Do not keep the pie in the fridge: it will get soggy!
- Do not serve with ice cream or cream on the same plate: it will get soggy!
- Traditionally, the pie is not cut into pie wedges with a sharp knife, but with a pair of scissors - to minimize damage to the crispy dough.
- As a desert, serve with sweet white wine - from the Gers, of course! - or commit sacrilege and have a glass of Champagne!