Even a pie therapist needs professional development. Or maybe there's just no nicer way to spend a Sunday afternoon than bumping along in the back of a pickup truck, perched on a hay bale, out to pick fresh apples for a pie.
Tipped off by a friend who lives in Petaluma and knows my fondness for (one might say obsession with) pie, I headed out to the rolling hills of rural Sonoma last weekend, joining 19 other local pie enthusiasts for Two Rock Ranch's Orchard to Oven Pie Workshop, a three-hour event hosted by ranch owner and orchardist Kathy Tresch and taught by chef, caterer, and blogger Meloni Courtway.
Two Rock Ranch has been in the Tresch family since 1905, when the family of Kathy's husband Joe started it as 300-acre dairy farm. Over the years, they added to the farm piece and piece, and it now stretches across some 2000 acres. The dairy was certified organic in 1995, the second (after Straus) organic dairy in California. Straus Organic Creamery has kindly donated the butter for all the classes, making our pies truly local, since the Tresch dairy supplies nearly two-thirds of the milk processed by Straus.
Kathy's pet project now is Olympia's Orchard, 8 acres of fruit trees spread out over several fenced-in parcels throughout the farm. Since 2004, she's planted some 500 trees, with over 50 varieties of apples alone. Many of them are hard-to-find antique and heirloom types, such as Cox's Orange Pippin and Kidd's Orange Red, along with newer varieties like Freedom, Pink Pearl, and Gold Rush, all chosen especially for the area's mild climate, so unlike the icy winters that many of the more common East Coast varieties (Macintosh, Macoun) require. The trees, planted on dwarfing rootstock and farmed organically, are charmingly petite, laden with fruit that all but drops into our hands. Pick 10 each, Kathy tells us, and it's nearly impossible to stop plucking the fat bright-red Jonathans, tart-sweet and perfect for pies.
Before we start, Kathy tells us a little of the history of the place, its beginnings as a land of plenty for the native Miwoks, then as a farm homestead for Charlie and Lena Hall. They plowed with horses, ate their dinners off dishes brought West by covered wagon. Kathy holds up Miwok mortars and pestles, horseshoes and bits of blue-patterned china that she's found in the dirt over the years.
Once our bushel baskets are half-filled, we pile back onto the hay bales for the bumpy ride back to the ranch. There, we find a long table on the porch lined with bowl after bowl, bags of flour and sugar, and Meloni, smiling in a white chef's jacket.
Meloni, a California Culinary Academy grad who was dubbed the "Best Baker in America" by no less than Martha Stewart, thanks to killer recipes for Pumpkin Scones and Persimmon-White Chocolate Bread Pudding, says this is her very favorite job ever, talking and making and eating pie. She tells us that those of us with chilly hands are born pie makers; the warm-handed ones need to make sure they use cold butter, very cold ice water, and a good pastry hoop to keep their dough light and flaky, not oily-warm.
Another tip? Ignore all those recipes that reference "small peas" in describing the perfect texture of pie dough. Don't think peas, think oatmeal, says Meloni. This is a surprise to me, since I've always leaned towards the rough and nubbly to get maximum flakiness. Use short, sharp downward strokes of the pastry hoop, she says, and turn the bowl as you go.
I keep going, farther than I usually would, until my butter and flour are as sandy as quick-cooking dry oatmeal. In goes the water, and the dough is patted into shaggy mounds, then set aside to chill.
Now it's onto the apple-peeling and slicing, and soon we're rolling out our doughs and piling them high with cinnamon-sugared apples. The pies go into the outdoor brick oven that Kathy has been tending.
Rinsing the sugar and butter from our hands, we wander into the great room at the lodge, where a fire is burning in the fireplace under a massive, glowering mounted buffalo head and there's Baletto Russian River Valley gewurztraminer to sip, delectable apple-arugula-bacon-cheese flatbread and blue cheese, apple, honey and walnut crostini to nibble, and half a dozen different types of apple to sample.
When the platters are reduced to crumbs, we head back outside, to see all our beautiful pies--each so different, though we all used the same ingredients--laid out on the porch, hot and steaming with the scent of autumn.
Register for the season's final Oven to Orchard Apple Pie Workshop on Sunday, Sept. 26th at 10am. $48/person includes orchard tour, pie class, apple tasting, wine and apple-inspired snacks, and your own apple pie to take home. Workshop lasts approximately 3 hours.