Easy as pie was never more difficult

It can be hard sometimes as an American in Spain to describe what exactly is ‘American food’.  Everyone volunteers hamburgers and expensive lattes, fried chicken and peanut butter.  Yes, I guess.  I am caving to this image in a way, because next week my conversation partner is coming over for ‘an American dinner’ and he has asked me if I can make chicken like KFC.   So sure enough, fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy is the order of the night – complete with caveat that not it won’t be KFC as I don’t really have the right machinery or chemicals.  I’m slightly ashamed, but it is what he wants to eat, so… I have a week to figure out how to keep the damn batter on the chicken – mine always falls off.  At least I bake my chicken so I won’t have to listen to an hour about how unhealthy our food is – only a half hour, probably.

The problem is that my favorite thing about American food is the open-armed thievery from other cultures.  My friends have started showing me around the city to watch me ‘flipar’ – flip out, absorbed into Spanish.  When my friend, Sergio, took me to a Chinese grocery squirreled away in a side street in downtown Sevilla, me flipé, sí.  (See the comments section for the location).  My reaction, faced with the wall of hoisin sauce, Sriracha, and tofu in cans was to beam from ear to ear and say, “I feel as if I’m back in my own country.”  His response was “… I didn’t know you were from China.”  But the thing is that Seattle, like many other cities in the United States, is chock full of small and gigantic ethnic grocery stores and restaurants.  We are addicted to diversity of flavor.  So when I kept wandering around and found not only my favorite curries and frozen hum bao but my favorite brands, I wasn’t seduced by the foreign nature of the labels and products but soothed by a feeling of homecoming.  When I ran across a halal butcher by accident in a residential neighborhood (Los Remedios) on the way to shoot pool, I don’t know who was happier when I asked if they had goat meat – me or the butcher urging me to write down the name of the street and come back in a day or two.

Another good friend, Jose, teased me for the rest of the night, especially since we went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant (at midnight, of course), but he can be forgiven, as he is going to find me nigiri sushi somewhere in this city.  After a month, month and a half of living with me, my Spanish friends now have cottoned on to my very American love of the food of other cultures.  We have a date set up soon to make honey walnut prawns and beef with broccoli. But there were still murmurs of what exactly America itself was bringing to the table.  So I decided to answer the quiet question with the most patriotic thing I could think of – apple pie.

My friends were excited – apple pie!  Like from that movie!  With the guy!  And he – well, you know.  I sighed and said yes.  But there will be no shenanigans with this pie, so stop that line of thought right now.  And so, I began the quest to make an apple pie in Spain.

First, welcome to my new kitchen.

Counter space we do not have.  But, we have lovely natural lighting from our terrace cum laundry room, and all the ‘electrodomésticos’ or appliances that you could hope for.  Including, thank god, an oven.  I love my little kitchen. It has a touch interface stove – my very own iPad.

I was cooking rice for Golden Curry that I brought with me - then found in the Chinese grocery store!

I decided to make my new favorite apple pie – Brown Sugar Apple Pie from Ken Haedrich’s Pie, which I’m sure you’re all tired of hearing about.  Yes, from the pie-ble.  I took digital photos (fotos, now) of my favorite pies and some I haven’t had the chance to try out yet. The pie-ble was too heavy to make the cut for the transatlantic move.  I am still sad about this.

Brown Sugar Apple Pie

Basic pie crust – I only use a bottom crust, then a streusel crumble for the topping, in honor of my brother’s complete disinterest in eating pie crust.

6 cups of apples – peeled, cored, and sliced

1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Big pinch of salt

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

1 Tbsp cornstarch

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Streusel topping – it’s been years since I learned this.  I don’t really know where it’s from.

1 c flour

1/2 brown sugar

1 stick of butter – chilled


For those interested in the pie, here’s the basic instructions.  Prep, chill, and roll out the pie dough.  Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C).  Slice the apples, mix everything up and plop it into the pie shell.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, make the streusel topping.  Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter into the mixture with a pastry cutter or two knives, until the lumps are about the size of dried peas – that is small, for those who have never seen dried peas.

Remove the pie from the oven, spread the crumb topping over the pie filling, rotate the pie 180 degrees (no Fahrenheit Celsius differentiation needed here) so the part that was in back is now by your little oven window and vice versa.  Reduce the oven to 375 F (190 C) and bake for 20 to 30 more minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the apple juices are bubbling thickly around the edges.  Cool. Eat.

Sounds simple.  And it is.  But not if you have a grand odyssey ahead of you, a quest composed of hours of searching for the right combination of ingredients to meet your goal.  Easy as pie?  Not really.

The problem – or better said, challenge – is that grocery stores here are not the megamarts that we are used to in the United States.  There are several smaller chains that dot the neighborhoods offering the basics that you need, usually with a dedicated butcher and in some of the larger stores, seafood section.  Then you hit up the independent produce store, chit-chat over grapes (hola, mi alma, ¿qué te pongo?), head over to the nuts and sweets shop on the corner, drool over ham legs hanging in the window of the charcutería and leg it on home with your little shopping bag on wheels.

Perhaps the most Andalucían of all grocery stores

So I headed over to the frutería first, knowing that there would be no apple pie without apples.  Easy peasy, continuing on, I then visited the most familiar supermarket –  M.A.S. – as it was my first grand shopping adventure alone.  There I found flour and butter, but nothing else.  Granted, I was probably  just blind.  This happens to me and only recently have I gotten the huevos to just suck it up and ask someone.  Stop three was El Jamón, pictured above, which is just around the corner from me.  I celebrated finding a plastic lemon and white sugar, but there was no brown sugar to be found anywhere.  Frustrated, I returned home to ditz around on the internet and wait for my roommate to come home because she had a car to get us farther afield.

In the meantime, I made my pie crust.

We bought the rolling-pin for 2 euros in a catchall shop and I had to use a pot because we didn’t have any large mixing bowls.  We have since visited Ikea.

Step 2 of pie crust – wedge it into the fridge next to the jamón serrano.

We're a little lacking in the large cutting board department, too.

Fourth store: Mercadona.  Mercadona has nearly everything.  It is awesome.  Unfortunately it’s in the mall twenty minutes from home, walking, and if you want to buy anything heavy (like the drinks for the party) you will be a triste tigre when you get home.  There we found the cornstarch, but only a blank spot on the shelf where I could find the molasses I needed to make brown sugar.  I was getting a little tired and very, very frustrated.  My wonderful roommate then suggested that we head on over to the Corte Inglés, on the other side of the city, in the other mall.

Corte Inglés is like the high quality, high price Wal-Mart of Spain.  They have everything.  Except molasses.  Luckily, for some reason, the have brown sugar in the health food section.  We did a dance of satisfaction, managed to find some Triple Sec in their liquor department, and went home to make a feast of epic proportions. Rosa, my awesome roommate threw together croquetas, pork loin with Roquefort sauce, and tasty little sausages wrapped in pastry while I was wrapped up in the pie.

Oven sharing

We also learned that in sharing the oven, the pie should go on the bottom.  I learned this through burning the crap out of my crust.


In the end, there was pie.  And it was good.

I’m definitely not going to abandon my pie making habits.  I’m going to reduce them because my social circle is much reduced – and much shocked by the amount of butter that goes into American pastry – but that is logical.  Just wait till December comes, and with it, its thousands and thousands of cookies… I have staked out the environs in preparation for the serious attack.


4 Responses to “Easy as pie was never more difficult”

  1. 1 Elissa November 14, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    What a killer post!! I had exactly the same trouble explaining restaurants in New York to Manu, intercambio de mierda. He insisted that we must have the worst food from every country because the best chefs stayed in their respective lands! Way to use logic, Manu. I guess it’s hard for a non-American (and let’s face it, many Americans) to grasp the unique concept that “Chinese is American! Mexican is American! Italian is American! Etc!” Nacion de inmigrantes, coño

    • 2 desasdishes November 14, 2010 at 7:57 pm

      Haha! My roommate would totally reply to you “esa boca!!” You will be going to Indian food with me, you know that, right?

  2. 3 Collin November 14, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    You must tell me where this Chinese market is. I have longed for some Sriracha for the last 2 months I have been in Sevilla!

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Hey, I'm Desa. I've been bouncing between the Pacific Northwest and Sevilla, Spain in the last few years and from tiny apartment to tiny apartment. I cook mainly for one, which means some potentially boring meals, but here I'll be sharing the food that excites me. Feel free to offer suggestions, commiseration, or desires. And thanks for coming by!


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