Russ Hanson is an organizer of the River Road Ramble in northwest Wisconsin, and published “comments and photographs from an old local historian and backwoodsman about life in the St. Croix River Valley” at his blog River Road Ramblings.
How do you make 1,700 apple pies?
The answer, according to the Cushing Lutheran Apple Pie Crew, is to make 170 pies on 10 different days in August and September. After 25 years of making pies by the bushels, they have it down to a science as well as an art.
The pies will be on sale, September 26th 9–5 at the Cushing Brenholt Park, a stop on the 15th Annual River Road – Hwy 87 Ramble. It is also their traditional Fall Bazaar sale with crafts, baked goods, lunch and garage sale items. The sale is spread out widely in the park shelters with mask wearing recommended. The park is where the church has been holding Sunday services this summer, a lovely place to worship God in His grand outdoors.
Driving by the church last week, we saw the parking lot filled with cars on a Monday morning and in Cushing, we satisfy our curiosity by barging right in and finding out what is going on with our neighbors and making the folks feel guilty for not inviting us too.
Walking into the church basement, the first impression was of a party — folks laughing, visiting and enjoying themselves immensely. The fragrance was of fresh apples. Everyone was busy, wearing masks or staying apart with Covid-19 awareness and in a vast assembly line turning out delicious apple pies.
One way to judge if a church is healthy is to look at what goes on in the church basement. If it is a busy and joyous place, likely the church is thriving. One barely noticed the basement itself with the usual big open area, supporting posts and end kitchen as it was fully occupied with bustling folks.
Making 170 pies in a day starts with the apple picking crew, a half dozen folks, headed out to find apple trees enough to pick apples to fill each pie with 5 ½ cups of peeled, diced apples. Eight medium sized apples will do, but in 2020, the apple crop is smaller sized and so closer to 10 apples are needed per pie. That means 1,700 apples need to be picked on 10 different days. And as the Lutherans are generous folks, their pies are piled high like Mount Ararat using at least twice the apples of a store bought pie.
Where do the apples come from?
Folks all around Cushing who have an apple tree or two in their yard donate their extras. Of course the apples have to be worm free and at the right stage to be pie-able. So the search for good apples is ongoing and intense.
The apple crew meets at the church at 8 a.m., heads out with ladders, apple pickers, and enthusiasm, swarms into the orchard and soon has bushels of apples loaded. They are ready for the next day when fresh apples become pies.
At 7:30 a.m., on apple pie day, two dozen volunteers are at the Cushing Lutheran basement setting up the Stations of the Pie. Four men man the machines that peel, core and slice an apple in 10 -20 seconds each. Half a dozen folks sit at tables with paring knives cutting them into small pieces and immediately soaking them in salt water so they don’t turn brown.
Quality control is done all along the way so any flaw in the apple is tossed in with the peelings and headed either the compost pile or maybe a hog pen or chicken yard.
After a good soak the apples are collected in huge trays and moved to the pie filling station.
Apple pie assembly line
In parallel with the apple disassembly line, we have the pie crust crew. That starts with the unthawing and unpackaging of frozen purchased dough that is kneaded into two generous clumps of exactly the size needed for a nine-inch pie shell.
The dough clumps are brought to the pressing station where a brand new 2020 machine takes the place of previous 24 years of pie making by hand rolling the dough. The pie is put in an aluminum pie shell, covered with a thin wax paper sheet, placed in the press and the dough ball flattened to exactly fit the pie tin in a smooth single motion. The press can mold them into the pie tin or flatten them for the top crust. Fast, efficient and no danger of rolling pins used in disagreements over doctrine.
The crust filled tin is then filled as high it can be heaped with 5.5 cups of nearly white apples. The pre-mixed sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt and secret Lutheran very mild spices are added to the top of the heap and the top crust carefully draped over, like the snow on Mount Sinai where Moses came down with the original recipe carved in stone.
To crimp the edges and make a fancy pattern on them also takes a machine. The pie goes in a wooden ring and another wooden ring gets pressed down and seals the edges and imprints a twining pattern. A little excess dough squeezes out and is trimmed with the trimmings going back into a future crust. We suggested a Bible verse pressed into the design, or maybe an advertisement for Lutheran Brotherhood Insurance.
Next the pies are sealed in a zip lock bag with the ingredients list and the cooking instructions before heading to the church garage where 10 large freezers stand. The pies are carefully separated into layers so they don’t touch each other and frozen for 48 hours before the Lutherans will sell them to you or me. No pies are sold fresh, as freezing is part of the process to get the right texture.
Why do they make them?
Since the serpent tempted Eve with an apple, men and women have had to work hard for their living. And that includes maintaining their churches, and through the churches their goals as Lutherans. So not only has the income from pies paid for repairs to the church and improvements, but to the mission of the church itself to help do God’s work in the world.
“We believe that we are freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbors” is stated on the ELCA church website. Can you think of a sweeter way to love your neighbor than with a homemade apple pie?
The crew this year ranged from several folks in their 80s to youngsters in their 60s. And they all got along, no people were injured, everyone knew their job and everyone one was accepted, from the slow but perfectionist apple slicing of the former banker to the whiz bang speed of the retired farmer across the table. Each according to his or her abilities working together for the common good.
Want an apple pie? $8 each pre-order through the church for pickup.
Or better yet, buy one at the 15th Annual River Road Ramble in Cushing, September 26th. The Ramble is bigger and better than ever as not only is it Covid-19 socially distanced, being spread out from Grantsburg to St Croix Falls, but a chance to get out and see fall color, buy some garden and orchard produce, find some local crafts, or antiques, and look for bargains at a garage sale.
The map and events will be online soon on the River Road Ramble Facebook page and at our website. Want to be a Ramble stop? Call 715 488 2416 or email email@example.com by September 10th. Sponsored by Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society
For a video of the pie making in action, check out the Youtube video: