Anatomy of a Classic

Vivian Howard’s Apple and Country Ham Hand Pies

The Kinston, North Carolina chef puts a porky spin on a beloved treat

photo: JOHNNY AUTRY


Vivian Howard, whose acclaimed public television show, A Chef’s Life, helped breathe new life into Kinston, North Carolina, has a few steadfast frying rules. One of them is this: “Anything I can shallow-fry, I do. I never know what to do with all that leftover oil,” she says of deep-frying.

When it comes to applejacks, the technique is a must. Like many rural Southerners, Howard grew up eating the traditional hand pies—in her case, at the B&S Café in Deep Run, a little curve in the road near Kinston. Back before the café closed twenty years ago, Claire Merrell Barwick fried applejacks in lard and sold them wrapped in grease paper from a glass cabinet next to the cash register. You could only get them on Saturdays. Their flavor is stamped into Howard’s memory.

Soon she will be offering her own version at Handy & Hot, a little sister to Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar, the two restaurants she runs in Kinston with her husband, Ben Knight. (They’re also about to open Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington.) Barwick, long retired, showed Howard her secret: Roll the soft dough, which is made from flour, hot water, and lard, into circles so thin you can see color through it. “That’s what sets these apart from an empanada or a Jamaican meat patty,” Howard says. “Delicate is what you’re going for.”

Barwick shallow-fried the pies in fat seasoned with drippings from the barbecue she sold. Home cooks can use lard, shortening, or even vegetable oil. All you need is enough fat to allow the dough to blister and crisp but stay tender. Deep-frying would be too hard on the pastry, causing it to toughen and curl.

JOHNNY AUTRY

To hit the porky notes that Howard recalls, she adds chopped country ham to a filling of dried apples boiled soft in cider and lemon zest. Then she pulverizes more ham in a food processor to make a powder to sprinkle on the pies while they’re hot. In her cookbook, Deep Run Roots, she finishes fried pies with a mixture of fresh rosemary ground with sugar, which is also delicious. But if you can, she says, go for the ham. “To make the country ham resonate more with savory-sweet crossover, the powder makes a big difference.” 


Ingredients

  • For the Filling

    • 2 cups dried apple slices, roughly choppeds

    • 2 cups apple cider

    • 2 cups water

    • 1/3 cup granulated sugar

    • 1/2 tsp. salt

    • Zest of 1 lemon

    • 3 tbsp. lemon juice

    • 12 thin slices of country ham or prosciutto, divided

  • For the Dough

    • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough

    • 2 1/3 cups lard or shortening, divided

    • 2/3 cup hot water


Preparation

  1. For the Filling: In a 10-inch skillet, combine the first 6 ingredients over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and cook until the apples have soaked up all the liquid and the pan is nearly dry (about 15 minutes). Remove pan from heat, stir in lemon juice, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. The filling can be made up to 5 days in advance.

  2. Brown ham in a skillet over medium-high heat (2–3 minutes per side), chop 6 slices into bite-size pieces, and stir those into the filling just before assembling pies. Roughly chop the remaining slices, place in the bowl of a food processor, and pulverize to create powder (1–2 minutes).

  3. For the Dough: Mound the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Drop ⅓ cup lard into the well, then pour about two-thirds of the hot water over it, using your hands to blend until the mixture becomes sludgy. Pour the remaining water into the lard and begin working in the flour to form dough, adding a touch more hot water if needed. The dough will be quite pliable and tender but should not be sticky. Cover with a damp paper towel.

  4. To Make the Pies: Dust a golf-ball-size piece of dough, your work surface, and a rolling pin with flour. Roll the dough into a 5- to 6-inch circle so thin you can see through it. Trim the edges; place 2 tbsp. filling in the center. Flatten the filling slightly with the back of a spoon. With a pastry brush or your finger, dampen half the circle’s edge with water. Fold the dough to make a half moon; crimp the edges with a fork. Repeat, rerolling scraps as needed. Place pies on a floured baking sheet; cover it with a damp paper towel until you’re ready to fry, or freeze them for up to a month in a sealed container.

  5. Place 2 cups lard into a skillet and heat on medium until lard melts (the fat should measure about a half inch deep so it comes a little more than halfway up the sides of the pies as they fry). To make sure the fat is hot enough, toss a little flour into the pan. It should immediately sizzle.

  6. Slip 3 or 4 pies into the pan and adjust the heat to keep the fat hot. Cook till they are golden brown on one side (about 3 minutes); turn them over and brown the other side. Drain the pies on paper towels and sprinkle with the ham powder on both sides while they’re still hot. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Meet the Chef: Vivian Howard

Hometown: Deep Run, North Carolina

The one piece of kitchen equipment she can’t live without: Dutch oven. “I can do anything I need with that.”

On balancing being a TV personality and a chef: “It takes so much fuel for the TV engine that it’s really hard to home in and practice your craft. Anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling you.”


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