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.
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.”