In her new cookbook, Where We Ate, Canadian historian, food writer and restaurant critic Gabby Peyton chronicles Canada’s past and present through its restaurants, explaining how they are a key part of understanding the whole of Canadian cuisine. To Peyton, “It’s not about what you ate, it’s where you ate,” thus, her cookbook is a “love letter” to the Canadian restaurants that shaped her childhood and community.
From Chinese restaurant Sing Tom’s Café in Brandon, Manitoba, to a Greek restaurant called King of Donair in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is a product of diverse influence. Its culture is not defined by a singular region, but by the cultural diffusion resulting from travel and waves of immigration that span the pre-confederation era (prior to 1867) to present day. For Peyton, who spent her childhood in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, this often meant that some of her favourite dishes were not prepared in her own kitchen. They were shared under the ambience and community of a restaurant experience.
Where We Ate tells the stories of 150 historic Canadian restaurants along with their most cherished recipes, like the flaky double-crusted apple caramel pecan pie borne from a lunch counter in the McAdam Railway Station Hotel in McAdam, New Brunswick.
Much like other Canadian railway hotels at the start of the 20th Century, the McAdam initially served as lodging for the influx of luxury travellers. While these first-class passengers enjoyed meals in the formal dining room, second- and third-class passengers were served at the 53-seat, M-shaped lunch counter of the combined the railway station and hotel.
“Until the early 1990s, any train traveller headed into the Maritimes [Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick] would make their way through McAdam Junction, where weary travellers would dig into the famous ‘railway pie[s]’ newspapers as far away as Boston raved about the circular desserts even in the early days,” explained Peyton.
While these first-class passengers enjoyed meals in the dining room, second- and third-class passengers were served at the 53-seat, M-shaped lunch counter (Credit: Jason Bennett)
The railway was converted into a museum in 1994, soon followed by the hotel; however, due largely to the success of its landmark pies, the lunch counter remained fully operational. By 2010, the McAdam Historical Restoration Commission saw the pies as a lucrative fundraising opportunity. Thus began Railway Pie Sundays, and for the next nine years, around 12,000 people would gather in the New Brunswick Station every Sunday to sample a selection of 24 pies, “from Apple Caramel Pecan or Hawaiian Rhubarb to Lemon Meringue or Key Lime, made by four local women, two of whom were in their 90s,” said Peyton.
One of these four women, Agnes Campbell, was the pie maker behind the beloved apple caramel pecan pie and currently serves as a director for the restoration commission. This cherished dessert is a classic brown sugar, cinnamon and apple-filled pie that is distinct for the finely chopped pecans sprinkled over the top and bottom crusts, along with a sticky caramel drizzle.
Of all the pie variations that would emerge from the ovens of the McAdam Railway Station Hotel, Campbell’s caramel apple pecan pie was her husband Frank Campbell’s pie of choice. Frank, who is treasurer for the commission, told Peyton that he believed this pie is integral to the story of the McAdam, not just because of its rave reviews, but because several varieties of apples thrive in the Maritime region, including the McIntosh apple used in this recipe.
When Railway Pie Sundays return on 5 July, museum visitors will be able to try the historical dessert at the McAdam Railway Station’s lunch counter for the first time in four years after an intentional pie-baking hiatus. However, for those who want to replicate a slice of railway pie from the comfort of their own kitchen, Peyton provides a variation of Agnes’ recipe in Where We Ate.
While Peyton tried to limit alterations to the recipes in the book to maintain the historical and traditional preparation of each dish, she paid careful attention to this recipe, seeking to ensure that even the novice baker could replicate the pie, whether for a Canada Day celebration or for one’s very own Railway Pie Sunday.
“I want to make sure that anybody could pick up this recipe and easily figure out how to make [it], because everyone needs to know how to bake a pie!”
Gabby Peyton chronicles Canada’s past and present through its restaurants (Credit: Alex Stead)
Apple Caramel Pecan Pie
By Gabby Peyton
Makes one 23cm (9-inch) pie
For the pie: 250g (2 cups) all-purpose flour 190g (1 cup) shortening, cubed 60 ml (¼ cup) cold water 40g (about ¼ cup) finely chopped pecans 6 large McIntosh apples, peeled and sliced 52g (¼ cup packed) brown sugar ground cinnamon
For the topping: 80 ml (⅓ cup) caramel sauce, store-bought or homemade, plus more to taste 40g (about ¼ cup) chopped pecans, for topping
Step 1 Make the pie. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F. Place the flour and shortening in a large bowl and, using a pastry blender or two knives, work the shortening into the flour until they come together in pea-sized pieces. There should be no flour left in the bowl once it’s worked in.
Step 2 Add the cold water and toss very lightly until slightly crumbly. The more you handle the dough at this stage, the tougher the crust will be.
Step 3 Divide the dough into two equal balls and roll each out to a 30cm (12in) diameter. Gently transfer one crust to a 23cm (9in) pie plate, making sure to work the dough into the edges of the pan and up the sides. There will be some overhang.
Step 4 Sprinkle the finely chopped pecans over the bottom crust (use just enough to make a single layer). Add the sliced apples to the pie plate until it won’t hold any more (don’t worry, the apples will shrink during baking). Pat a thin layer of brown sugar over the top of the apples, then sprinkle with a thin layer of cinnamon.
Step 5 Top with the second pie crust, and crimp or use a fork to seal the edges, trimming any overhang. Cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape during baking.
Step 6 Place the pie on a baking sheet lined with aluminium foil to catch any drips during baking. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the apples are tender. A fork or skewer inserted into the pie should be able to pierce the apples with minimal resistance.
Step 7 While the pie is still warm, drizzle with the caramel sauce, covering most of the crust with a thin layer. Sprinkle with the chopped pecans. Serve warm or allow the pie to cool to room temperature before serving.
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