2000s Archive

It’s in the Bag

Originally Published July 2004
The quest for great apple pie takes a surprising—and surprisingly delicious—turn.

America’s best apple pie is baked in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, at a produce market called The Elegant Farmer. We were introduced to it by Dot Schnering, of nearby Woodstock, Illinois, who touted the pie as a benchmark against which all others must be measured. Eating every good-looking apple pie we can find—and we’ve had some doozies—has been a cornerstone of our career, but when Schnering cut us pieces of The Elegant Farmer’s version, it took scant rumination to see she was right.

The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters. The bottom crust is softer than the top, but browned and still breakable. Where the top and bottom meet, there’s a knotty cord of dough that becomes impregnated with enough fruit filling to make it chewy. Inside is a dense apple pack of firm Ida Red crescents bound in syrupy juice.

The flavor is classic, but the way the pie is cooked is unique: It’s baked inside a brown paper bag. Cooking the pie in a bag allows the juices of the fruit to simmer, mellowing its tang. When the pie is almost done, a large hole is cut in the top of the paper bag, which allows the steam to escape and the crust to get crisp.

Dan Scheel, the boss, known to employees and customers as Farmer Dan, delights in telling how the pie came into existence through a series of events over which he had little control. He attributes its goodness and its success to “God’s purpose and plan.”

Its genesis goes back to 1969, when Scheel returned to the Davelmar Dairy Farm, which his uncle and his father (Dave and Elmer) had started after World War II. The brothers bottled milk under the Whole Guernsey Glow brand, and they sold produce from an open-air stand on what was then State Highway 15, the main route between Milwaukee and Beloit.

With the completion of Interstate 43, in 1972, State Highway 15 became a side road. “My banker was so concerned, he wouldn’t loan me any money,” Scheel says with a smile. “But I wasn’t worried. The Elegant Farmer is a place people happily go out of their way to visit. Business doubled the year after the freeway opened.” Pies were not yet part of the picture; the big allure was fresh produce: berry plants, asparagus crowns, and seed potatoes in the spring for those with home gardens, then pick-your-own farm crops all summer.

Housed in a cathedral-size 1930s dairy barn, The Elegant Farmer has become a destination for shoppers from both sides of the state line. The market is open year-round, and as crops ripen, it becomes a cornucopia. “It’s magic here,” Scheel says. “In the spring we have fresh snapped asparagus, spinach, radishes, and green onions. Summer, the barn fills with peaches, pears, and blueberries, then Door County cherries, fall raspberries, Concord grapes, and seventeen kinds of apples.” In addition to fresh produce, the barn’s inventory includes dozens of Wisconsin cheeses, nine kinds of locally grown popcorn, cider-baked ham and peppered bacon, jumbo muffins guaranteed to be one-third fruit, bricks of butter sculpted into the shape of sheep, and an enchanting frozen confection—apple or berry juice made into a Popsicle.

It was Farmer Dan’s special passion for strawberries that led indirectly to the creation of The Elegant Farmer’s signature apple pie. He is a strawberry shortcake enthusiast, and has devoted serious attention to making one that’s just right. “Pound cake?” he asks. “It falls apart. Sponge cake? It gets soggy. Baking powder biscuits? Too heavy.” He finally devised a muffin shortcake that absorbs plenty of berry juice but doesn’t disintegrate. Looking for a way to stretch the Wisconsin strawberry season, which traditionally runs only from mid-June through mid-July, Scheel went to Houston in 1990 to attend the North American Strawberry Conference. While there, he happened to be touring a grocery store where a local TV personality was autographing copies of a cookbook she had written. In that book was a recipe for apple pie baked in a brown paper bag.

Back home in Mukwonago, Dan’s wife, Karen, made the pie and it was indeed delicious, the best Dan ever had eaten. He brought the recipe to The Elegant Farmer and asked the cooks in his fledgling kitchen to bake one. They did, but it was wrong. The crust had no crackle. Dan double-checked the bakers’ work, finding they had followed the printed recipe exactly. He called Karen at home. She reread the recipe and realized she had accidentally doubled one of the ingredients in the crust. (Which ingredient remains top secret.) When Elegant Farmer bakers made the pie including the mistake, it was perfect. It still is.

The Elegant Farmer 1545 Main Street, Mukwonago 262-363-6770
Baked and ready-to-heat apple pies are available for second-day delivery.

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