In a restaurant of small plates, it’s fitting that a tiny apple pie might find its way to your table after dinner at the General Greene. It’s a golden pillow, just four inches in diameter, with a scoop of housemade ice cream melting across the top crust—a revelation in what pie can and should be.
“You want your crust flaky, almost like a croissant,” says chef/owner Nicholas Morgenstern, 30, who, to achieve superior flakiness, relies on that long-revered MVP of blue-ribbon pies: lard. The lowly shortening is highly respected among dessert deities; when Morgenstern was pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern the crust of his tarte aux pommes featured none other than the prized fat surrounding a pig’s kidneys. “The separation of fat and flour gives that flaking consistency,” he explains. “And besides,” he adds with a beguiling grin, “everything tastes better with pig.”
Since the General Greene opened last July, Morgenstern has spent Saturday mornings perusing the Fort Greene Greenmarket, the Wilklow Orchards stand in particular. “Not only did they have tons of variety, they had tons of tomatoes,” he recalls. When fall rolled around, young farmer Albert Wilklow invited the restaurant’s staff up to his gorgeous Hudson Valley orchard to pick apples. The six-generation family farm boasts hundreds of acres of fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables fields, a cider mill, a few head of cattle and a small, pastured swineherd of Yorkshires. As Morgenstern and Wilklow watched the pigs scamper, conversation turned to a certain cut that was just not selling.
“He couldn’t get anyone to take the fatback,” recalls Morgenstern, still in disbelief. “He was trying to give it away. I was like ‘Please, how much have you got?’” You know the saying about one man’s trash; to the ears of a pastry chef, the treasure sounded too good to be true. A week later, Wilklow delivered 107 pounds of fatback to the restaurant. It took Morgenstern two hours just to cut it all into chunks.
Fatback is simply that. “It comes from the sides, all along here,” demonstrates Morgenstern, passing his hand the length of his own skinny trunk. He slowly rendered, or melted, the slabs overnight in a low oven, then strained the liquid gold; the process took 10 hours and made the kitchen “smell like wet dog.” Once cooled, rendered lard looks just like Crisco (or perhaps vice versa) and keeps in the fridge forever—unless, that is, you’re a pie-baking fool feeding the crowds at the General Greene, in which case you would soon need a second delivery.
“We sold him probably 250 pounds already,” calculates Wilklow. “Before Nick came along the fatback never sold very good. He bought almost all the fatback we had.”
Wilklow acknowledges that kidney-hugging leaf lard is the traditional fat for pastry, but each hog carries only a precious few pounds of the stuff, compared to an impressive store of fatback. Lore holds that fatback tastes too porky for pastry but Wilklow and his sister hit the General Greene for pie, their own empire apples spilling from the golden crust, and could detect no bacony hint.
Though reticent even by farmer standards, Wilklow admits Morgenstern’s fatback crust is “awesome.” He grew up eating pretty perfect Grandma-baked desserts on the farm, but confessed, “I never had a crust quite like that.”