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Pie it forward: Grandson keeps Green Tomato Pie tradition alive

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Just as the green tomatoes on the plant I'd been pampering all summer began to show a slight tinge of orange, the air turned nippy. An overnight frost was predicted. Two nights in a row, I wrapped the plant in old beach towels, hoping the ripening fruit would survive the quick blast of freezing temperatures. The leaves look a little droopy, but the plant survived.

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Since then, I bring in two or three racquetball-size, almost-red tomatoes every day. The single tomato plant is dotted with a few more orbs that show promise of getting into a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Several green tomatoes are hanging on tight, determined to reach maturity. I know there are not many hot days remaining for those hard, green tomatoes to become red beauties.

When a friend of mine told me he could make a mean green tomato pie, I was mildly interested in learning more, thinking it might be a way to use the unripe fruit on my tomato plant.

"It tastes just like apple pie," my friend said. I became a bit more attentive. When he told me his grandma Emma taught him how to make the pie, he had me hooked. We arranged a time to get together to make green tomato pie. My pie-making friend would supply the green tomatoes and I would prepare enough flaky pastry for two pies.

On baking day, I had a hard time believing the green tomatoes that felt as hard as baseballs could become a flavorful sweet pie filling.

After a quick, cool bath, the stem end got cut out of each tomato. With a sharp knife, we cut the tomatoes into quarter-inch-thick slices, saving the first and last pieces of each tomato for filling tiny spaces in the pie. No need to peel the tomatoes before slicing.

Although Grandma Emma used a paring knife to haphazardly shave chunks of tomato into an unbaked pie shell, her grandson meticulously arranges uniform green slices, layering them into the pastry like a bricklayer creating a round patio. When the layers of green have just barely reached the top of the pie plate, it's time to make the last layer, forming a crown in the middle of the pie. An empty spot right in the center is reserved for a plug of butter.

I questioned the process of sprinkling flour over the tomatoes, then sugar, followed by cinnamon. "Have you ever tried mixing the flour, sugar and cinnamon together and then sprinkling that mixture over the tomatoes?" I asked.

An adamant answer to my inquiry came quickly. "No, this is how my grandma did it," my friend said.

Butter and apple cider vinegar were the last ingredients we added to the pie. Then, my pie-loving friend showed me how to create lattice tops for the two pies we constructed. This design allows excess moisture from juicy baking tomatoes to evaporate.

The pies baked for an hour and came out of the oven looking lovely. Grandma Emma, who died at the age of 101½, would have been proud, I'm sure. Her grandson keeps her green tomato pie alive.

I no longer need to worry about my unripe tomatoes. They can turn into pie filling.

Oh, did I tell you Emma's Green Tomato Pie tastes just like apple pie?

Emma's Green Tomato Pie

2 pounds medium-size green tomatoes

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon butter

Pastry for double-crust pie

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Wash tomatoes. Remove core. Use a sharp knife to cut tomatoes into 1/4-inch-thick round slices. Line a 9-inch pie plate with your favorite pastry. Arrange tomato slices in pie shell, one row at a time. Fit the slices together and fill in empty spaces with pieces of top and bottom slices from tomatoes. Do not stack tomatoes directly on top of each other. Each layer should be arranged to cover the seams in the previous layer. When tomatoes come just up to the top of the pastry, arrange a final row near the middle of the tomatoes, forming a crown. Sprinkle flour over the tomatoes. Sprinkle sugar over the flour. Sprinkle cinnamon over all. Fill the space in the center of the top layer of tomatoes with the butter. Shower the cider vinegar over all.

Cut remaining pastry into strips and create lattice crust over the filling. Sprinkle a little extra sugar over the top.

Place pie on foil-lined baking sheet to catch any drips as pie bakes. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 40 minutes or until filling is bubbling. Remove from oven. Allow pie to cool on wire rack. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Makes 1 pie.

Tips from the cook

--My Green Tomato Pie teacher likes to use Pappy's Pie Crust Dough which can be found in the freezer case of most grocery stores. I make my own dough.

--Add more vinegar and sugar if you like a more pronounced sweet and sour flavor.

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