Last month, my book club read "The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century" by Edward Dolnick. It is a captivating who-done-it, where the reader knows who-did-what, but the experts do not.
It seems that in the late 1930s and early '40s, a so-so Dutch painter, Hans Van Meegeren, had his own paintings dismissed soundly and publicly. Sneering critics said he had the talent of a magazine illustrator. Others called his work cloyingly sweet and creepily erotic. Given those reviews, his career flopped. With his ego deflated and his income dashed, Van Meegeren was furious. Hell hath no fury like an artist scorned.
He decided to exact revenge on his critics. He did so by painting forgeries in the style of Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch baroque artist in the 1600s. Since only a few genuine Vermeers, maybe three dozen, were thought to exist, the art world was ripe for the "discovery" of lost paintings. When Van Meegeren passed off his fakes as original masterpieces, incredibly, it worked.
The paintings fooled Vermeer experts and sold for enormous sums, about $30 million in today's money. Among his gullible customers was Hitler's right-hand deputy, Hermann Goering.
Eventually, the lying Dutchman was exposed. In May 1945, Van Meegeren was arrested, charged with collaborating with the Nazis and imprisoned.
That's the back story.
When the 10 members of our Book Club meet for dinner and discussion, the hostess makes an entree and the rest of us fill in the menu with wine and side dishes. In keeping with the theme of our reading, I volunteered to bring Dutch Apple Pie. (Of course.)
After an enthusiastic book discussion, we turned to other topics while dessert was served. Several women asked for second helpings of pie a la mode, and one asked for the recipe. As soon as their scraped-clean dishes were cleared, I stood. I had an announcement.
"Hah!" I said. "That was not an apple pie, it was a mock apple pie! You have eaten a fraud. A fake. A culinary forgery. There are no apples in this dessert. The filling was made from Ritz crackers."
Ritz Mock Apple Pie is a Great Depression-era classic. Baked with homemade pastry, it looks just like an apple pie. It smells like one. It even tastes like one. But the filling never came close to an apple orchard. The main ingredient comes from a box of crackers -- 36 to be exact. The filling's texture closely resembles a soft and tender apple pie. Or a big apple Newton. Homemade pastry goes a long way to enhance the forgery, as does a scoop of ice cream. A cook's reputation as a good pie baker only adds to the authenticity.
Born of thrift in the 1930s, the recipe for the pie has been printed on the back of the Ritz Cracker box for some 75 years. During World War II, it became popular again because apples were scarce and expensive. Now, most bakers make it for fun. It makes a good April Fools Day dessert.
Here's how it works. The big trick is in the flavoring. You break up exactly 36 buttery Ritz crackers into an unbaked pie shell, douse them with a lemon-vanilla-flavored simple syrup, sprinkle with cinnamon and dot with butter before adding the top crust. So far, so good, except the recipe includes two teaspoons of cream of tartar. That's weird, I thought. There has to be a reason for it, so I asked my scientist husband, Bob Wolke, to figure out the chemistry.
"There's a large amount of sugar, two cups, in the recipe," he said. "The sugar wants to crystallize, which would make a very crunchy pie. Common sugar is sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose. Acids, such as lemon juice, can split sucrose apart into invert sugar, an even mixture of the two simpler sugars. The cream of tartar works with the lemon juice to prevent crystallization by converting the sugar into invert sugar." Thank you, Bob.
Why does the mock pie fake out diners? Why did art world experts believe in Van Meegeren's fraudulent paintings? Have you ever been puzzled by a magician's sleight of hand and "magic"? All these situations are cut from the same cloth.
When the forger, baker, or the magical faker "tells" the audience what is before him, an expectation is cast. Why doubt? And that is especially true when times are tough, as they were for the war-ravaged Dutch and for those who lived in the Great Depression. Most people see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe. Mind tricks.
RITZ MOCK APPLE PIE
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 3/4 cups water
Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie, preferably homemade
36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups)
Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Milk for brushing, sanding (sparkly) sugar for sprinkling, optional
Mix sugar and cream of tartar in medium saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Bring to a boil on high heat; simmer on low 15 minutes. Stir in zest and juice; cool 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of pastry on lightly floured surface to an 11-inch circle; place in 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in crust. Pour sugar syrup over crumbs; top with butter and cinnamon.
Roll out remaining pastry to 10-inch circle; place over pie. Seal and flute edge. Brush the surface with milk and sprinkle sanding sugar over the pie. Cut several slits in top crust to permit steam to escape. Place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool. Serves 10, when topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. A piece of cheddar cheese would be a good savory foil.
-- Ritz Cracker box
Marlene Parrish: 412-481-1620 or email@example.com. First Published June 20, 2013 4:00 AM