There is a distinct chill in the air. Green leaves are tipped with bronze. The sunflowers are going to seed. We’ve fired up the furnace on a couple of cold nights. I’m craving pumpkin anything: tea, muffins, scones, even stuffed shells. And three little words have returned to my culinary life: peel, core, and slice.
It must be autumn.
And indeed, today is the autumnal equinox, the first day of the new season. As much as I love summer in the north country, fall is my favorite: the weather, the food, the smell of wood stoves, the ability to walk outside without sweating profusely, the festive holidays, the return of cozy sweaters and comfy jeans, and, best of all, the foliage. I’m a Vermonter. Foliage is my birthright. If I could crack open my soul and look inside, I would find a perfect October day in the Green Mountains. It would be that one elusive “peak foliage” moment when the leaves are red, and pink, and fiery orange. We live for those days. And if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss them. Peak foliage rarely occurs at the same time two years in a row, and it never sticks around for long. A stiff breeze, a rainy day, even a strong sneeze will turn those perfect leaves into compost fodder, the bane of the yard-worker’s existence, and the joy of children who wait all year to jump in a pile of leaves. I can almost smell the damp earthiness and hear the dry, parchment-like crinkle.
When my cousins and I were growing up, our parents “let” us rake the leaves in my Grandpa’s huge yard. Our reward: we could play in the resulting pile. Our parents were smart. Between them, they produced sixteen offspring. A ready-made work force for seasonal labor. But we were smart, too. We turned those leaves into a small mountain underneath the big, old tree in Grandpa’s front yard. We then climbed the tree and jumped from the branches into the leaves.
Did I say we were smart? Maybe “inventive” or “foolishly creative” is more apt. I think some broken bones may have resulted.
But fall is about savoring the small moments when the world turns from the vibrant life of summer to the long slumber of winter. As Robert Frost said, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” Well, her last green is gold, too, and bronze, orange, pink, red. Once those leaves fall, it will be a long, long time before we see their gold again. As the poem concludes, “Nothing gold can stay.” And so it’s best to celebrate them, however foolishly. It is best to take in all that autumn has to offer for the brief moment it is here. Stick season is coming, and then the long, white winter.
In central New York, autumn means apples. They are the crowning glory of upstate crops, and family-owned pick-your-own orchards are never very far away. I went apple picking with my sister a few days ago. It was cold. It was raining. She had a sinus infection. I had my wisdom teeth removed only a few days prior. Probably not our finest day, but we were rewarded for our efforts with 11 pounds of Gala, Macintosh, and Honeycrisp apples.
Apple trees aren’t winning any beauty contests, and the compact little trees in the orchard were particularly wild-looking with little red-and-green apples weighing down the branches. But I love an apple tree’s wonderfully craggy appearance. The most amazing thing about that tree, to my mind, is that each apple contains several seeds, but none of those seeds, if planted, would result in a tree identical to the parent tree. Each seed is genetically unique. That means grafting is required if one wants to replicate a particularly delicious or otherwise appealing variety of apple tree.
Did you know Johnny Appleseed refused to graft apple trees? He felt it was against his religion–he didn’t want to mess with God, who created the apple tree to do its thing, and thus the apple tree should be allowed to do its thing without human intervention. Humanity has since learned the hard way that genetic diversity is an asset in the natural world, especially in agriculture. Johnny Appleseed and his Creator may have been on to something.
At any rate, still recovering from having had my wisdom teeth unceremoniously yanked from my head, I could not crunch into the apples. This was really very depressing. Being so limited, I knew I needed to cook something with them immediately. And so I set to work on apple crisp, much to the delight of my dessert-loving husband, houseguest sister, and soft-foods-only self.
There are many, many ways to make apple crisp. I call this a “brown sugar” apple crisp because the apples cook in a dark, carmel-like sauce, while the crispy topping is more like a crunchy brown streusel than an oat-rich crumble. Once I got past the “peel, core, and slice” part of the recipe–deceptively simple, those little instructions–it all came together pretty quickly. And it was good. Really, really good.
BROWN SUGAR APPLE CRISP
3 lbs. apples (I used mostly Galas with some Macintosh and Honeycrisp for variety)
3 tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 c. rum (or apple cider)
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
(If you want a thicker sauce, you could add 2-3 tbsp. of flour to the apple mix–I did not, but I wanted the sauce a little runny and carmel-like)
For the topping:
1 c. old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 stick of butter, cold (8 tbsp.)
Normally, step 1 would be to turn on some cooking tunes. But my sinus-infected sister was napping in the living room, and my husband, who had just come home from a 24-hour shift, was sleeping upstairs. So I baked in silence. But if you are unencumbered by sleeping family members, do turn on some cooking tunes.
Then preheat the oven to 350-degrees.
First things first: wash those apples. My local orchard is great, but not organic, and apples tend to get a hefty dose of nasty pesticides. Bug spray is not an ingredient in apple crisp.
Next: peel, core, and slice. Three little words, eons of kitchen labor. It’s step #1 of any baking project involving apples, and it’s a huge pain in the you-know-what. But it must be done.
I should really invest in one of those peeler-corer-slicer gadgets. “Dear Santa….”
(Ahem, husband, that means you.)
I don’t have a gadget, but what I do have is a super sharp paring knife. I hate doing this job with a dinky little vegetable peeler. It’s torture. My own version of Dante’s circles of hell. So, super knife it is.
What I don’t have is the patience or ability to cut just the skin in perfect curling ribbons as in that heart-wrenching scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks remembers all the perfect things about his perfect wife while Meg Ryan peels an apple. Hence, my apples come out looking like insane polyhedrons instead of perfectly skinned orbs. But you know what? They taste the same. So, onward to coring.
Coring. Part 2 of step 1.
Step 1 sure has a lot of parts. And in fact, coring is a three-step process. Confusing, or what?
To core, I cut the apples in half.
Then, I cut the halves in half.
Then, I got my sharp little friend, the paring knife, and carved out just the stem, the end, and the core.
Repeat for all four quarters.
Part 3 of step 1: slice. It’s the quickest, and thus most rewarding part of step 1.
I cut mine into roughly 1/4 inch slices. But do as you like. With a variety of apples, you’ll get a variety of textures anyway–Galas stay crunchy, Macs get squishy, and Honeycrisps are pretty crispy no matter what you do to them.
At this point, it is wise to refill your tea and do some deep breathing. You’ll be coring and slicing for a while.
Finally. Step 1 is done.
I gathered up the filling ingredients: butter, rum, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt.
I always use freshly grated nutmeg. You should, too. It will change your life. Just buy nutmeg whole and get yourself a microplane grater. Powdered nutmeg tastes like cardboard in comparison.
I mixed all of the filling ingredients together.
I dumped them into a 9×9-inch square baking dish.
That was redundant. 9×9 is obviously square.
I then put the dry ingredients for the topping into a bowl and mixed them all together.
Next, I cubed up the cold butter and added it to the filling. It’s really important that the butter be cold or the streusel topping will just melt. Not good.
I used the tips of my fingers to sort of rub the butter into the filling mix. You want it to look like chunky sand, but you don’t want to work it so much that the butter starts to get too warm. A pastry cutter would be ideal here, but I don’t have one.
I spread the topping on top, then put the baking dish on a foil-lined cookie sheet. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. The filling will bubble. It might overflow. This is a mess best tossed into the trash on a layer of foil.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 1/4 hours. It should be bubbly and deeply golden brown.
If you’re a blogger, be sure to take a picture of the finished crisp before your husband notices there is hot apple crisp in the house. Otherwise, your big “ta-da” photo will have a little less “ta-da.”
The finished crisp is incredibly good, and the sauciness just screams out: “Put me on ice cream!!”
Happy fall cooking (even with a hefty dose of peel-core-slice)!