While most boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, most likely in equal parts, mine are a jumble of French, American and Italian. Neither truly and completely one or the other, they balance between their many cultures as on a swing set, a see saw, back and forth, back and forth. They pick and choose the parts they like best. They are able to melt into one or the other, slipping into the chosen persona, offering their best accent and spouting one cultural reference after the next as if on cue. Caught between all of these various worlds, struggling to juggle conflicting identities, find common cultural ground, muddling through the learning process of cultural identity, my two boys have become true mini melting pots.
When it comes to food, a strong part of their heritage, they are as familiar with osso buco as blanquette de veau as chili or pigs in blankets. Although one clamors for tiramisu, the other profiteroles, they both adore chocolate chip cookies and revel in a huge pan of brownies. Gelato, esquimau, or ice cream sandwiches are equally enjoyed, all depending upon where they are.
Although their tastes are as different as night and day – one eats salads and vegetables, healthy balanced meals, the other would be happy to live on pizza - there are certain foods they both clamor for and most are American in flavor: grilled cheese sandwiches with processed American cheese served with potato chips, chocolate layer cakes and hamburgers on buns with fries with plenty of ketchup. And Apple Pie. Plain, simple and good, piles of naturally sweet slices of fruit encased between two sweet, flaky crusts, the whole redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg. And eaten slathered with loads of canned whipped cream!
American as apple pie. Comfort food at its finest, reminiscent of summer holidays.
A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Apple Kuchen, Apple Noodle Kugel, apples dipped in honey, apple strudel. Apples were a part of my upbringing, food filling, comforting and hardy. Jewish women cooking and baking the dishes and desserts of their mothers, food reminiscent of the Old Country. While cabbages, onions, potatoes and beets filled our dinner plates, apples were the sweet reprieve.
Apples tossed into wide, flat egg noodles with sugar and cinnamon, or smothered under a simple vanilla cake batter, baked into something dense, sliced into squares and eaten warm with a glass of milk. Apples paired with plump raisins and rolled in flakey strudel dough, something more elegant, made for special occasions. Or slices of apple, slippery slick, dipped into liquid golden honey for a sweet new year.
How about them apples?
Apples bought by the crate or picked from the orchard down the country road, apples were cheap and bountiful. My mother-in-law’s baking was, like her cooking, frugality and simplicity itself, and apples fit the bill to a tee.
Apples were cored, the slender hole stuffed with cubes of butter and as many raisins as would fit, dusted generously with sugar and cinnamon and pushed into the oven where they would soften and wither, leaving a plumped fruit wallowing in thick apple sauce. On the plate they weren’t the prettiest things, but oh were they good. A spoon would slide into the flesh, scooped out and savored warm, the apple flavor intensified almost like an apple liqueur. The juices would then be spooned up, greedily like candy.
Her apple tart, like the best apple tart, had little to do with its American cousin. An American apple pie is over-abundance itself, thick, thick, generous layers of apples heaped between two crusts baked to a crispy, flakey assertiveness, thrusting itself at you boldly, confidently. A French apple tart is subtle, enigmatic, promising little at first glance. Thin and delicate, a French apple tart is merely a single layer of paper-thin slices of the fruit placed in a swirl of concentric circles atop a fragile round of dough, glistening with a brushing of jam. My mother-in-law’s apple tart was more rustic than the elegant version yet just as simple, chunks of apples in a single layer of concentric circles, pressed into a thick cookie-like dough, a pâte brisée rather than the familiar puff pastry. Baked and eaten for afternoon snack with a glass of milk.
Bundled up in sweaters and coats, dog let off the leash to enjoy a day of complete freedom, we would leave her in the kitchen to her cooking and baking. Skirting around the old stone houses and along the edges of the fields (with a nod towards the occasional cow) we would take a brisk afternoon walk of discovery through the village. Around and about we would go, through the village square and its imposing stone church, past the cemetery and ending up at the apple orchards stretching gracefully into the distance. Finding our way back home, chilled to the bone, our cheeks and noses flushed from the fresh air, to find a pot of hot coffee and a warm apple tart on the table.
One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.
Bobbing for apples on a Halloween afternoon, hair held back by somebody’s mom, our face plunged into the ice-cold water. Apples floating on the surface in a wide, deep basin, Halloween trick or Halloween treat? Try and press your teeth into the skin of one or the other, only to have it slip away.
Candied apples at a fair, apples dipped in gooey dark caramel or a bright red hard candy coating, glistening seductively, beckoning sweetly. Try and get a mouthful of the caramel or the candy in every bite, never desiring a taste of only the apple, ordinary apple that we can have for the asking any old day of the week. No, those caramel apples, those candy apples were a rare treat, indeed. Cotton candy or caramel apple? Hold the stick upright in a child’s tiny fist, try and keep the heavy apple erect so the sheer weight of the thing didn’t tip it over and onto the ground. The first bite is the best. Digging teeth into the apple, teeth sticky, lips sticky, fingers sticky.
A bag full of Halloween candy. Who tossed in an apple? Who sullied a perfect sack full of chocolates, candy bars and popcorn balls with an apple?
Green apple Jolly Ranchers.
Leaves turning to gold and burnished red, flaming orange pumpkins, sweet potatoes dressed in mauve, porcini and chestnuts in sexy shades of cream or mouthwatering hues of chocolate snuggled side by side the deep purple figs in a festive embrace. Autumn’s colors are romantically deep and moody, the rustle of leaves and the breeze tickling our senses with mystery.
Fallen leaves spread across the city square, filling gutters, not yet lying matted and sticky underfoot like an old forgotten scarf or a stray mitten lost.
The market stalls breathe autumn as they fill up with the season’s treasures, crates of apples in every shade of green and red, lined up by the dozens next to the more meager offering of pears. Tarter, sweeter, milder, crispier, apples to eat and apples to bake and apples for compote and apples to accompany veal or chicken, savory sweet.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
While many prefer a croissant, the simplest of French pastries yet anything but simple what with its buttery layers of flakes, ethereal; or its more joyous kin the pain au chocolat with its bite of bitter chocolate, eaten with the excitement of a child; while some desire a pain aux raisins with its buttery, creamy raisin-studded swirl or a totally decadent croissant aux amandes, that over-the-top, extravagant treat of a croissant stuffed with rich almond cream, stuffed to the point of oozing, topped with crunchy slivered almonds and dusted with powdered sugar until the white obliterates the golden of the dough…. I am attracted to the chausson aux pommes.
The chausson aux pommes is the quiet cousin of the French morning pastries, standing in the corner, hidden among the gold. Less ostentatious than the others, a simple turnover filled with the most basic of all fruit, the first fruit, applesauce wrapped in a cozy casing of puff pastry. It lures me, tempts me like the forbidden fruit, good and evil. Just one bite. Flakes flutter onto my shirt, my lap, the tabletop (lick fingertip, stick onto crumbs, pick up and suck off finger), applesauce oozes out (no matter, eaten in private, away from prying, judging eyes), try and eat only half but to no avail. The temptation is too strong.
Indulgence, pure pleasure. No shame.
Apple of my eye.
Apples are most definitely my family’s favorite fruit for desserts, whether cakes, coffee cakes, crisps or crumbles. Now that autumn is upon us and apples back in season, preparing apple desserts and treats just comes naturally. An Apple Brown Betty can be thought of as a cross between the American Apple Cobbler and the French Apple Charlotte, a treat of chopped apples tossed with cinnamon and nutmeg-enhanced sugar and layered with buttered breadcrumbs; while the apples and lower layers of crumbs become meltingly tender, juicy and infused with a sweet spiciness, the top layer of breadcrumbs crisps up like the perfect crust. This is an old recipe straight out of my junior high school home economics notebook. A warming and comforting treat.
JAMIE’S APPLE BROWN BETTY
7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter
5 cups cubed bread (I used sandwich bread - about 1 slice per cup)
5 - 6 cups apple cubes (this is between 3 - 5 apples, depending upon their size; I used half delicately-flavored sweet Goldens and half tarter Reinettes)
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar - either light brown or white granulated
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup water
2 Tbs lemon juice
Peel, core and cube the apples. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter a 9 x 13 - inch baking dish or equivalent volume (if using a smaller baking dish, make sure the sides are higher and be aware that the baking time may change.) or 8 individual ramekins.
Melt the butter in a large bowl; toss the bread cubes in the melted butter until all the bread is evenly coated/soaked.
In a separate large bowl, blend the sugar and the spices; toss the apple cubes in the spiced sugar until evenly coated and all of the spiced sugar is clinging to the fruit.
Layer buttered breadcrumbs with the apples, beginning and always ending with breadcrumbs (breadcrumbs form the top layer). Mix the lemon juice into the water and pour over the apples BEFORE spreading on the top layer of buttered breadcrumbs.
Cover tightly with a piece of aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. At the end of the 30 minutes, uncover the baking dish and continue baking for an additional 15 - 30 minutes (depending upon your oven, the apples chosen and the size of the baking dish) until the apples are bubbling and the breadcrumbs on top are a deep golden brown, or as desired.
Remove the baking dish or individual ramekins from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool at least to warm as the boiling juices may burn the tongue and mouth. Eat as is or topped with ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream. Perfect warm or at room temperature.