Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I’ve never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe — something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn’t too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that’s exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
Harmony Orchards is owned by Sharon and Craig Campbell, and is perched right at the meeting of the Tieton and Naches rivers. There they grow over 40 varieties of cider apples (and some pears) for their bottled ciders over at Tieton Cider Works. The Campbells don’t currently allow the public to come and do u-pick apples, but this one annual day was organized years back and has become a favorite fall tradition for those of us who have been lucky enough to come along. I recognized a few kids this year who have obviously grown significantly and a few friends of friends whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. There was lots of apple sampling and talk of what we’d all do with our haul, and as I slowly meandered around the orchards feeling quite pregnant, many people asked when our baby was due and pleaded with us to come along next year so they could meet Sprout.
I always say that it takes at least a year after moving somewhere new to finally feel kind of settled — you know, once you find your dentist and person to cut your hair, your favorite place to get coffee and a good walking path. And while I’ve long felt at home now in Seattle, there are other things that help solidify and reinforce that feeling, namely annual traditions that mark the passing of time in some way and keep you rooted to a place and its people. Picking apples in the fall has become that for us. And next year we’ll pull up onto that dirt road likely much less rested and with an almost one-year old in tow.
Sam was a champion picker this year, especially after it became clear that my pregnant belly didn’t really accomodate the new picking baskets. So I did a lot of low apple picking and apple art directing: “oooh, get that one! That one looks goooood.”
We ended up coming home with a bag of Jonagolds, Ambrosias, Ashmead’s Kernal, a few heirlooms and a handful of Golden Delicious. The looming decision for what to bake first was a tough one. I looked through a few favorite well-loved books to begin: Rustic Fruit Desserts, Huckleberry and Short and Sweet. Then I got my weekly email from Splendid Table which featured Dorie Greenspan’s Custardy Apple Squares (originally appearing in Baking Chez Moi) and I changed course quickly: I’d seen these apple squares on many a blog and around the internet; Dorie herself calls it a great “back pocket recipe,” and one that takes little planning or fuss. I was sold.
The gist behind these squares is that they’re really mostly thin layers of apples cloaked in a not-too-sweet batter that bakes up into a humble cake. You slice the apples on a mandolin to get them nice and thin and then whisk up a quick batter and the rest takes care of itself. I used whole wheat flour instead of the all-purpose flour that Dorie calls for and added the tiniest pinch of cinnamon, and I’d say the batter is forgiving enough that you could use many different flours here if you have any laying around you’re looking to use up (spelt, rye, barley, oat would all be great, I imagine).
We were in charge of bringing the snack to our birth class this week, so I cut these up into thin rectangles and they were met with much acclaim. Now it’s time to make another batch for ourselves, and I’d like to think maybe this will become one of those recipes that I make each season — one that Sprout will think of and crave when the leaves start turning each September in Seattle.
Dorie mentions that you could add a splash of rum or Calvados if you like, or the zest of an orange or a lemon. Also, she mentions mixing up the fruit and trying it out with pears or quince, too.
Ever so slightly adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Slice the apples using a mandoline, Benriner or a sharp knife, turning the fruit as you reach the core. The slices should be about 1/16th inch thick– elegantly thin, but not so thin that they’re transparent and fragile. Discard the cores.
Whisk the flour and baking powder together in a small bowl.
Working in a large bowl with a whisk, beat the eggs, sugar, salt and cinnamon together for about 2 minutes, until the sugar just about dissolves and, more important, the eggs are pale. Whisk in the vanilla, followed by the milk and melted butter. Turn the flour into the bowl and stir with the whisk until the batter is smooth. Add the apples, switch to a flexible spatula and gently fold the apples into the batter, turning everything around until each thin slice is coated in batter. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top as evenly as you can–it will be bumpy; that’s its nature.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown, uniformly puffed– make sure the middle of the cake has risen–and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Using a long knife, cut the cake into 8 squares (or as many rectangles as you’d like) in the pan (being careful not to damage the pan), or unmold the cake onto a rack, flip it onto a plate and cut into squares. Either way, give the squares a dusting of confectioners’ sugar before serving, if you’d like.
The cake is good at room temperature the day it’s made, or can also be refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 days and served chilled.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.