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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.