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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.