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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)