September 18, 2012

Big Apples

Apple Cakes

It's apple season, the leaves are shimmering gold and red, and I'm restless in this sudden chill. How ominously the dark presses in right before dawn stirring an urgency to batten things down, put up pickles, can tomatoes, simmer those apples into sauce and butter. There's really no logical reason for any of this -- we have storm windows that are easily lowered over the screens; yesterday I turned the heat on; I doubt we'd ever starve. But fall scares me, pricks some latent ancient memory. I need to get ahead of the coming black, howling cold, the wolf at the back door. So, I seek the comfort of my kitchen drinking endless cups of tea and peel a trencher of just picked apples to make sauce that sends puffs of cinnamon through the dim afternoon. Picking apples is my childhood indulgence; it's a familiar thrill to climb the ladder into a tree's shaky gnarled limbs and prove to myself, that despite all that's fallen and rotting sweetly beneath me, I'm still not too old to reach into the sky.

I just can't help but pick too many apples, overfilling the crisper, bouncing out of the bowls on the counter. The solution is to make applesauce, several batches to eat, then the rest will simmer a long long time and become apple butter to slather on scones and pound cake ... add dried cranberries and spoon over vanilla ice cream ... season it with chopped sage for grilled pork ... or stir in curry powder to slather on sauteed chicken breasts ... 

Use tart, crisp apples like harlson and keepsake for applesauce. Simply peel, core, slice into a pot and add an inch or two of fresh cider. Set over a low flame, cover, and simmer until the apples soften. Remove the lid and simmer until very soft. The longer it simmers, the richer and more flavorful the sauce will be.

As long as you're chopping apples, make this cake, too.

Apple-Oat Bundt Cake with Cider Brandy Glaze
Makes 1 12-inch Bundt cake
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup oatmeal (not instant)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain whole milk yogurt
3 tart apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped

1 cup confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoon apple jack or brandy
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour a 12-cup bundt cake.
            In a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy and smooth and beat in the sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, then beat in the vanilla.. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
            In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, oatmeal, baking powder and salt.
            Stir one third of the flour mixture into the egg mixture, then stir in one half of the yogurt. Continue adding the flour and yogurt alternately until everything is incorporated. Fold in the apples. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes up clean, about 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes.
            While the cake is baking, put the confectioners sugar, cider, butter, apple jack or brandy, and cinnamon into a saucepan set over low heat. Whisk until the ingredients are thoroughly combined, the glaze should be thick, but pourable. If too thick, thin with a little cider.
            When the cake is done, remove from the oven. Using a sharp knife, poke several holes in the top of the cake. Pour half of the glaze over the cake and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Invert the pan, remove the cake and cool on the rack completely, then drizzle the remaining glaze over the cake.

September 3, 2012


photo by Mette Nielsen
Tomatoes - Last Call 

The tomatoes in the pots on my patio in Minneapolis are less than lovely, distorted with furrows and folds, marred by wind and scorched by the sun. But, when it comes to tomatoes, looks are deceiving. Tart, sweet, sharp, and bursting with flavor, these tomatoes conjure that perfect night in high school I tasted real, homegrown Jersey tomatoes. 

It was at dinner in my boyfriend Anthony's backyard, Union, New Jersey, a neighborhood not far from, but nothing like, my Short Hill's home. His mom, a heavy woman, in a long sleeved black dress and tie shoes, had just returned from "The Track"-- Monmouth, where she'd won a trifecta. "Bring in your girl," I'd heard her shout to Anthony, as we'd stopped at his house to pick something up. "We're celebrating." His dad, "the gardner", in sleeveless t-shirt, a cigarette held tight in his lips, set out platters of olives, fried peppers, pepperoni and salami, hunks of coarse bread, and a jug of red wine. Stretched out in a lawn chair, he told stories of his stint in the Army during WWII where he served as medic in Africa, treating soldiers in a tent of horror and gore. This was a rare night off for Anthony's parents who both worked at the family's Satellite Diner on Route 21. "I've never heard those stories before," Anthony told his dad. Well into midnight, we listened and ate up the last of the season's tomatoes under a full August moon.

Anthony's dad's lopsided Jersey Girls were lush and weighty, musty with late summer sun. Just off the vine, they were sliced thick and plied with peppery olive oil, then sprinkled with coarse salt. "My granddad brought the seeds with him when he and my grandma moved here," Anthony said.

My precious patio bounty is exotically named -- Green Zebra, Siungold, Marmande, Costoluto, Fiorentino -- they'd befuddle Anthony's dad. But in his honor, I slice and slather them with good oil and great salt, then I stretch out in a lawn chair with a glass of red wine, and polish them off under a ripe August moon. 

This time of year, make haste. Once the frost comes, close the door on your tomatoes, and wait for next summer to come.

If you have any leftover sliced tomatoes, slow-roast them with herbs and serve over fresh mozzarella for a lively side dish or toss with pasta for an easy, light dinner.

Slow-roast Tomatoes with Mozzarella, Thyme & Basil
Serves 2 to 4

16 small or medium tomatoes, sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup sliced sliced mozzarella
Generous handful basil, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Arrange the tomatoes in a small baking dish so they fit snugly. Drizzle with plenty of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss in the thyme. Bake the tomatoes for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until they are collapsing. To serve, arrange the mozzarella on individual plates or a single serving platter. Spoon the tomatoes on top and then sprinkle with the basil. This is good hot or at room temperature.