I sat back yesterday and tried to figure out why I am suffering from bakers-block. I am having a very hard time coming up with new things that I want to try at the moment. It didn’t take long to figure out the various causes, but as I study foodways and traditions and the role of food in our emotional lives, I find it all very interesting as well as frustrating.
My mother in law passed away just as I was preparing to come home from Italy. I was eating an Italian feast in rural Italy when I got the call from my husband. There I sat with a wonderful group of women, feeling utterly helpless to comfort my own people. These women gathered up my spirits, held my hand, and my friend Emily offered up a prayer for the strength of my family in my absence that would have made an atheist weep. There, around the table, we sat. They shared wisdom with me. And, they helped set me on my course home to my family.
When I arrived home, ready to cuddle and console, I found that my little family had fared exceptionally well in my absence. I must add, in addition to coddling on the evening of her death, my husband was making sure the children had done their homework…because he got them up and got them off to school the next morning. I likely would have issued an invitation to wallow in grief for a few days. My husband chose to teach our children that life goes on, there is a time and place for everything, and work still needs to be done even on the tough days. For this reason alone, I am glad I was out of the country when this occurred because I respect that decision and lesson immensely.
But, not only do I have a compassionate yet stoic husband, but I returned to a family surrounded by the love of friends. That love, to a great extent, was manifested in food.** On the evening of the death, while my husband was still consoling our children, our friends began to feed my family.
The food poured in. They ate meatloaf and all the wonderful sides that evening. After my flight arrived in Dallas, I came home to find smoked chicken, macaroni and cheese, and twice baked potatoes. The next evening, friends brought pot roast and all the trimmings. A magnificent cheese tray with local honey and Marcona almonds. Pies, cakes, cookies. Dishes for the freezer. Sandwiches for the children. A bowl of fruit. A ham, which we are still eating for breakfast every morning. Food is the way we comfort each other. And, it works. When you are too tired to pick up a fork, much less cook, and someone puts a plate of pot roast in front of you they are telling you that they love you, that you have some room to feel pain, and that life goes on.
It is an implied social compact. I’ve got you now. When my difficult time comes, you can cover me. This is a community ethos. I also think this is what starts to fall by the wayside when we don’t break bread with our families and friends often enough. It is an old fashioned tradition viewed through the busy lens of the day, but taking food to a grieving family is a tradition that should never end. I cannot begin to describe how helpful the few days of respite from the kitchen was for all of us.
Now that life is a little bit back to normal I find that I have not posted much on PIE, not surprisingly, because people have been feeding ME for the past 8 days. I haven’t cooked! Thank you, dear friends.
But cooking is my soul work, and now I find myself yearning to be back in the kitchen. But, I also find myself not wanting to cook anything new at the moment, which doesn’t bode well for our cyber relationship. But, I think a few more days should do the trick. Oddly, I want to cook my old favorites and work on things at which I should be better. Thus I found myself staring at five varieties of apples in the grocery store, wondering about pies that I had made in the past, and looking forward to making a new one. You see, I have a special thank you pie to make.
But in the meantime, my apple friend, Jon Rowley, had posted a story and recipe about Tart Tatin, a rather simple apple pastry. The “fancy” name had me fearing it for years. Had someone told me that it was just the apple pie equivalent of an upside down cake, I probably would have attempted it sooner. You see, I learned you simply cook apples in a sauce of butter and sugar on the stove top, cover it with a pastry crust, bake it for a bit, and then flip it out onto a dish. The crust ends up on the bottom, and the lovely carameled apples end up on top, and it is quite a thing to behold. Turns out, it is not complicated.
But, when you are dealing with a pile of cooked apples, face up, the decision about which apples to use becomes of primary importance. Hidden inside a pie with a bottom crust and a top crust, apples can hide and mingle, especially if you do as I do, and use a variety of apples. But with the Tart Tatin, you aren’t mixing up a giant bowl of apple bits, you are cooking and baking big chunks of apple, so they need to not only hold up to the heat, they need to taste wonderful. There is less room for marginal apples here.
This is a problem for those of us who live in grocery store land, as opposed to a land of orchards. I realized, that I really didn’t know how any of the apples before me would perform. I went ahead and made the tart. I used three apple types. It was good…nothing worth photographing and sharing, though. It was an experiment. But it solidified my sense that I needed to put my available apples to the test before I willy-nilly cast them into a pie shell for a pie that was intended for someone special.
A thousand words in and here is my main point. Let us all put our apples to the test before we bake with them again!! Of course, I got this idea because Jon suggested it years ago, but I never slowed down long enough to experiment with it myself.
I bought five varieties: Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Sweet Tango, Braeburn and Envy. Sweet Tango and Envy are hybrid (is that the right word?) apples that have been developed and aggressively marketed. They have their own websites and marketing departments, for crying out loud. I find all of that a bit off putting for some reason, but I chose not to hold that against the poor apples and let them in the experiment. There were a few other varieties to be considered. I should have thrown in a Fuji, but I knew I had no interest in messing with Red Delicious for baking purposes.
I cut them, cored them, sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon, added a pat of butter for good measure, and baked them in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. Then I looked at them and poked at them and I baked them for another 10 minutes before removing them for tasting.
This was completely fascinating (and delicious). My daughter, Lily, and I took bites of each apple and judged it both for taste and texture. After all, you don’t want to eat even a delicious apple pie if it is the texture of apple sauce. If you do this experiment, make sure you label your apples. Make a chart and pay attention. The experiment is for naught it you forget which apple is which apple.
At 45 minutes, the Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Braeburn were soft. The Sweet Tango and the Envy were still hard and needed time. After giving them all the additional 10 minutes, the Sweet Tango was perfect, but the Envy was still practically raw.
[Top Left to Right: Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Sweet Tango. Bottom Left to Right: Braeburn, Envy, Golden Delicious cut.
Here are our not very scientific comments from the tasting.
Golden Delicious: mild, nice flavor, simple, soft but not mush.
Granny Smith: tart, turned into apple sauce
Sweet Tango: firm, good flavor, sweet
Braeburn: mush, pear-like, okay, decent
Envy: still very firm, near raw texture, like a heated raw apple
This is the most delicious experiment ever. But, among my daughter, my husband, and myself, we all chose the Sweet Tango as having the best overall taste and texture for a pie. Second place went to the Golden Delicious for its overall flavor, though the texture was much softer. The Granny Smith, oft cited as the best pie apple, was a total bust. Its flavor wasn’t great, it was tart, but it didn’t offer much else. I was a little surprised by how badly this particular apple held up. That said, it was one apple out of a billion. One apple from one tree from one orchard…it is possible that it was a fluke.
If I were baking a pie from the conventional apples at my disposal on this day, I would have used a combination of the Sweet Tango and the Golden Delicious. But, instead, I’m not going to bake my pie yet and I’m going to go for another armful of apples at a different store and try to find more and better apples.
I recommend that if you bake with apples, you try this. Baking an apple pie seems intimidating, particularly if you have made that one pie and it turned out to be not so good. But consider the fruit you are using. These five apples could not have been more different from one another. And an apple that is great to eat out of hand, will not necessarily make a good pie apple. The Envy is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It is a lovely, crunchy tasty apple, eaten raw. But it would have been a disaster in a pie. Assuming it ever cooks through, it is possible that no other apple (or crust) would have held on long enough for it to soften. And, to take the logic a step further, a good pie apple will not be a good applesauce apple, necessarily. And apples at different times of the year will behave a little differently. Whoever made up that bit about comparing apples to apples as opposed to oranges, had never really compared apples to apples because they are simply not the same.
Before you invest your heart and soul (and money and time) in baking your next apple pie…test your available apples. And then let me know about your results. But, if you already have a solid opinion, let us know. What is your favorite raw apple and what is your favorite baking apple?
**One notable exception to the food offerings must be mentioned. Our dear friend Margaret Ryder (Fleurt Floral Design), who is one of the best floral designers in Dallas, lovingly pumpkin bombed our porch. By this I mean, that one moment I had a completely unadorned front porch (expecting at least 50 visitors). The next moment I receive a text photo of my front porch adorned with pumpkins and squash and gorgeous plants. She was gone like floral Zorro. Best surprise ever. Thanks, Margaret.