Staring down six crates of Paula Reds, Galas, and Honeycrisp that have recently rolled into the bakery, I am feeling the slightest kinship with the woman in Cornelis Bisshop's oil painting, "Woman Peeling an Apple." Unlike the subject in Bisshop's painting who is peeling a single apple, my weekend features apple-ing on a much larger scale.
When the sun dips into the sky this Sunday evening, Rosh Hashanah begins. The Jewish New Year is a time of celebration and reflection, culminating ten days later with Yom Kippur. Apples and honey are notable throughout the holiday, symbolic of a sweet New Year.
Unlike the maidservant in Bisshop's painting, I am neither leaning casually against a door jamb while peeling, nor taking a pause from my apple madness. Apple cakes on a singular level are a pleasant task. On a large scale, apple cakes are labor intensive and require expansive workspace. Swimming against the tide of unwieldy tube pans, weighty cake batter, and pounds of cinnamon-sugared apples, there is nary a lifeguard in sight. The cake is composed of four layers; batter, apples, batter, apples, tipping my new digital scale at nearly 3 pounds of batter and 2 pounds of apples, per cake. A crazy labor of cake love, it's excessive in the most celebratory of ways,
In my apple cake reverie/purgatory, I cannot help but think back to last October, and my all-to brief visit to Amsterdam. Smack in the middle of the city's Museumplein (Museum Square), Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is the grande dame of art museums, boasting a staggering assemblage of iconic art and artifacts. Reflecting more than 800 years of Dutch and global history, the museum’s collection spans the Middle Ages to present day. Designed by renowned Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers, the Rijksmuseum is the largest museum in the Netherlands. Surrounded by expansive gardens and impressive sculptures, the museum boasts a dramatic history.
The museum weathered years of political unrest and war, yet remained intact until Germany’s invasion during World War II. In order to protect and save their most prized collection of Dutch masters, the paintings were removed from the frames, rolled up and secured in wooden tubes, then smuggled out of the museum through a trapdoor. The trapdoor was located in the room housing Rembrandt’s famous ‘Night Watch.’ The valuable artwork traveled through the trapdoor to a small door in the garden where it was transferred by boat to a secretive location in the south of the country.
The Rijksmuseum holds the distinction of being one of a small few in an occupied country during the Second World War that was able to save its major collection. Miraculously, only a few minor pieces were lost. When the museum re-opened its doors in 1945, the outpouring of visitors determined to see The Return of the Masters exceeded those who had visited the museum during the entire war. Today, the Rijksmuseum's Dutch neo-Renaissance building is home to more than 2000 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. It deserves another visit, but not this weekend.
I can rhapsodize over Amsterdam's stunning art collection and perfect slices of Appeltaart, but the truth is my immediate focus is on American apple pies and Jewish apple cakes. We could however, all take a little lesson from the Dutch, whose iconic Appeltaart is an integral part of Dutch food culture.
History traces the first Dutch apple pie all the way back to 1514. An early recipe for the dessert can be found in the Notabel Boecxken van Cakeryen, one of the oldest printed Dutch cookbooks. The recipe is more reflective of the famous Appeltaart, a deep-dish version combining thick apple slices with cookie crumbs, blanketed beneath a generous pastry crust. Often served with pouring cream or 'mit schlag,' (whipped cream) the Dutch embrace their traditional apple extravaganza throughout the day. It's quite common to see folks enjoying a slice with a cup of strong coffee for breakfast, or tucking into a wedge mid-day, or capping off a celebratory evening meal. The Dutch approach to apples, and more specifically apple pie, proves that the Dutch were truly Masters of this 'taart' form.
The true barometer of fall is not pumpkin flavored, it is the arrival of the autumnal equinox. This year, it swings through town on Monday, September 23rd, giving you permission to trade in your casual linen shirt for a broad striped plaid, your open-toed sandals for Chelsea boots. For the women surrounding the Baker’s bench at my workplace, this is great news. While they have been itching to unleash the pumpkin/chocolate chip quick bread since Labor Day, I have been less inclined to rush the season.
Well aware that cider doughnuts coated in a deluge of cinnamon sugar are readily available, it still feels a little early. I will however, admit to purchasing a mega-ginormous bag of miniature chocolate candy bars because Costco offers a fine selection. It’s been a few days since the bag arrived in my kitchen and if you look closely, you might notice a few of the peanut butter cups are missing. I can’t vouch for the handful of Snickers or remember eating the Milky Ways, but not to worry; they found a good home.
Personally, the sad-but-true harbinger of fall lies not in a latte brimming with nutmeg, but in the fresh onslaught of coughs and colds and early influenza. You need look no further than the person approaching you on the street, seated next to you on the train, or handing off their shopping cart at the local market. Thanks everyone, for sharing.
We are taught to share at an early age, and if you were lucky enough to grow up with siblings, learning this skill was critical to your survival. My older brothers were pretty good about sharing, particularly common colds and childhood diseases. I shared right back, offering my latest sore throat or fever into the mix as we circled a Milton Bradley game board or wrestled in the living room. My sister was much younger and in most cases, just as we were rallying from our latest malaise, she was coming down with it. My mother tried in vain to keep us isolated in our rooms at the first sign of a cold, but our lives were so intertwined, it was nearly impossible. Thankfully, doctors made house calls back then and mothers or grandmothers, and always Jessie, stayed home with us when we were sick. We were entertained by Colorforms and Dot-to-Dot and an endless stream of cartoons. It was a very different kind of day care.
I was thinking about this on Tuesday as I waited on a gray, molded plastic chair at the local pharmacy. Before there was a vaccine for one of those connect-the-dots childhood diseases, we actually had the disease. As adults, we run the risk of revisiting the chicken pox all over again in a less desirable version. My health care professional administered my first dose in June with the reminder that I needed the second dose three months later. Begrudgingly, I heeded his reminder.
The pharmacist was an affable sort, armed with a serious looking syringe. I looked away. “Any reaction to the first dose?” he asked, pausing for a moment.
“Nothing terrible,” I explained. “A little headache, a little pain…”
“At the site of the injection?” he asked as he administered what could only be described as kryptonite through a fine syringe. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” Slapping a vibrant red band-aid on my upper left arm, he added. “A number of individuals have reported a more severe reaction to the second dose. Take some Tylenol if you feel feverish,” he suggested. “And don’t forget to get a flu shot!” he called after me.
Feverish was the tip of the post-shingles shot iceberg. My side effects vacillated between teeth-chattering chills, a raging headache, and a fever that continued creeping high enough to prevent any reading or Netflix consumption. I watched the thermometer climb with the steadiness of a candy thermometer attached to a pot of simple syrup. I slept, dreaming the same dreams over and over again; a feverish tangle of Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, and Magilla Gorilla. I used my one good arm, my right arm, to flail about for more Tylenol every six hours, as directed. Not a single piece of chocolate from the giant bag in the kitchen crossed my lips.
The post-vaccine side effects were more than a little inconvenient, but not dire. The headache lasted for too many days and my left arm still hurts like the dickens. Actually, it hurts with a very familiar pain. The pain reminiscent of the shot in the arm administered by my brothers when we were horsing around, and it was funny until someone got hurt. To clarify, that someone was usually me.
SEPTEMBER AND THE PLUM TORTE
I love a recipe with a little wiggle room, one that invites you to use blueberries or apples, peaches or plums, or a combination of any. Such is the directive in the original version of the famous Plum Torte recipe. First published in the New York Times in 1983, Marian Burros’s recipe for Plum Torte became one of the most popular recipes to grace the pages of the Times. The truth is, the recipe was lounging in a paperback cookbook on a shelf above my mother’s kitchen desk for years before I read it in the paper.
Marian Fox Burros and Lois Levine co-authored The Elegant But Easy Cookbook in 1960. A compendium of recipes geared towards entertaining, the premise of the book was that a host could be a guest at their own party. Burros and Levine clasped readers firmly by the oven mitt as they made their way through hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, main courses, breads, vegetables, starches, salads, and sweets. The painstaking notes in each chapter coaxed party throwers to prepare menu items in advance. No longer tethered to the kitchen, hostesses with the most-ess casually defrosted, reheated, and waited for the doorbell to ring. The recipe for the Plum Torte appears on page 154 in the chapter dedicated to sweets. It is quite similar to any number of ‘blitz’ type tortes, kuchen, or cakes prepared by generations of women; women who were generally in a hurry to get a meal on the table.
My copy of the Burros/Levine treatise on entertaining is wedged between books by Jennie Grossinger and Joan Nathan, on a shelf dedicated to Jewish Holiday cuisine. I like to think of that portion of the bookcase as the ‘Hadassah Ladies;’ women well versed in tzimmes and rugelach, mandelbrot and kneidlach. The paperback book once belonged to my mother who handed it to me when we were in a hurry, packing up a box of kitchen essentials for the move to my first New York City apartment. When I asked my mother if she wanted to keep the well-worn book she replied , “I have two more copies; one belonged to Mama Minnie and one was Aunt Lily’s.” The book retailed for two dollars and ninety-five cents but felt as valuable as a priceless family heirloom. Over the years, I extracted a number of recipes from the book, gravitating towards quick hors d’oeuvres and many of the simple icebox pies.
Today, my copy of the paperback book is weary, cracked along the spine, the front and back covers a touch brittle around the edges. The book opens to page 154 with minimal intervention. The recipe for the original Plum Torte is actually titled Fruit Torte and is identified with #3. (This has nothing to do with social media; instead it indicates that the cake can be prepared up to 3 days prior to serving.) According to an article written by Marian, she credits Lois with bringing the recipe to their original book, Elegant but Easy, in 1960. The edition that sits on my bookshelf was updated in 1967, and stands at the ready should I decide to host a mid-week luncheon or a casual midnight buffet. To date, I’ve hosted neither but I have often turned to page 154 when plums roll through town.
There is something comforting and grandmotherly about the Plum Torte. When I assemble the ingredients, the kitchen suddenly feels crowded with grandmothers in heavy stockings and aunts with monogrammed handkerchiefs peeking out of pockets. They are not shy in offering their opinions on how they make their Plum Torte and why their version is a little bit better. The cake portion of the dessert is dare I say, somewhat dowdy. What gives it spunk are the plums; deeply hued, they dress up the torte like one of those beloved grandmothers or aunts wearing a little too much lipstick.
With apologies to Marion and Lois, I prefer to bake their cake not in a springform, but in a cast iron skillet measuring 8” in diameter. The batter fills the pan generously, resulting in a thicker slice. Call me a nonconformist, but fanning slices of sweet/tart plums over the batter creates a vibrant circle of fruit that bakes up as a beautiful mosaic of fall color. Truly a harbinger of autumn, the Burros/Levine recipe is one of those desserts with a long history and a dedicated following. For so many of us who grew up enjoying this cake, it wouldn’t be September without it.
WILD MAINE BLUEBERRIES
When I think about blueberry pie in summer, I think about my father loading us into the forest green station wagon at the ungodly hour of 6 am, with the sole purpose of getting on the road before rush hour traffic. No matter how you sliced it, Maine was eight hours away and for the passenger wedged between a Coleman cooler and the ‘way back’ seat, it was interminable. We seemed to manage without water bottles or juice boxes, relying instead on cold water dispensed into Dixie cups from an unwieldy thermos. Our navigation system consisted of a series of AAA paper maps, folded neatly and secured in the glove compartment. My father was well acquainted with every thruway and turnpike, beltway and parkway, only asking my mother to pull out the map when an unforeseen traffic incident snarled his plans. He rolled the window down periodically to feed the tollbooths with coins easily accessible from the unused ashtray. The radio stations vacillated between up to the minute traffic reports and easy listening. Occasionally, my mother would lean over and change the dial to a contemporary station. We stopped infrequently along the way; once for a picnic lunch, once to fill the thirsty car with gas, and mid-afternoon for gravity defying scoops of ice cream perched high atop sugar cones. For more years than I can count, the sole purpose of our trip was Visiting Day/Parents Weekend at the summer camp my brothers attended.
My sleep-away camp experience was less successful; an eight-week stint in the Maine woods left me more homesick than emancipated, with no hankering to return. In between lake swims, non-competitive sports, and skit night, we hiked along trails cushioned with pine needles, edged in sun-dappled ferns. One of our counselors was a botanist, keen on identifying plant-life while steering us clear of poisonous shrubs and ivy. Guiding us towards meandering clusters of wild Maine blueberries, we ate them by the handfuls, dotting our fingers and our white middy blouses in violet. We were foragers way ahead of our time. The berries were both vibrantly sweet and tart, much like the candy options available from the camp’s daily canteen. Sprawled across my bunk popping Sweet-Tarts into my mouth, I wrote letters to my parents imploring them to let me come home. In return, my mother’s letters were breezy and newsy, reminding me how much I would miss camp when it ended. My father simply wrote in his signature scrawl; “I miss you but remember, life is a series of adjustments.” He was right.
To this day, a Maine license plate still causes a double-edged tinge of homesickness and carsickness. After years of little adjustments however, a trip to ‘Vacationland’ is a much welcome respite. It also boasts quart containers of wild blueberries begging to be consumed.
A really fine slice of blueberry pie made with wild Maine berries conjures summer camp in the very first forkful. It is a totally different pie experience than the plump cultivated, (“highbush”) berries suspended in sugar and Minute tapioca that most of us grew up with. When faced with an empty pie shell and 6 cups of blues, I am always reminded that blueberry pie in particular is tricky business, a balancing act of sweetness and thickener, capable of standing up to a fork, yet saucy enough to spill across a dessert plate. The collision of warm berries against a pool of melting vanilla ice cream, all tangled up between a flaky pie crust epitomizes summer, but it’s challenging to execute successfully. Just back from a road trip to ‘Vacationland,’ I’ve opted for the least bit of intervention between wild Maine blueberries and my pie plate. Combining them with a shy amount of sweetener and just enough thickener to contain the juices, the berries are topped with rich biscuit dough and baked until bubbly. Had my father been joining me, he would have insisted on dousing the cobbled biscuits and fruit with pouring cream. Like father, like daughter.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm