10.31.2012

that primal, wild part of you



 Apple season is coming to an end around here. Maybe it’s just in Maine, but Halloween always feels like the turning point, when the once-vigorous, crisp days of early fall abruptly launch their descent into the truly frigid, gloves-and-hat weather of deep fall. The foliage show is past its peak (and we can usually count on there being at least one big storm on the horizon to barrel through and rip off any leaves refusing to give up the ghost), and the apples have matched pace and all fallen or, more likely, been plucked.


It’s been a busy fall for us, and half of our little family never made it to our local orchard. Wylie and I, though, went on an apple-picking field trip a couple weeks ago with his preschool class, and were very productive. Most families paid their $5 and were given small, kid-sized paper bags to put their pickings in. Wylie, however, announced repeatedly to anyone who would listen that he was going to pick “a billion” apples, and thus we needed the giant plastic bags the orchard also had on hand. In the end, Wylie proved a bit optimistic in his estimate, but we did walk away with over twenty pounds of Macoun apples (some of my favorite, second only to Northern Spy), along with a jug of tart, fresh-pressed cider.


The day was gorgeous, clear and bright with an early chill in the air that had receded by the time we were deep among the apple trees. We rounded up all the little ones after a brief cider-making lesson, head-counted thrice for good measure, and started off. Walking the wide path through the front orchard, we passed the barely-trickle of a stream and the red-orange berries of the hawthorn trees, and continued up the curving hill, all eyes peeled for the pink ribbons on the end of the rows signaling we had reached the Macouns. Eighteen children eagerly set upon the trees, weaving and ducking under the lowest bows, excited to see how quickly they could fill their bags with the abundance surrounding us.

The five-pound totes were quickly filled from trees so bursting with fruit that their canopies were just as much red as green. Harvesting complete, the kids set about playing in the orchard, something I don't think grown-ups spend nearly enough time doing. Hide-and-seek among the heavy, low-hanging branches, racing down the rows, "testing" the apples to find the one with just enough snap, sweetness and bite to be deemed Perfect - all were natural inclinations for children let loose among the apples, unaware as they were that for some people, row upon row of laden fruit trees equals many days of manual labor.

As I watched them, first in the orchard, then later as they sampled cider, and finally when the class trekked to the playground across the street for snack and play time, I noticed how freely all the children just . . . were. They barely noticed the yellow jackets wizzing around their heads, who were looking for their share of the sweet, fermented fruit; the adults' hands waving the wasps away were a much bigger nuisance. They made no pains to avoid the oversized ruts of soft, cracking mud left behind by the tractor. They were unencumbered by worries about how far one could run away before crossing the line into "too far." They were outside in October and the sun was shining and it was good. And as I took it all in, it occurred to me that children are often a lot better at what they do than we grown-ups are at what we do.


 It's partly the nature of the beast, I know. But I can't help feeling that it's too easy to let obligation and responsibility and inhibition creep unhindered into our lives, until it sometimes seems as though those are the things that define our lives. When was the last time you bent down close to watch a wasp have a drink? Or got excited about the geometry and texture of giant tire ruts stamped into the earth by farm machinery? Or even swung as high and fast as your legs would pump you? Because really, I don't think many of us actually outgrow "kid" stuff. We just tell ourselves we do, in our eagerness to grow up and prove ourselves to be far too mature to appreciate the silly things that occupy the time of a four-year-old.

We are doing ourselves a disservice.

The heaviness of adulthood, the worries and requirements, distractions and ambitions, could be put in better balance if somewhere along the way we could remember that, even in grown-up hands, play dough feels good. And running through a field can release that primal, wild part of you that gets repeatedly tamped down under towering piles of "I ought to do . . " And that some of the most fascinating things we will ever see often take place on a very small scale, way down at ground level.

I wish we went to the orchard more. Without an agenda, without time constraints, without fear of wasps. Because, amongst the apples and the bugs and the funky-sweet scent beneath the trees, it can be beautiful to just be.

 
Apple Snacking Cake
Yields one 11-inch cake

After making two apple pies, a batch of applesauce, eating numerous apples out of hand and with our stash dwindling, I needed a more substantial, but less dessert-y vehicle for my apples. Most years, I'd turn unthinkingly to Louisa May Alcott's apple slump, but this year I wanted something a bit more refined, though not too fancy. Enter the snacking cake. Equally at home first thing in the morning or alongside a cup of tea in the afternoon, this cake is a lovely study in contrasts. Soft apples are held in place by a sturdy batter, a batter which manages to be both delicate (due to the spices) and hearty (thanks to the relatively small amount of sugar). It's inspired by Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake, from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table, but the end result is a very different cake indeed. Though it is delicious on day one, after having a full day to settle into itself it becomes even better. But, be forewarned, it is almost too moist to enjoy by day four. Not that you'll have any left by then, anyway.

202 grams Tara's gluten-free pastry flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon psyllium husk powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
pinch fine sea salt
2 large eggs
100 grams light brown sugar
114 grams butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 large, tart apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

 Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter an 11-inch removable bottom tart pan (a springform pan would also work here).

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, psyllium husk powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the eggs and sugar on high speed until pale yellow and thick. Add the melted butter and vanilla and whisk to blend well.

Switching to mixing by hand with a wooden spoon, stir in the sliced apples and then add the dry ingredients and mix to incorporate. Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until golden brown. Cake may be served warm or at room temperature, and you will find that no one objects to a little scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Store cake, wrapped airtight, at room temperature for up to three days.

10.03.2012

brimming with tradition


Some notes from around here:

Two of my favorite women each just had a baby, and my family went to The Fair. (Though not necessarily in that order, that is certainly how their importance is ranked in my mind.) And they have both, for good reason, put my mind on a children-and-traditions sort of path.


Every single time someone I know has a baby, I am immediately rushed back to my own early experiences with motherhood. All those little details that made up the bulk of my bleary, milky first and second and third days as a mother, and then a mother again — the fiercely protective cocooning impulse that descends on the house, the funny way that nursing and my own thirst became urgently, critically synchronized, stroking the satiny tops of my babies' heads and their rumpled fingers, the strangeness of being utterly exhausted yet also too paranoid to sleep soundly — all the things that never flash across my mind during the regular goings-on of my life, they all seem suddenly and completely relevant again and in need of a good reminiscing. As if it was me who had just given birth, I am driven to obsessively rehash my own labor and delivery stories, their individual challenges and triumphs, even — or especially — when my only audience member is the appreciative voice inside my own head.

And then once I've really fleshed out my own transformation into Mama, I start thinking about my boys, and what their experiences as members of this family have been like. Wondering what things they'll remember, what in particular is going to stick out of the busy whirlwind of early childhood. Their own rambling chatter suggests that they've been paying close attention.

"Do you remember when I was a baby, Mommy, and I always wanted you to read me Oh, The Places You'll Go!"

"When I was very little, I didn't know how to say scavenger hunt."

"Wylie, when you were a baby, your favorite food was avocado. You mushed it everywhere."

So yes, they notice things. In fact, at this age their memories of their childhoods are probably sharper and brighter than mine are, mine which have already been smudged around the edges — and in some cases obscured altogether — by the competing need to multitask my mothering with the rest of the demands of adult life. There's just no way to retain it all. And yet I am always chagrined when they ask, "Remember when I was little and I  . . ." and I don't. I don't remember. I wish I did, and I am so thankful for their reminders of the things I've let slip. Seriously, I am often surprised and touched by how many small, seemingly insignificant things they do remember.




And that's where I think traditions come in. For helping all us aging grownups to remember, and to connect, again and again, with our loved ones. Repetition, you know? Because while I thrill in watching my boys enjoying and looking forward to the traditions we've created for them, it is certainly me who finds a deeper meaning in it all, and who feels the burning urgency to keep these customs going. As much as I want my kids to experience the security and sacredness of family traditions, even stronger is my own desire to want to remember my boys taking part in them. I need to remember. And I want to know that the heritage I am passing on is one rich with established practices, ways to mark the year that say, repeatedly, this is who we are. I want to know that we did these things together.

 



Which brings me to The Fair. The Common Ground Country Fair began in 1977, making it just barely a year older than I am. And while I haven't attended every year, it's safe to say that I've been at least twenty times, probably more. Certainly long enough for it to be established, as securely as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, as yet another way in which we celebrate and mark the rhythm of our year. And just as The Fair itself has morphed and evolved over the years, so too has my experience of it, culminating in this year, when Kalen emphatically informed me that, when you have kids, the whole point of going to The Fair is to spend as much time as possible in the Children's Area. Seeing as much of what I remember about my own early Fair days are children's activities and entertainment, it would seem that he's entirely right.








So while this year I may have missed out on some excellent presentations, didn't really shop at all, skipped the sheep dog trials, and never even set foot inside the main building to ogle all the prize-winning vegetables, I still had a brimming-with-tradition Fair experience. The garden parade, fresh-cut potato chips, live music, wagon rides, ice cream, face painting . . . it was all there, just as I'd remembered it, just as I want my children to remember it. Because while going to The Fair is fantastic in itself, it's the memories of being there with my growing family that sustain me throughout the rest of the year. That help me to remember all the other Fairs I've been to in my lifetime, and that, most importantly, bind me to the friends and family I've shared them with.


Indian Pudding
Serves 6-8

One thing that always says "Fair" to me is warm Indian pudding, with barely-sweetened whipped cream melting down its sides in milky white ribbons. For some unknown reason Indian pudding, although a traditional New England dessert, has never played much of a role in my life outside of The Fair. I treasure this fact, since part of the charm of The Fair for so many of us is eating foods that we only encounter that one weekend a year. This year, though, due to the confluence of my traditional dish of ice cream and an I'm-hoping-becomes-traditional fish taco on a freshly-pressed corn tortilla with homemade sriracha, I didn't have the appetite for more than a couple bites of Indian pudding. This resulted in me moaning to the boys, days later, that I didn't have nearly enough Indian pudding to get me through to next year, and so we were going to have to make some. This went over well enough until we dug into the first servings, at which point we all realized that what I'd made was not the Indian pudding from The Fair. (Keep in mind, I never make Indian pudding. I didn't know what I was doing.) So Round One went into the trash (it was way too sweet, with a texture that was equal parts broken custard and watery syrup), and after significant alterations to the recipe, I landed on a dish that we all agree tastes and looks much more like the one ritually eaten every September. It was just what I needed to close out the month. And while the technique — more polenta than pudding — might not be historically traditional, it wins points for being an entirely stovetop affair. A keeper for sure, even if I hardly ever end up making it again, in order to preserve Indian pudding's special status as an annual Fair Treat. I wouldn't want to break too much with tradition, after all.

834 grams whole milk
133 grams heavy cream
140 grams yellow cornmeal
170 grams maple syrup (preferably grade B)
150 grams molasses (use blackstrap molasses for more authentic "Fair" flavor)
30 grams unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

In a large heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, scald the milk and cream. Rain in the cornmeal, whisking constantly to prevent clumping. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring, for 10 minutes or until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of thin porridge. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk to thoroughly combine. Cook at a low simmer, whisking every 10 minutes or so, for up to 2 hours. You're looking for the pudding to be quite thick and reduced, and when you scoop out a spoonful for testing, it should firm up as it cools. Once you're determined that the pudding is thick enough, it's ready to be served right away topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream, or transferred into another baking dish, plastic wrap pressed on the surface, and chilled for up to three days. The pudding will be very firm when cold, but can be gently reheated over low heat and stirred to return to its creamy state. And to state the obvious, it makes a fabulous hearty breakfast on crisp Fall mornings.
 
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