Here in Napa Valley, it’s full-on fall. The leaves on the vines are changing colors, the nights and mornings are cool and crisp and, with the grape crush in process, the air itself smells like wine. But we don’t only grow grapes in these parts. Not for nothing is a road in the next county over called the Gravenstein Highway. We’ve got apples, lots and lots of ’em. In need of distraction from the mid term elections — please, please vote — and and proliferating yard signs and half-baked opinions polluting the autumn airwaves, I consulted Food Network and whipped up an apple crisp, comfort food that is tailor-made for the season.
This is one of those dishes wherein simplicity reigns. It’s easier than pie, and when made with the right apples, it’s make-your-socks-roll-up-and-down delicious. Served with creme fraiche (stay tuned) it becomes a slightly more sophisticated dessert, rich and tangy and sweet and toothsome and crunchy, all at the same time. Plus it makes your kitchen smell like the childhood you wish you’d had.
We’re still in peak season for local apples, but not for much longer. So if you too could use a break from the election sturm und drang, here’s what to do:
Chop up some walnuts, about half a cup, throw them in a shallow pan and toast them in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes while you get started on the apples.
Squeeze the juice from a fresh lemon (you want somewhere in the neighborhood of 2Tbsp, maybe a little more) into a big bowl and add 1/2 cup of sugar. Stir it around to let the sugar dissolve.
Peel, core, and slice into thin wedges 6 good-sized baking apples. For my last batch, I used a combo of Rome and Arkansas Black, purchased from an organic grower at our local farmer’s market. Whatever apples you use, make sure they’re the kind that will stand up to baking without turning to mush or losing their flavor (don’t even bother with super market Red Delicious). Throw the slices into the bowl with the lemon juice and sugar to keep the apples from turning too brown.
Don’t forget about the walnuts toasting in the oven! As soon as you can smell them, they’re toasted. Take ’em out, stir them around a bit to let them cool, and turn the oven down to 350 (unless you have a pathetically slow oven like I do, in which case keep it to 385).
Stir 2 Tbsp of all-purpose flour in with your apple slices, lemon juice and sugar.
Butter a baking dish or 13X9 inch pan (you’ll need that size if you used big apples, like I did), and pour in the apple slices.
In another bowl, make the topping. You can use a food processor for this operation, but I find it more fun to start with a pastry cutter and then just use my hands. Put into the bowl: 1 1/4 cups flour, 1/2 cup rolled oats (the boring kind, not steel-cut), 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp salt, and the toasted walnuts. Adjust the measurements upwards if you’ve got more apples to cover. Don’t stress over the proportions too much. Apple crisp, unlike politics, is a very forgiving endeavor.
Cut up 1 and 1/2 sticks (again, adjust) cold butter into small pieces and work them into the topping mixture with the pastry cutter (or your food processor) until it starts to come together and you can squish it into blobs. See why it’s more fun to use your hands?
Distribute blobs of the topping over the apples until you’ve got them all covered and you’ve used up all the topping.
Put the whole shebang in the oven, uncovered, and bake for about 45 minutes until the fruit is bubbling, the topping is looking crisp and the aroma is making you swoon. Remove from oven and allow to cool down from its present thermonuclear status.
Serve warm. You can top it with vanilla bean ice cream and it will be lovely. Even better is a dollop of creme fraiche.
Creme fraiche, you say, that stuff that costs four times as much as sour cream? If I can even find it in the dairy case? Here is one of those kitchen tricks that is absurdly easy yet will earn admiring gasps from your foodie friends (until they catch on and do it themselves). Here’s what you do:
Pour 2 cups of heavy whipping cream into a Mason jar or something that has a tight-fitting lid. Mason jars look cute but aren’t vital to the process. Now add two Tbsp. of buttermilk and stir briefly. Cover the jar loosely (a paper towel will do fine) and put it in a sunny window.
And that’s it. After some time — it could be 8 to 24 hours, 48 at the outside, depending on the warmth of your sunny window and the vigor of the flora in the buttermilk — the stuff will culture and thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon. Put the lid on it, stick it in the fridge (where it will thicken a bit more) and voilá.
Here’s the only critical part: make sure the cream you use is not flash-pasteurized, a process that uses a brief blast of heat. Flash pasteurizing imposes a scorched-earth policy when it comes to any attempt to culture the cream. Find some nice hippy-dippy local cream and you’ll be OK. Some methods tell you to heat the cream and buttermilk to “tepid”, but it’s really not necessary unless your house is bereft of sunny windows. If you do heat it, beware of overdoing it: you don’t want the cream to get any warmer than about 85 degrees; not even body temp, or again the poor critters in the buttermilk won’t stand a chance.
And then you will have a jar full of what would be about $12.00 worth of thick, rich, slightly tangy wonderfulness. Which tastes, unaccountably, of hazelnuts. Whatever you don’t use on your apple crisp can be used to make glorious pancakes, dollop on pizza, or used to thicken sauces. Don’t ask me why, but creme fraiche doesn’t curdle in heat like sour cream does. Swirl some of it into the pan juices next time you roast some meat, and your dinner guests will gape at you like you just channeled the French Chef.
Invite some friends over to not talk about politics. Serve warm apple crisp generously topped with whatever, and let there be peace on earth.
What about you? How are you coping with the election extrema? Please vote, and please comment: we’re all in this together. If you try these recipes, let me know how they turned out!