The Apples, The TV, and Me

Apple Pan Dowdy with

This past weekend I was the recipient of a large bag of apples. This was a gift from a friend who had ventured “upstate”, a term many Manhattan-ites use to describe anything outside of the five boroughs.

The generosity of the gift aside — and who wouldn’t appreciate a bag of orchard-fresh apples– I was left a little bit like the kid in the proverbial candy store. I ate one and saved a few more for the same purpose, but then realized that I needed to kick inspiration into high gear to figure out what to do with the rest.

While I was sitting (okay, lying) on my sofa munching on the apples, I started channel surfing and came upon four females who, for varying reasons led me down the path to my apple solution.

The first was a filly named Zenyatta. I’m not using a diminutive term for women here: Zenyatta really is a filly, a six year old race horse that, up until this past weekend, has raced undefeated. While much of the news coverage of this beautiful animal showed her lapping up a bowl of Guinness Stout, there was also footage of her being fed an apple by one of the reporters. I happened to see the latter just as I was eating the first of my apples. Something about the purity of the scene touched me. There she was, an unassuming female champ in a man’s sport, enjoying some of the basic “finer things in life:” a good, sweet, crunchy apple. A pint of stout. If a horse could kick back and say, “ahhhhh” I’m sure she would have.

Next I came upon a baker named Rachel Allen whose UK-produced program is aired here on the Cooking Network. There’s something serene and peaceful about watching the glamorous yet earthy Ms. Allen baking and teaching. With her soothing, soft-as-linen Irish accent, she coaxes baking peace from a chaotic class of lucky amateurs. Anything seems possible in her kitchen. You can keep 3-D TV; I’ll take “Rachel Allen Bakes!” in Smell-O-Vision HD, please.

This past weekend she made a reliably perfect apple Tart Tatin. It seemed like providence to witness her effortless Tatin as I sat munching my gift o’apples knowing that my large bag o’ apples was waiting.

And yet…as much as I love Tart Tatin, and as much as I think it is an easy way to make a really great, dramatic dessert, I always feel that there is something missing: spice. The star of Tart Tatin is caramel, gooey, sticky, and even a bit crunchy, but the cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger Americans crave in apple pie-style desserts are missing.

By this time my legs were up on the sofa, and I was in full Saturday couch potato mode. This made me the perfect sucker for repeats of “Two Fat Ladies.” While the two self-described fat ladies, the standards-singing, chain-smoking Jennifer Paterson (who departed for a more heavenly kitchen some years ago), and the über-serious Clarissa Dickson-Wright, would seem like the perfect fodder for a Saturday Night Live sketch, I found myself strangely drawn to their aesthetic. There’s something substantial about their cooking. Surprisingly, in spite of how they billed themselves their brand of cookery is never an exercise in gluttony; rather, there is something worldly, yet straightforward about what they serve in their formidable crockery. Food as a sort of truth. Clearly these were two women who’d been around the block—and who had found all the good meals along the way.

So, from my prone perch, considering my bag of apples, I thought that my mission had become clear: bring the delicacy of Rachel Allen’s Tart Tatin and the starchy, straightforward, authenticity of two fat ladies to my kitchen. Oh, and Zenyatta’s appreciation of simple pleasures. And use up the apples.

“Easy, peasy” to quote the late Ms. Paterson.

The weather has cooled off in my neck of the woods. After almost hitting eighty degrees a couple of weeks ago, we’re getting down into the thirties some nights. My mind is already on Thanksgiving. Last Thanksgiving I wrote about a classic, old dessert, “Baked Indian Pudding.” While I never make any claims that “Baked Indian Pudding” will have a renaissance, I like the basic flavors this somewhat austere dessert holds: cornmeal, maple, and molasses. It’s kind of a Plymouth Rock trifecta. Surely I can reference the flavors in a dessert that is a bit more accessible?

One of my favorite hot desserts is Apple Pan Dowdy. Named for its plain –dowdy—appearance, it belongs to the same family as crisp, cobbler, buckle, and brown betty. The Pan Dowdy version is baked in a shallow baking dish with a biscuit crust. This is my candidate for the Indian pudding treatment.

The obvious place to start was with my favorite part: the crust. Normally I would have used a Pâte Sucrè – a sweetened pie crust—on top of the apples. But by fiddling around (a bit of cornmeal here, a dash of molasses there…) I was able to bring the dark notes of Indian pudding to the brightness of baked apples.

The result is a hot dessert perfect for a cold night, or at least to counter the scoop of ice cream you will invariably plop on top.

The pilgrims never had it so good.


Click here for the recipe for Apple Pan Dowdy with “Baked Indian Pudding” Crust.


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