An apple a day keeps the doctor away? How about five or six. As a kid I wasn’t obsessed with gushers and fruit roll ups like my friends, rather I could down five apples a day and I usually did. I had a reputation in my apartment building for being the apple girl. Not the most prestigious title, but I took it. Growing up everyone knew me for this trait and always commented as my mom lugged bags of granny smith’s home from the grocery store weekly. To this day I love to eat apples in any and all ways, raw or cooked, and I start every day with one. I’m actually eating one right now.
When I discovered that cooking apples made them even better my life was changed. The smell of apples and cinnamon cooking with sugar, bubbling up in the oven, brings me back to one place instantaneously—my country house in upstate New York. I think the term “country house” can come off as so pretentious, so let me clarify, it’s not like that. This little seasonal bungalow that my parents saved up to buy is a tiny house within a co-op just an hour outside of Manhattan. As residents of the big city this was our little getaway. I loved having meals there, listening to birds and surrounded by trees. Everything just seemed to taste better near nature.
When the fall colors began to paint the foliage surrounding us I knew that it was almost time to close up the house for winter, I dreaded not getting to be there for six months. At the same time though, this was my favorite time of year. It was apple season! At the end of September into October we would climb into our champagne-colored Nissan Pathfinder and drive a mile and a half to Barton Farm. I felt like we were going on a grand adventure. Even though we were only going five minutes, we rolled down the windows and turned music on loud. As we turned down the long entrance road the wheels of our car kicked up a dry cloud of dirt. It felt and smelled so much like a farm, and as a true city-kid, I gazed out the window in wonderment. Although the smell of fresh apple cider donuts put me into a trance, the first thing I wanted to do was get on the hayride and start picking. We always perused the different varieties of apples but left with the same ones every time—macouns.
Good macoun apples should have a nice crunch to them, but not the abrasive crunch of a Granny Smith, more of a subtle, clean crunch. You just have to try one. They look like macintosh apples, a mosaic of red and green skin, but have a better balance of sweetness and tartness that emerges from the juices of the neon-white flesh. Biting into a macoun from Barton is a moment I waited for all year. I can still see 10 year old me standing in the middle of the orchard with my off-white, half-zip sweater from Old Navy and a pair of baggy jeans taking my first bite of the season.
We would buy two of the biggest bags they offered and fill them beyond capacity. I always sought out the largest apples on the trees, asking my dad to reach up on tiptoes to get the exact one I was pointing to. Often times we had to find a thick stick to put between the bag handles so we could carry the apples without them falling everywhere. Of course, we filled our pockets and mouths with them as well. The apples went fast in my house this time of year, especially since my dad also loved them. This was not usually something I had to worry about with him, so I had to keep track of these.
While they were a great snack morning, noon, and night, these apples were also transformed into the most soul-warming, cuddly dessert—apple crisp. I started making apple crisp at the country house in our tiny toaster oven, following a recipe from one of the recipe card inserts in Martha Stewart Magazine that my mom had torn out. I peeled all the apples and mixed them with sugar and spices, always a little heavy handed with the cinnamon. It was not until several years later that my dad shared his aversion to too much cinnamon with me, but I don’t believe such a thing exists so I continue to always add just the right amount of too much.
Then I topped the apples with the chunkiest, most butter-filled, crumble topping I could throw together. Forget the kitchen tools, I got right in there with my fingers. There is something so therapeutic about pressing cold butter into granules of sugar and flour with your bare fingertips and getting it under your nails. After distributing the topping as evenly as humanly possible, for fear that I may be the one to get the skimpy piece of topping, but that usually didn’t happen since I served everyone, I slid the pan into the little oven, turned the timer dial to 45 minutes and waited to see the bubbles form along the edges of the pan. Every crack and crevice of the house began to soak up the aroma of cooking apples, picked that day, and lovely cinnamon.
As I close my eyes I can still feel myself in the house, my bare feet on the wood floor, my hands covered in butter and sugar and the sight of the sticky, sugary, liquid sneaking over the edges of the glass baking pan. That’s how you know apple crisp is ready. I am now twenty-four years old, sitting alone in my one bedroom apartment, my feet on the cold, wood floor. It’s late and I’m thinking about my recent break-up and missing home. I am consumed with the desire to feel these feelings again that seem so far away. To be together again as a family in this tiny house waiting for the timer to go off for the apple crisp. Coping with the thought of never feeling that again scares me, but knowing that I get to carry these memories with me is comforting. Suddenly I feel an urge to make apple crisp.
After dinner we cleaned up as a family. My grandpa usually washed the dishes, leaning on the side of the sink as he scrubbed, or something of the sort; the dishes always remained a little dirty or sudsy but it was his effort that counted. I put a pot of tea on the stove to boil for my Nana and then served heaping portions of apple crisp to everyone. The five of us sat around the kitchen table in the nook next to the window and melted into our bowls of hot crisp. Around that table we were one, all caught up in the bliss of a simple dessert and the bond of family. Any time I smell cinnamon I feel at home, no matter where I am. My ability to bring this joy to my family through a few simple ingredients has always stuck with me.
As October crept further along and we locked up the house for the season I could still taste the soft, sugared apples bursting in my mouth underneath chunks of butter, oats, cinnamon, and brown sugar that had morphed together into nuggets of crumble topping. Those chilly fall nights where I slept in socks and woke up to the subtle chirps of the birds that remained reside in the most beloved part of my memory. Now that my grandfather is no longer with us and my nana has sold their cottage, which was two down from ours, the sentiment is not the same at the house. It is still a reprieve and an escape, but a part of my childhood that I can no longer access lives in the walls. I miss being a kid, sitting around the table as a family, laughing and eating too much. I miss taking the bubbling apple crisp out of the toaster oven at just the right time. I miss hearing my mom sneak into the fridge early in the morning for some cold crisp before I got up, and me doing it later in the afternoon before dinner the next day. While I can’t be back in that time and space, the same way I felt it, I can find solace in baking apple crisp. To this day the smell of apples baking in cinnamon and sugar brings me right back to that place, and I am safe.