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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Obligatory Traditions

This last weekend, Mark and I went home to PA to visit with my family and honor some autumn traditions. For a few years now, my siblings and I have ritualized the practice of heading to the local (Bucks County, PA) orchard, sneaking in some cider or whisky, geting a slight midday buzz, and take high fashion editorial style Instagram photos of our apple picking adventures which we review over a family feast that follows in my parents' home. Yes, we have a sibling fall editorial tradition centering around the fall harvest, but what incredibly generic suburban family doesn't?

So I love the fall family photoshoot tradition, but the truth is, I don't love apples and to be honest, they make me insanely bloated and uncomfortable. I always end up eating cider doughnuts, drinking cider, and taking home a dozen apples I end up throwing away. Faced with the desire to introduce Mark to this family tradition and somehow not perpetuate the tradition of waste or bloat, I questioned the value of the orchard trip in its entirety. 3 of my brothers would not be present, the weather had taken a gloomy turn, and Mark is averse to most anything sweet (except me...), was this even worth it? Despite my doubts, I convinced Mark to get in the car at 7:30am on a Saturday and head up 95 to enjoy a day of fall activities with my family.

After a pit stop at the local pizzeria, and an oh so necessary nap in my parent's home, we embarked on the task of locating my father who had gone out on one of his seemingly unending bike rides. Having confirmed my sister Rosemary's departure from work, through a series of dropped pins and GPS creativity, I picked up my father at a remote trail head and we were on our way.

We arrived at Solebury Orchards to gray skies, gusty winds, with my father in biking tights and a go-pro on his helmet, not the vision of fall chicness of years past that I had been looking for. Rosemary showed up just in time to assist in creating the human wall to allow my father to change our of his biking tights in the parking lot and avoid being charged with a lewd act in front of children, welcome to the family Mark...

We first approached the farmhouse and bought some hot cider, my dad bought the doughnuts and did not share, and I desperately looked around for the perfect autumnal setting for the initial apple picking selfie. Then we headed to the orchard... As we arrived amongst the trees, and the guide explained the difference between the good baking and the great eating apples, and then the great baking apples and the good eating apples, we erupted in laughter at the absurdity of it all. Rose and I had heard this same spiel a millions times before, and even in his first time hearing it, Mark could tell that each and every apple had inconsequential sweet, sour, eating and baking qualities...they are all F-ing apples after all.

Once we reached the ripe row I promptly added the Jack Daniel's to my hot apple cider, instantly livening the mood, it had severely lacking due to the weather. We made our way down the rows of Staymen-winesap (great for baking), stopping amid verdant branches and deep red fruit to take quintessential boyfriend and awkward sibling portraits. We moved on to Suncrisp, some golden-green colored hybrid and grabbed a few of the most "eatable "apples we had ever seen (can you taste the sarcasm?). A few more awkward Dad photos, some "hiking" in off limit orchards, and we had enough of the cold and headed home.

We left with what I knew was going to be more apples than we would ever use, once again our annual tradition resulting in waste...As you might imagine I was feeling less than fulfilled and suddenly slightly under the weather.

That night, my mother, and brother Nathaniel had planned a special "bring you boyfriend home for dinner" autumn meal. This is where things began to turn around. We sat down to delicious cheese, courtesy of my sister the cheesemonger for Whole Foods. Dinner consisted of glazed and grilled chickens, roasted vegetables and mushrooms, prosciutto wrapped sweet potatoes with walnut-gorgonzola spread and a delicious Texas pecan pie. Side note: my mother has become an award winning pie maker unbeknownst to me, taking second prize recently at a local country fair, who knew...

Now, Mark has already been to a half dozen family dinners at my Grandmother's house in Baltimore, but this was different. He was in my childhood home, a place I rarely venture, mush less bring love interests. Within minutes of sitting down we were deeply engaged in (dorky) discussions with my Dad, laughing along with my brother and sister (albiet at the dorkiness of my Dad). I'm gushing, but as I looked around at their faces, it felt perfect. We missed my absent brothers, but they were there in spirit, and would certainly have perpetuated all the jokes we kicked off at that table. It was my sister's Birthday that Monday prior, so we concluded the meal with a delicious cake that was nearly enough to make it impossible for us to to stand up and hit the road.

I went home with 4 pounds of apples, determined to bookend this orchard tradition by making good use of the fruits of our labor. Conveniently, we arrived home with tremendous head colds and were resolute in our decision to spend Sunday in the house. I putzed around for a few hours pondering what I could do with the apples.... What do you with apples when you don't bake, don't eat gluten and most importantly, don't like dessert?

I started tearing apart my pantry looking for anything that might put me on a path to using these apples...Amid corn meal from 2012 or flour from 2013 (I am my Grandmother's child #foodhoarder) I encountered a box of gluten free flour purchased (relatively) recently. Ok, this was a start, now what to make with it... I started looking at pie pans and baking sheets and was delighted to rediscovered the set of 4 insanely cute cast iron baking ramekins I had received from my friend Erin last Christmas. They are rustic-chic-baking vessel perfection, a gay food blog goldmine in their simplicity and photogenic properties.

This was the sign I needed! I googled a few recipes for inspiration and was off! I was going to make a gluten free apple crisp with my spin on spice and flavor. As making a dessert was inevitable, I decided to look at it as a challenge. A challenge to achieve a result the elevated the ho-hum "Apple Pie" to new heights of complexity and richness....

The aforementioned head cold meant leaving the house was not an option, which in turn meant pulling together ingredients from I already had only heightened the challenge. So while Mark watched hours of Harry Potter and toiled away on his laptop, I tore apart my kitchen looking for potential components for the perfect crisp topping. Fortunately, I must have had some kind of aneurysm in the bulk goods aisle at Whole Foods at some point because I had a inexplicably huge bag of walnuts in the freezer. I have no idea what my original intentions had been for this purchase, so I had no qualms about using them for my attempt at autumnal baking.

I decided I wanted the crust and the apples to be co-stars in the dish, neither one overshadowing the other. Since apples are inherently sweet, I decided I needed the crust to be more savory leaning, more umami if you will... I decided that using generous amounts of sea salt and exotic cardamom would lend a salty and luxurious aspect to the rich walnut base. I pulsed the walnuts in the blender, combined with 3/4 cups of GF flour, 7 tablespoons butter and added my still wasn't right...salty, fragrant, nutty indeed, but just not right. I thought about what I love about crumb topping; the buttery, caramelized, molassasy (is that a word?) richness with a crunch. In my attempt to avoid overwhelming sweetness I had forgotten the key ingredient to that crumb topping goodness, brown sugar. So I added a generous amount to the mix knowing it would achieve the depth that my prior concoction would not, yet avoid competing with the sweet apple foundation.

With the crust out of the way it was time to figure out how to make the apple more than an apple. Raisins, dried fruit would have been easy ways to begin, but who really likes those shriveled fiber bombs anyway? I tossed the apples with the requisite cinnamon, nutmeg, a bit of cardamom and granulated sugar to get to get the base flavors down. Then I started in my spice cabinet. Could I do a little heat with cayenne? No, I ruled that out since I had the savory crust down. My thoughts then went to all-spice, no, that would be too pumpkin-pie like for this effort, so basic, if you will... Then I remembered I had star anise and cloves from my various mulled wine endeavors over past holidays. I love these flavors, but they can be overwhelming so in the interest of maintaining apple and crust flavor equilibrium, I decided I needed to temper their presence in the dish. I pulled out the mortar and pestal and ground up a few of each. I steeped the crushed spices for 30 mins in hot lemon juice, while I joined Mark on the sofa and feigned interest in the goings-on at Hogwart's (he is going to kill me). I strained out the solids and took a big whiff of the final ingredient. It was perfect; fragrant, acidic, fresh, all of the delicacy of the anise and clove and none of the weight. I added this to the apple mix just prior to baking. This is important. Citrus is often added to apple desserts to brighten the flavor, but all too often the fruit is exposed to the acid far to early in the process. This means the fruit can begin to breakdown, and by the time you are done prepping and making you have a mushy filling with none of the appealing original texture of the fruit. So, I added at the end, took a final taste assuring myself of my imminent success, and prepared the ramekins.

I could barely contain my excitement as I overfilled the adorable cast iron crocks, I must have looked like an idiot grinning ear to ear in domesticated self satisfaction. Prior to placing them in the oven I took the requisite bakers dozen photos, in hope of the perfect "before" Instagram post. As they went in, I gave Mark a dramatic account of the culinary process described int this point, hoping to pique his interest in the victory I was about to achieve. He muttered something back in support, but it was clear there was something grave happening with Snape, and he might even have been holding back tears...

30 mins later, the crocks were bubbling and the house smelled incredible. I removed the crisps gingerly from the oven, and immediately drizzled them with some of the delicious Cajeta (dulce de leche) I had brought home from Mexico. Then my neuroses kicked in, and as he is quite used to it by now, Mark didn't even bat an eye as I frantically moved the crocks all around the house in various setting trying to find the perfect light for the finished product postable picture. If he ever videoed me during this part of meal prep, he would have embarrassing social media fodder for days...I hope he isn't reading this...

Once I had my pic, and I posted it with the perfect (#superfluous) amount of culinary hash tags, timed it right across Instagram, Twitter and finally Facebook...I took a break and let them cool so I could eventually do what dessert is meant for... to eat it.

It was delicious! I don't mean to brag, but for someone who admittedly can not bake, I did a bang up job on this dessert. The crisp tasted like a grown-up version of the ubiquitous Entemann's crumb cake topping, it was texturally perfect, and the caramel and cardamom shown through, complemented by the nutty walnuts and punctuated by subtle presence of sea salt. The apple foundation was equally successful, and co-stardom was achieved. The apples played perfectly with their usual counterparts in nutmeg and cinnamon, but it was the barely detectable hint of citrus and the unctuous yet subtle notes of anise and clove that kept me coming back for more. Simultaneously this both embodied "american as apple pie" and yet was something completely different, almost exotic. It was simple and yet complex. It tasted like something I knew, but was having for the first time. I took a tradition, and made something new of it.

In writing this post I realized this crisp was kind of a metaphor. Traditions are traditions for a reason., they are customs or rituals that honor or invoke positive memory and experience. But there can tend to be so many throughout the year, and in our daily lives that they lose significane and begin to feel obligatory. Whether it's arduous holiday travel, mandatory gift exchanges, or coercive turkey consumption, traditions get stale and lose their lustre. And then there is the hype factor. I often find myself getting so caught up in minutia of recreating holiday traditions, satisfying all the environmental conditions and replicating the events and emotions, that I am overcome by anxiety, crippled by disappointment, and in the end it all loses it's meaning.

This Fall-Family Weekend is one such tradition vulnerable to fatigue. It is one that has happened so many times, in so many iterations; from haunted hayrides at Kohler Farms as toddlers, to backyard pumpkin patches in elementary school, pumpkin carving parties as teens, and the orchard libations as young adults, we have always gotten together to celebrate autumn. The cast of characters have changed over the years, the activities have varied but the heart of it has never changed, enjoying this time together. Fall food has always played a big part in these traditions, bringing siblings and partners scattered near and far to the same table, yet it too has seen changes. As my sister and I started developing epicurean interest we began to take the lead, often collaborating on meal planning and execution. Now my brother Nathaniel has the culinary the bug, and this past family dinner was all his creation; roasted baby bok choy and fig glazed chickens were both new to the table. Maybe this is being too cerebral, but in honoring our fall traditions this weekend, and bringing new roles, activities, dishes, and Mark into it, we did what I did with the crisp, made an old tradition new again. I have to admit, getting up early on a Saturday, driving 2+ hours up 95 and coordinating all family members originally felt like it was going to be a chore. But on Sunday, when it was all said and done, and I was sitting there eating my nouveau apple crisp, leaning up against Mark coughing and blowing our noses, laughing over my family's idiosyncrasies and weekend antics, I realized that it what it was all about. Honoring and reliving memories by making new ones, keeping traditions alive by making them our own.

I'm looking forward to the holidays and making many more....

Spiced Apple Crisp



  • 3/4 cup Gluten Free Flour
  • 1/2 Cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (finely)
  • 7 table spoons salted butter - softened
  • 1 tablespoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 cup caramel sauce


  • 2 lbs apples - sliced to 1/8" thick pieces
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 table spoons cold butter - cut into small pieces


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 
  • Place a small piece of cold butter in the bottom of each baking ramekin, or several in the bottom of your pie pan.
  • Heat lemon juice, do not boil.
  • Grind clove and anise and add to hot lemon juice - allow to steep for 30 minutes
  • In a large bowl combine "Crumb" ingredients, mixing using a pastry knife, until there are pea size pieces and it is slightly sticky (not wet) - add more butter if needed
  • In a large bowl combine apples, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  • Once lemon juice is steeped, strain it, and toss with apple mixture just prior to baking
  • Fill ramekins or pie pans, placing apples in even layers, and top generously with Crumb
  • Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until you being to see bubbling and the topping browns
  • Remove from oven and drizzle immediately with caramel sauce
  • Top with Ice cream and serve immediately OR allow to cool 30 mins and serve with whipped cream


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