The women in my family are known for many remarkable achievements. From manning flight-control towers to founding companies, and from fighting for civil rights long before it was fashionable to possessing the ability to create parking places out of thin air*, I grew up witnessing just how a woman can do anything she puts her mind to. As a child I was inundated with reassurances that I could do whatever later tickled my fancy, that certainly nothing as inconsequential as my gender should stand in the way of success. Strangely enough though, instead of flying to the moon or spearheading a campaign to save the whales, the thing I found I really wanted to do was the one thing I didn't see any women in my family excel at: cooking.
I've already told you plenty about my culinarily-challenged upbringing, but you might be interested to know that the seeds of kitchen discontent were planted long before my own mother started wielding saucepans. My grandmother, a career woman before the term even existed, is not famous in the realm of food (like other people's grandmothers tend to be) for her cookies, cakes or casseroles, but instead for once forgetting to put the sugar in a pumpkin pie. A voracious eater but an impatient cook, she never seemed to be quite at home in the kitchen. Her cookies were flat and tough, her spaghetti sauce was watery, and the only recipes I ever saw her consult were those on the back of supermarket packages. In fact, when she was in the kitchen I always had the distinct impression that it was never entirely clear who was in charge - ingredients and implements took on a mind of their own around her, and whatever grand ideas she'd had upon beginning were quickly reduced to the reality of whatever happened to come together of its own devices. She cooked not because she wanted to but because she had to, and somehow kept it up long enough to meet the nutritional requirements of a quartet of offspring well into adulthood. But when she finally deemed herself too old to spend large amounts of time on her feet chopping and stirring, I believe a collective sigh of relief could be heard from various corners of the family; for her in particular, I'm sure it was a welcome submission. It thus came as quite a surprise the day, several years after she'd retired from kitchen duty, when she unexpectedly revealed the possession of one great and hitherto-unknown culinary secret: her recipe for apple crisp.
It happened one late summer day, on one of her yearly visits after we'd moved to Washington, when I was trying to figure out what to do with a bagful of tart and juicy Granny Smiths. I had been eyeballing a new pie recipe, but was worried I wouldn't be able to get it done in time for dessert. "Why don't you make a crisp?" my grandmother asked. When I confessed I didn't know how, she laughed. "That's something everyone should know - it's the easiest thing in the world!" And forsaking her well-worn seat at the head of the table she tottered into the kitchen to show me. First we started by slicing up the apples, thicker than I usually did for a pie. She took a large rectangular dish and laid them out in an even jumble, and then set to work making the topping. "The thing to remember about the topping is that the basic formula is one of everything. One cup of flour, one cup of sugar, one cup of oats, and one stick of butter. Just knead it up like this with your hands until the butter coats everything," - at this point it was resembling sticky globs of garden soil, a far cry from the usual sandy crumble of crisp topping - "and sprinkle it over the top". The moist nuggets were strategically plopped over the apples, and after a bit of last-minute re-arranging to make sure there was nothing exposed, she slapped it in the oven and clapped her hands. "Now wasn't that easy?"
It was. And it was also delicious - so delicious in fact, that I have never found another recipe for crisp that I like better. The topping this method creates is simply the stuff of dreams - it bakes up firm and crunchy, caramelly-sweet, buttery and seductively wholesome, a better partner for silky baked autumn fruit than any other substance on the planet. Of course I've tweaked the recipe a bit - I prefer to sweeten the apples a little and thicken their juices with starch so that they don't run the risk of turning the whole thing soggy, and I've enhanced the topping itself with a little fragrant cinnamon and crunchy nuts, but the basic formula is the same.
I've never asked my grandmother where the original crisp recipe came from. I'd like to think that it's ancient, making the jump from woman to woman in my family already for generations, always being treasured as that one magical recipe that will never fail to impress, delight, or just plain comfort. It will certainly make the journey to my own daughters, should I have any, and I'll be sure to accompany it with the story of my grandmother, how she would forget to put the sugar in pumpkin pies but knew the secret to a crisp that could make grown men weep.
*It's known in our family as parking karma, and wouldn't you know it, only the female line seems to inherit it!
Apple, Hazelnut and Vanilla Crisp
Notes: If you're a topping-lover like me, you might find you want to make one and a half times the recipe below - it may seem like a lot but somehow it always fits (and it helps to discourage arguments about who took more than their fair share of topping!). I've specified a long baking time and a low oven temperature for the crisp, which I've found allows the apples to fully bake without running the risk of burning the topping. Still, if it starts to look too brown on top before the apples are done, just cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil (poke a couple of holes to allow steam to escape). Also, the vanilla in the fruit is a recent addition I've been enjoying, but if you want a more traditional apple flavor, just leave it out.
2 1/2 lbs (1 generous kg) apples, preferably a mix of tart-sweet varieties like Gala, Braeburn or Fuji (about 6-7 medium apples)
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 vanilla bean, slit in half and seeds scraped out with the tip of a knife (or 1 teaspoon extract)
the juice of one medium lemon
for the topping:
1 cup (140g) flour
1 cup (80g) rolled oats (I've used both quick-cooking and regular to good results)
1 cup (packed) (220g) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) (115g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (100g) hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Peel, quarter and core the apples, and cut each quarter into thick slices. Combine the slices in a bowl with the sugar, cornstarch, vanilla bean seeds and lemon juice. Mix well and leave to macerate while you prepare the topping.
For the topping, combine the flour, oats, sugar, cinnamon and salt in another large bowl. Drop the butter in, and with your hands, start kneading everything together. When the butter is completely incorporated, the mixture should be uniformly moist and quite sticky. Add the chopped hazelnuts and toss everything to combine.
Pour the apples and their liquid into a glass or ceramic baking dish just large enough to accommodate them without them rising above the rim, and distribute them so they're level. With your hands, sprinkle chunks of the crisp topping over the top of the apples, saving the last bit to fill in any holes. Make sure there are no apples exposed.
Position a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom of the oven or a lower rack (this is important as the juices WILL overflow), and slide in the crisp above it. Bake undisturbed for about one to one and a half hours, or until a knife poked through the crispy crust meets only softness below. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Eat hot, warm, or even cold. It's fantastic with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, Greek yogurt, or my personal favorite - a gush of cold milk poured over the top of a bowlful of piping hot crisp.