My brother has an orchard. The orchard has twenty trees, about a dozen of which are apples of different varieties. And this is the time of year when most apples ripen. Which is to say that my brother has way too many apples. Which is to say that I now have too many apples, too.
I jest. In fact, when you love apples as much as I do (enough to name the versions of the software you write after different varieties—I’m looking at you, NASA) there’s no such thing as “too many apples,” as long as we’re talking about varieties selected for flavor and not their ability to withstand long shipping. And my brother grows some of my favorites, including Cox’s Orange Pippin (winey, sharp, and complicated) and Brownlee’s Russets (earthy and sour). I’ve been eating at least two a day out of hand.
I’ve also been using them as an excuse to cajole my wife into exercising her pastry-making expertise. Tara alternates between the French and the American schools of fruit pastry construction, depending on her mood, and the latter turns out to be variable enough that I’ve had to do a little background reading to keep up with her. This is what happens when you marry someone trained by a famous food obsessive.
The field of American baked fruit-and-crust desserts has a Baroque taxonomy that’s laid out most plainly in a chapter of Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts titled, “The Extended Family of Cobblers and Crisps.” Tara made a cobbler last night—that is, sliced apples tossed with sugar and baked under a biscuit crust made from flour, sugar, milk, a little butter, and baking powder, kneaded until it’s smooth. Also in rotation are crisps (fruit baked under a loose amalgam of flour, sugar, butter, and ground nuts) which she distinguishes from her crumbles (the English version of the crisp in which the flour is replaced by oats and the sugar is brown). She has promised to make an apple grunt (doesn’t that sound yummy?), which Sax tells me is a like cobbler but made on the stovetop in a cast-iron skillet.
All these distinctions go by me, I admit, and I have erred from time to time by confusing my crisps and crumbles, my brown Bettys and my pandowdies. But I crave these desserts in a deep and visceral way: each one balances sweetness, richness, and crunchy texture against the sharp, crumbling mass of the baked apples. Come to think of it, maybe my brother has some more apples he can spare.