There are many ways to eat an apple. My centenarian grandmother likes to peel the skin first. Artfully, she guides the paring knife clockwise from top to bottom and produces a red spiral peel so beautiful you want to hang it from the ceiling like a mobile. As a child, I would play with the curly peel and then eat it.
My mother believes apples taste best when baked in pies. She uses whatever pan she can find in the kitchen, sometimes using a large cookie sheet to make a big rectangular pie that’s enough to feed an army.
I have been trying to get her recipe, but it changes every time I ask her. She relies on her eyes to measure the ingredients, and, while they may be useful to sort out the good apples from the bad ones, they are not accurate in the way a scale is. Still, I have yet to eat a bad apple pie she has baked.
When I was a girl, she always baked in the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep. Cool temperatures and peace of mind were high on her list of optimum conditions. But such peace was often disrupted when the smell of pies baking in the hot oven would rise to the bedrooms and stir the sleep of her five children. We would come down to the kitchen in our pajamas and munch on the sliced apples as my mother raced to peel more to replace them. If there was any leftover dough, she would let us make roses and leaves to decorate the tops of the pies.
Usually, we would hang out in the kitchen long enough to get a taste of the warm pie before we were sent upstairs. By dawn, the pies would be sitting on the kitchen counter, wrapped in foil, ready to be sent off with my father to work. My father never asked her for them, but every fall and winter my mother made sweet treats for his office.
I will never forget the applesauce that a pots and pans salesman once made for us. My mother was a sucker for any door-to-door salesmen who rang our doorbell. If it wasn’t the Fuller Brush man, who rang the bell and knocked persistently until my mother surrendered, it was the Encyclopedia Britannica salesman or the Avon Lady.
Then, one day, the pots and pans salesman showed up at our doorstep with his whole shop. His belly popped out and draped over his belt, which was enough to make me suspicious, but, as always, my mother quickly gave into the friendly sales pitch and invited the stranger into the house.
Before long, he worked his way into the kitchen where he wanted to show us how to make applesauce. I wasn’t sure I could trust him, but, like a magician, he produced a half-dozen apples and a shiny, heavy stainless steel pan out of his carrying bag and made himself at home.
He prepared applesauce in two pans: one in the saucepan he was trying to sell us, another in the dented aluminum pan that belonged to my mother. To our surprise, the applesauce he made in his saucepan tasted much sweeter and smoother than the one he made in my mother’s pan. He said that the tight lid, which sealed the pan and allowed the apples to steam, did the trick.
After the demonstration, my mother was convinced that a set of these pots and pans would make a nice dowry for me. When the salesman offered her an attractive layaway plan, a bonus gift of an electric crepe maker and a full warranty, she lit up like a bright bulb. He walked out of the house with the down payment on the whole set of pots and pans and a big smile. I was only 17 years old and marriage was the last thing on my mind, but there I was with pots and pans that were promised to last me a lifetime.
Recently I learned that my neighbor across the street has an apple tree in her backyard. Some of the apples are big and green like a Granny Smith; others are blushed like a McIntosh. She doesn’t know what kind of apple it produces, but she says the fruit is too tart to be eaten raw. So most of them stay on the tree until they fall and rot.
When she showed me the tree, my neighbor seemed a bit embarrassed by its imperfections and pulled me away to look instead at her beautiful roses. When I told her I wanted to have some apples, she thought I was out of my mind but handed me a shopping bag and invited me to take as many apples as I wanted.
As I brought home my bag full of irregular apples, a rusty cast-iron pan--the one the former owner of our house left behind--caught my eye. It was in the garage, waiting to be donated to the Salvation Army, but I suddenly had a brilliant idea. I wanted to make a tarte tatin.
I scrubbed the pan until it was black and shiny again. With my neighbor’s neglected apples and the castoff pan, I produced a wonderful tarte tatin on my first try. Since then, it has become my favorite homemade dessert. The only time I failed was when I walked away from the stove when the apples were caramelizing. I nearly ruined the pan, but with a little more scrubbing it survived my abuse, as cast-iron pans usually will.
By the way, 30 years later that set of pots and pans the salesman convinced my mother to buy is still holding up, more or less, here in Los Angeles and across the Pacific in Tokyo, where my grandmother treasures the bonus electric crepe maker, which she stores in its original box and takes out when she finds an occasion to make apple crepes.