I was standing out in the rain this morning, under our big pink and grey striped umbrella, holding a parking spot for a friend who is visiting from Grey County. A neighbour came by: "New job?" she said, laughing. "I love this moist air, don't you? It feels so great on the skin, so restful to the eyes." The blue of her shirt and the yellow of her handbag glowed brilliantly in the overcast light.
It's funny now to think of how much I used to love bright sharp-light days. I still like them, but now the light-box-in-the-sky that is an overcast day feels like a gift to the eyes and the imagination, with colours rich and softened edges that leave a sense of possibility, like an impressionist's water colour of the natural world.
We're upside down here, waiting for news. A young friend, a much-loved member of our extended family, is in hospital with a serious gut-ache that is not a clear case of appendicitis. So what IS it? Well the doctors at Mount Sinai are trying to puzzle that out. They're nice and communicate clearly, the nursing care has been fabulous, but meanwhile he is stuck in hospital, not allowed to eat or drink (it's now been nearly 72 hours) because they are keeping him waiting while they decide what to do. Argh!!
I went over with him to Emerg before dawn on Saturday, and as soon as we stepped through the doors we entered that other parallel world that is "hospital." It's too easy to forget about the world that all those people, from nurses to orderlies to cleaning staff to doctors, work in and make work. And it's easy to forget in our daily round how much we rely on that world functioning well. But every time we need it we can walk through those doors and re-enter it. Each time some event or illness takes me into the system I think how lucky we are to have publicly funded health care, and in our case, it's not only superb, but it's also just a block away.
As our loved one has been forcibly fasting (nutrients into an intravenous tube is all that's happening on the nutrition front for him), we have been gleaning the fresh herbs and chives from the garden, and eating them at every opportunity, and gorging on fresh fruit. I bought some peaches and pears and shallots, as well as some fabulous Cortland apples, in Stratford on the weeked. On Sunday Dawn added to the abundance when she brought over some organic Mackintoshes.
When we're rich with apples, my favorite thing to do (apart from just biting into them, that first hit so juicy and wonderful!) is make "SImplest Apple Pie" a recipe Dina passed on from her mother. It became the opening recipe in HomeBaking, an announcement about the lasting pleasures of simple home-style practical baking. The apples are grated (and the Macks were so thin skinned I didn't bother peeling them), and mounded on a crust of pastry dough that is pressed into a cake tin (I use a nine-inch square tin). The pastry dough is supposed to be 1/3 pound butter in chunks, and 1/2 cup sugar to 2 cups all-purpose flour, all rubbed to crumb-texture between the fingers and wetted with two egg yolks and about 2 tablespoons sour cream.
BUT, as always, some improvisation was needed: I had no sour cream and was a little short of butter, so I used several tablespoons of cream cheese and about 3 tablespoons full-fat plain yogurt instead. I had a lemon so added its zest to the pastry, an option in the original recipe. The pastry dough is best barely wet enough to hold together, pulled together in a plastic bag and chilled for half an hour or more while the oven heats (to 350 F) and you grate the apples (to make about 8 cups; nine Macks is what I used).
Press roughly half the pastry into the bottom of the pan; it makes a thickish crust, but is tender with all the butter, egg yolks etc so don't worry. Sprinkle on fine bread crumbs if you have them (I didn't yesterday). Mound on the grated apple, with a little extra sugar if you wish and also the juice from the lemon if it suits you. Crumble the other half of the pastry over top.
It takes about an hour to bake slowly through. The grated Mackintoshes melt into a luscious dense mass. The top is touched with brown and coalesces into a lovely broken-textured top crust. It's best to let it all cool and set firm, I find. A big square of it makes a good sustaining late night snack or happy-anchor-for-the-day breakfast. By the way, no-one complained about the fact the apples hadn't been peeled. I don't think anyone noticed!
From talk about traditional eastern European baking from the Ashkenaz tradition to thoughts of further afield culinary traditions and, I confess, a small bit of promotion:
First, I'll be doing another immersethrough tour in Chiang Mai in late January. Have a look on the Chiang Mai page of the website: www.immersethrough.com It's fun, as well as intense of course, and I'm really looking forward to it.
And second, Cookstr.com (pronounced cookster, of course, but I sometimes read it as "cookstrasse"...!?!) is going to feature me on September 30, that is, this Wednesday, as Author of the Day. Thanks to Katie Workman and the team. I'm interested to see which recipes they choose to feature...
So do go have a look at cookstr.com. And check out immersethrough.com too, if you have any dreams of spending eating and cooking time in northern Thailand...
Meantime, give a thought to all those working and all those suffering in hospitals near you. I am so grateful to be out in the air and sun or rain or anything at all, just air; thoughts of hospital just double or triple those feelings of gratitude!