“ A frightened sorrow has closed down over my heart. I wish I were child so I could cry. I’m too old to be afraid like this. And I’ve not felt such despair since a bird died in my hand by a flowing water long ago.”
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
There is a veil of dryness, a barren place that has burrowed into my winter. It doesn’t help that we’ve not had much rain. California is dry, crackling, soon to be on fire dry. But the urban lemons are ripe, dripping with juice. And yet they linger on the neighborhood trees. No one wants them. I stop by and pick another basket full and still more drop to the ground. Once, with great hope, someone planted a promise of lemons. Long forgotten, people moved on, life moved on.
And then I found an apple tree. A few chocolate studded leaves with weary amber and burnt saffron fruit. I dismissed it, shrugged and picked more lemons. Vibrant ripe lemons are so full of life, always sharp and sassy. Easy to be with, gorgeous for baking, cooking, photographing. During the weeks of my lemon foraging, I was losing my beautiful friend, Max the Cat. No amount of care could save him as we watched him fade into a shadow of The Colonel we once knew. My heart careened into a sad and desolate place. When we rescued Max I promised to care for him until the end of his days. It’s just that that day came so much sooner than we expected. I returned to the apple tree. Determined to find a way to honor the forgotten fruit at the end of its’ life.
While I grieve I must keep my hands busy, very busy. I know myself so well. It is with busy hands that I prod my mind to budge, to move back into the present. And so I scrubbed and cut and peeled the old forgotten apples. And stirred and mashed, stirred and mashed some more. Lots of stirring, I didn’t want to scorch the apple butter. I was intent on keeping my hands busy. I could have stopped stirring at applesauce. I tasted some and it was as amazing as I thought it might be. The apple flavor was intense, matching my emotions. The little bit of fruit that was left on the tree had withstood frost and a fall and winter without much rain. The desperate Fuji apples were the essence of life. A promise of beauty, even at the end.
While I was making the apple butter picky daughter suggested I make Apple Butter Hand Pies. Being picky, her ideas are always worth considering. I was planning on buttery scones flecked with raisins and ginger. And a big scoop of Apple Butter. I had blogged Apple Butter Hand Pies before but on my walk past the apple tree I thought of Max the Cat again and decided to give this a try. Adding whole wheat flour and spices to my favorite pastry recipe changed the color and texture of the dough. By the second batch I found my pastry rhythm. I don’t know that I will ever bake for Max again, but if I do it will be this recipe. The compliments I received for such delicious silliness eased my grief.
The recipe for apple sauce or apple butter is so flexible. Even with just apples and lemon juice the outcome would be stellar. But in my usual way I amped up the flavor. Spices, brandy and a scoop of sugar all went into the pot to simmer into a glorious mess of appleness. I used Martha Stewart’s recipe as an outline for the spices and finished up the recipe with the instructions from The Blue Book Guide for Preserving. At the applesauce stage Martha says to cook for “about two hours” more, the Blue Book says until the apple butter “mounds on a spoon”. Although two hours is more or less correct, “mounds on the spoon” is a more consistent indicator of ready.
|9C||peeled, cored Fuji apples|
|1large/2 small||cinnamon sticks|
|1t||freshly grated nutmeg|
|1t||freshly grated ginger|
|Hand Pie Decoration|
|3 drops||blue food coloring|
|6||herb stems, such as thyme|
|1/2C||whole wheat pastry flour|
|1/2t||fine grain sea salt|
|1t||freshly ground nutmeg|
|1/2C||cream cheese or full-fat sour cream|
|3-4T||ice cold water|
- To make the Apple Butter place all the ingredients in a large pan. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to a constant simmer. Stir occasionally. Stir more often as the apples lose their moisture so that they do not scorch. When the apples soften remove the cinnamon stick(s) and star anise. Mash the apples with a spoon or potato masher until there are no visible lumps of fruit. Alternately, the mixture can be cooled and blitzed in a blender, food processor or Vitamix. At this point the mixture has become applesauce. To make Apple Butter continue to mash and stir as the apples thicken and turn brown. When the mixture “mounds on a spoon” without drooping the Apple Butter is ready. Cool and then store in the refrigerator. This batch of Apple Butter took a total of 3 hours of simmering.
- To make the Hand Pie Decorations in the bowl of a small grinder or mini-food processor add the coffee, cocoa nibs, cocoa and sugar and grind into a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the blue food coloring and enough water to achieve a shade of pale blue.
- To make the Max’s Pastry in the bowl of a food processor pulse together the flours, sugar, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the dry ingredients. Add the cream cheese or sour cream. Pulse a few times until the butter is the size of small coins, mostly dimes and a few pennies. Pour 3 tablespoons of the ice cold water through the feed tube while the food processor is running. The dough will come together in large clumps. Add cold water, a tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry. Do not over mix. Pastry dough made with cream cheese requires more cold water than dough made with sour cream. If the dough comes together in a solid mass, it will be over processed and perhaps too moist. Scrape the dough out on a floured work surface. Knead or push the mass a just few times to bring the dough together in a ball. Shape into a flattened circle and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment. In a small bowl mix the egg white with a tablespoon of water. With a floured rolling pin on a lightly floured work surface roll out the dough in a circular shape that is approximately 1/8” to 1/4” thick. Don’t be dissuaded by any large pieces of butter as you roll out the dough. Add a little flour and keep rolling. Those pieces of butter will make the flaky in your crust. Cut out the hand pie shapes. The larger the hand pies, the more apple butter can be stuffed inside. Brush a thin layer of egg white on the outer edges of the bottoms of the hand pies. Mound apple butter in the centers. Place the top on the hand pies and crimp the edges together with the tines of a small fork.
- For the cat shaped pies brush a light wash of the diluted blue food coloring for the eyes. Place a chocolate pearl inside the blue area for the center of the eye. Out of the pastry scraps cut rectangles for the noses and triangles for the mouths. Brush the shapes with egg wash and firmly press on the hand pies. Brush the top of the hand pie with the coffee and cocoa mix. Add the herb sprigs for whiskers by pushing them into the dough. For the Max hand pies, cut out the letters with a small sharp knife or use alphabet cookie cutters. Brush the back of each letter with egg wash and firmly press on the hand pies. Brush the tops of the letters with the coffee and cocoa mix. Place the finished hand pies on the prepared sheet pan and chill for thirty minutes before baking.
- Heat the oven to 375°. Bake for 18-25 minutes. When ready, the hand pies will turn dark golden brown. The pastry will have puffed and glisten.
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