Not falling far from the (apple) tree

I am not a Druid, but do feel a special connection with and reverence for trees. I often place my hand on a tree trunk in greeting and wait to feel the vibration or movement it makes in its natural rhythm with the wind. To me, they feel as alive as large mammals. Is it possible to feel related to certain trees? If so, I feel a special kinship to some Kansas trees, including a few apple trees planted the year I was born. When my mother was pregnant with me, she created a small orchard of plum, peach and apple trees on her small Kansas farm, carrying five-gallon buckets of water to the saplings in the hot summer months of her final trimester. I believe I entered this world prematurely because, frankly, I was exhausted.

I considered the Jonathan and Wealthy apple trees my brethren, and we grew up together, all of us experiencing periods of blossoming, bearing fruit (mine, the fruits of labor), illness and dormancy. One of the four apple trees died, slipping away in the slow, mysterious way trees do. A deep freeze split another of the trees in half all the way to the ground, but it remained alive and to this day grows out horizontally (and somewhat vertically) from each split half. The other trees stand at least 20 feet tall and have a low and wide enough spread of branches at the bottom that they provide shade and refuge for free range chickens, cats and dogs. They are often admired by family and neighbors for their beauty and their staying power. “Wow, they’re getting up there,” my mom recently remarked, then buffered her statement to spare my sensitivities, “I mean, that’s old for an apple tree.”

My first apple pie, made at age 8, was created using apples from those trees, apples that were too small, hard and green, but, as with most of my early baking efforts, I was not dissuaded from trying, anyway. I learned a lot from that first failure. No amount of sugar could sweeten those apples sufficiently and they were undercooked within a crust made tough from my man-handling it like Play-Doh.

I revisit my memories of my home place much more often than the real thing, but when I make the actual trip to see my family, the small orchard and its trees are among the touchstones that help me reconnect with the patch of space where I began, and where I believe the hope for both myself and some other twiggy saplings took root.

So, in my own micro yard in California, I was determined to have an orchard. And I ended up with six different kinds of apples! How is this possible? They are on one tree, grafted as an espalier, where the individual apple branch varieties grow horizontally from one trunk, not unlike the split Kansas tree. Jutting out from that trunk are Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and MacIntosh. Most of the limbs have borne fruit abundantly i(at least 30 apples per year) n the three years since the tree’s planting.

I wish my apple tree bore fruit all year. But apples these days are plentiful year-round from other sources. It wasn’t that long ago that there were limited options for apples in the markets, Red Delicious being the most predominant and, let’s face it, probably the least delicious. Dozens of kinds of apples are available for consumption now all year long.

For years, I’ve lived with rabbits as companions, and their discriminating palates, particularly when it comes to apples, have had a great influence on my own. Through my little Skippy, I discovered the Gala, whose chameleon-like flavor fluctuates from spicy tart in the fall to cherry sweet in the spring. The late great Miss Ellen, a 10-pound Rex, preferred organic apples from the farmer’s market and would turn her nose up and refuse grocery store apples. Her favorite, aptly, was the Pink Lady apple, — sweet juicy and crisp with a hint of floral flavor.

I believe in a variety of apples in any apple dish. A good pie has at least two kinds of apples, and I am dubious of any recipe that calls for Granny Smith apples alone. Granny Smiths are good and their texture is smoothly firm, but their flavor is mild. Using a mix of apples in a dessert allows you an orchard in one dish.

There were an endless array of possibilities for my first apple recipe to share here, but my first pick would have to be my apple crisp, for its simplicity and satisfaction level. I can’t think of another dessert that is as easy to put together with such a high reward. It’s homey and hearty, and you can even convince yourself it’s healthy due to the apples and the oatmeal in the topping. In my latest rendition of a crisp, I used four different apples (three from my tree; one from our farmers market apple purveyor): Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith and Pink Lady. For my version, I also mix one of my favorite things – pineapple – in with the apples to add a sweetness and juiciness. To bite into this dessert warm and hit a bursting chunk of pineapple is pure heaven. I’ve also added walnuts to the crisp topping to make it extra crunchy and rich. Brown sugar is used in both the filling and the topping. And I used melted butter to make the topping because I’ve found it to work best in moistening and binding the dry ingredients for the crisp. I like to make this dessert in individual portions, but it could be made in one 8- or 9-inch square baking dish, if you like.

In a tribute to my late Grandma Mae (more about her to come), who made (and overbrowned) crisps every Christmas, but called them “crispy” (“Merry Christmas! I burned the cherry crispy again!”), I shall, from this point on, call my dessert a “crispy.”

Apple-Pineapple Crispy
(Makes four individual crispies)
For topping:
2/3 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon lemon zest
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup chopped walnuts
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For filling:
1 cup fresh or canned pineapple chunks
4 cups peeled, thinly sliced and chopped apples (at least two varieties)
Juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. For topping, in a medium mixing bowl, stir together oatmeal, flour, salt, lemon zest, cinnamon, brown sugar and walnuts. Add melted butter and mix until all ingredients are moistened and mixture resembles granola. For filling, place peeled and chopped apples in a large mixing bowl; coat the apples with lemon juice. Add pineapple, flour, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Mix until well combined. Distribute apple mixture evenly in four, eight-ounce ramekins. Cover each dish of apples with an even amount of the crispy topping, pressing down slightly to bind. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until topping is golden brown, filling is bubbling and a small paring knife inserted in the dessert indicates the apples are tender. Serve warm with good vanilla ice cream.

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