immersive apple experience: almost-naked pie...

the apple-tasting adventure left me with a bunch of fruit rolling around the countertop, half of them missing a chunk, so it made sense to do a bit of baking. my go-to apple dish of late is the humble crumble, however, there are only two of us, and making enough crumble to use up all that fruit would leave me hating apples by the end of the week. so i split the difference and made apple crumble... two ways! i made a regular apple crumble, and an apple crumble cake... because everything is better with cake.

crumble is one of the easiest desserts to bake. in short, you fill a baking dish with almost any kind of fruit and a bit of sugar and maybe some spices (if you want to get "fancy"), then you sprinkle over some sort of crumbly topping, and you shove the whole thing in the oven for a bit. a crumble is basically an almost-naked pie, and that is what we are talking about today.

i did a bit of searching to find a couple recipes that i could offer for reference, should you feel a sudden urge to start baking. problem is, i suck at following directions—shocking, i know—so i made some alterations to both recipes. i will include the link to the base recipe, but i will highlight the changes i made with each dish. i am using the Joy of Baking's cranberry, pear & apple crumble recipe as the starting point for the crumble, and i will save the crumble cake for next time.

i mapped out the changes i was going to make to each recipe in advance.

the crumble begins with fruit (apples and a couple pears in this case). i intentionally left some traces of peel on the apples, because i like the subtle bit of texture it adds to the finished dish.

cut the fruit into bite-size pieces, adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice every now and then to keep them from turning brown.

then just repeat until you have enough for the recipe, or in this case, until the bowl is overflowing. i did not measure/weigh the fruit. i just peeled and chopped till the bowl was full... and then i added another apple or two just for good measure.

next, add a bit of light brown sugar to the fruit. i prefer my crumbles on the "barely sweet" side, so i used about the same amount of sugar as the original recipe. however, i had roughly twice as much fruit as the recipe called for, so my fruit mixture was less sweet overall. i also added a healthy dose of freshly-grated ginger at this point, and some cornstarch. the cornstarch will turn the watery juices into a rich syrup that clings to the pieces of fruit so you do not end up with a puddle of liquid in the bottom of the bowl. this is the secret to preventing the dreaded "soggy bottom" when you are dealing with a pie crust. i always include a bit of cornstarch, even with a crust-less crumble.

full disclosure: i did not peel the ginger before grating it. life is far too short to waste time worrying about a bit of ginger skin.

because i overfilled the bowl, i had to dump everything into a roasting pan to be able to give it a proper mix without making a big mess. i have exactly zero regrets about using that much fruit.

i took a look at the assembled ingredients at this point, and i realized that i had to go searching for a larger baking dish than the one i originally planned to use.

one larger pyrex dish later, and it was time to start assembling.

first add half the fruit mixture.

this is when i realized that something was missing. one quick search through a cabinet later, and i returned with the dried cranberries.

sprinkle on a handful of cranberries.

then repeat both layers.

now it is time to make the titular "crumble". this is the bit where i go nuts with the ingredients.

i will draw you a literal picture of what went into that mixture.
  1. chopped walnuts
  2. rolled oats with the zest of a lemon grated on top 
  3. oat flour (more about that later) topped with salt and a pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg
  4. ground ginger and ground cinnamon
  5. light-brown sugar

next comes the butter, right from the fridge to keep it cold until the last minute.

this recipe requires the most basic kitchen tool.

a bit of pinching is all it takes to make a crumbly topping.

this gets sprinkled over the fruit.

check out that side-view. yes, i did get a bit carried away with the amount of fruit i used. luckily, that mountain will shrink in the oven.

this gets baked until the top is brown and toasty.

i let it bake until the whole place smells delicious, then i check to make sure that it is bubbling away at the sides, which usually means that the fruit is cooked enough to suit my taste. i do not like super-mushy fruit in this kind of dish.

notice the considerable amount of shrinkage. there is a joke in there somewhere.

as i noted, i used more fruit than was called for in the original recipe. i also cut back on the sugar content in the topping mixture, using roughly two-third of what the recipe suggested. as a result, my crumble was on the less-sweet side, which is how we tend to prefer that sort of thing. it can be 'desserted up' by adding a scoop of ice cream or you can have some for a light meal. that first image was  my breakfast on Sunday morning. it has fruit and a granola-ish topping. that is practically a health food when you think about it.

one of the things i like most of all about a crumble is that i can avoid using wheat flour without tormenting myself with one of those gross gluten-free alternatives. unlike a traditional pie, which has a crust on the bottom, the starchy part of a crumble is on the top. it does not bear the weight of the fruit filling, so there is zero need to worry about replacing the gluten if you are omitting the wheat flour. i like the taste of oat flour as a baking ingredient, so it has become my go-to substitution for recipes where the flour is not responsible for holding the whole thing together. i also use it in my favorite brownie recipe, and i do not miss the "regular flour" in that one either.

i also like that a crumble holds up pretty nicely in the refrigerator for a few-several days. because the starchy part is sitting on top of the fruit, it tends to resist going soggy. this is what was left of my crumble after almost a whole week in the fridge.

the topping still looks like it just came out of the oven.

he uses the microwave to warm up a serving, but i prefer to scoop some into an oven-proof bowl, and heat it in the oven with the broiler turned to low, just long enough to reassert the crunch in the crumbly bits.  not bad for something that has been hanging around in my fridge for the better part of a week, eh?

unfortunately, i cannot same the same about the apple crumble cake, which disappeared in less than two days. but i will save that bit for the next time.


immersive apple experience: tasting...

it is a little before six in the morning, and i am sitting cross-legged on my favorite sofa, sipping coffee that has already gone cold, and occasionally glancing out at the solidly-overcast sky as it makes some minor effort toward lightening. it is cold, and grey, and the snow that has been covering the ground for the past week seems to be slowly melting and reforming into a slippery shell of ice under the influence of the lightly-falling freezing rain. luckily, neither one of us has any place that we need (or even want) to be today, as weather like this was invented for remaining indoors.

we got off to a late start with this year's immersive apple experience, that being the fevered-state in which you surround yourself with all things apple during the height of their Autumn harvest season. said activity was a bit delayed around here this year, as we were busy gorging on concord grapes (they call them Niagara grapes in these parts). i lost count of how many containers of the stuff we bought (and ate) over the course of about one month, but it was for a good cause... which i will talk about some other day. right now, it is all about the apples.

i should point out that this was not a planned thing. there we were, in the middle of the produce section of our go-to supermarket, when i remarked about the large assortment of apples they had on hand. before long, i found myself selecting a couple from each pile and adding them to my cart.

him: why do we need so many different types of apples?
me: so we can do a side-by-side tasting.
him: why?
me: why not?
him: okay.

it is really nice to have someone around who enables me if only by failing to talk me out of the nonsense that pops into my head most days. if i am inclined toward absurdity on my own, then he and i together are absurdity².

so i bought some apples.

it should be noted that this was not all the varieties they had on hand, as i skipped over about a half dozen types. some were varieties that i knew would be a bit too tart to make for a pleasant raw-eating experience—i.e., the "cooking" apples like the Granny Smith. then there were the varieties that were rejected simply for being a flavorless waste of space—yes, i am talking about you, Red Delicious. i should also point out that one of those varieties is also definitely not an apple. i sneaked a couple bartlett pears into the mix... because i can.

i selected two of each variety that made the cut. they are, clockwise from top-left: Bartlett (pear), Pink Lady, Gala, Macintosh, Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, Empire, and Golden Delicious. that last one was a concession on my part, as it has been a long time since i last had any kind of "delicious" apple, so i decided to give the franchise a chance at redemption. spoiler alert... it still sucks.

now, this is in no way meant to represent any sort of posh or little-known assortment of apples. for that one would have to travel to one of the lovely public markets scattered around Montreal, where you can usually find any obscure culinary tool or ingredient imaginable. this was the produce section of my local Provigo on a random evening, so most/all of these varieties should be relatively familiar offerings... unless the supermarkets near you only carry Red Delicious apples, in which case i strongly suggest that you move.

where was i? oh, yes... tasting apples.

i began by removing one of each type of apple (and a pear) from the board.

[random aside: i bought this cutting board a few years ago, but this is the very first time it has been put to any kind of food cutting use. it is a heavy hardwood board that was intended to be turned into a wool-blending board, but i never got around to buying the carding cloth (the part with all the sharp metal teeth) to add to the top, so it has been sitting in the kitchen with the firm understanding that it was not to be used by anyone for any reason, and it was immediately returned to "do not touch" status following the apple-tasting.]

i cut a wedge from each variety, and we tasted each one in no particular order—which is a challenge with my brand of OCD. oh, and i took notes—which is a requirement with my brand of OCD.

[another random aside: back in my university student days, i walked into most lectures with a large spiral-bound notebook filled with the neatest notes ever seen. it was a triumph of all my OCD tendencies. i also carried a notepad into each lecture. it was filled with some of the most illegible chicken-scratch ever seen. that was where i took each day's notes, which i would later transcribe into the OCD-notebook. that part had to happen within a day or two. if i waited longer than that, chances were that i would no longer be able to read my own scribbles. i mention this solely because i was looking at the photo of my notes from when we tasted the apples, and it took a while for me to decipher the last line under the 'golden del' section.]

him: what is "not hord fat"???
me: i thought it said "not horse fart".

pretty much. and that was only couple-few days later.

i will save you the trouble of reading my scribbles. the bluish comments are mine and the lime-green ones are his. i also highlighted each of our favorites using *** in those respective colors. it should be noted that the honeycrisp was a second-favorite for both of us, and everybody hates a "delicious" apple. seriously... why do they even grow the things?

Bartlett Pear
Pink Lady ***
it’s a pear one of my fave eating apples. love the crunch and the taste good when there is nothing better in the supermarket love the taste. hate the texture
yep, it’s a pear good crunch. too tart good flavor. not mushy, not crisp, somewhere in between mushy and a bit tart
Golden Delicious
Ambrosia ***
reminds me of why i hate “delicious” apples too mushy for eating as is. like the tart taste good crunch, but i miss the tart notes another fave. not quite as flavorful as Pink Lady, but close
mushy. not flavorful a bit tart. don’t mind the texture this is a nice apple. crisp, not tart, sweet good crunch. good sweet flavor

so, now i had a bunch of apples rolling around the counter, half of them missing a wedge. wait till you see what happens next! i will save that bit for next time around.

it is now a couple hours later than when i began writing this. the relentless spray of freezing rain continues to leave tiny tracks against the already-frosty window panes.

the city of Montreal lies somewhere beyond that icy patina, cold and damp and grey, and i feel a sudden disturbing urge to venture out on such an unpleasant day. this seems like a good time to refill my coffee cup and maybe have a second helping of an appley treat.


ready for a viral apocalypse...

judging by the amount of coughing and throat clearing happening of late, i think it is fair to say that the first viral outbreak of the season has reached our humble little home.

we are taking every known precaution to minimize the impact, lest it develops into anything even remotely resembling last Winter's near-death flu. i just made my favorite animator a cup of the most locally-sourced tea imaginable. the dried mint was from the balcony garden project, and the honey was from a new-to-us source, which is the subject of this post.

i was wondering aloud recently as to whether we had stockpiled enough honey to survive another potential outbreak of the viral apocalypse, when he said the magic words that would change my whole universe.

him: Francois [fellow animator] is a beekeeper. i think he has honey from them.
me: whoa! we know a beekeeper? why am i just hearing about this?
him: oh, i thought i mentioned this before.

then i gave him that look that i reserve for moments when he has been keeping important stuff from me.

him: want to try some of his honey?
me: uhm... is that even a question?

fast-forward a couple days later when he messages me to say that he was bringing some of the honey home. i fully expected a small glass jar that would last a couple-few weeks of herbal tea drinking. what i got instead was a small plastic pail with two kilograms (roughly four-and-a-half pounds) of the stuff.

i am fairly certain that my eyes went saucer-wide when he lifted the container out of the bag. then i clapped and squeed a few times. i may be an unapologetic curmudgeon, but i still get excited about the important things in life.

naturally, i could not wait to break the seal and remove the cover. i cannot begin to do justice to the wave of fragrance that came rushing out from under that lid. a good honey should tell you where it came from as the nectar retains the floral notes of the parent plants, and this honey smelled like laying in a field of clovers on a warm Summer's day.

me: did he specify what kind of honey it was?
him: yeh, he said it was mostly clover.

i can hear what you are thinking, and i tend to agree. it really is frighteningly disturbing when i actually know things.

not gonna lie... i wanted to dip my whole hand into the center of that bucket of happiness, then stand there licking honey off my fingers like an overexcited child. however, self-control prevailed, and i settled instead for a metal chopstick.

should anyone have looked in my window just as i was done taking this picture, they would have been deeply puzzled as to why i was standing there with my eyes closed and a big smile on my face as i repeatedly licked a metal chopstick. can you even...?

i had just gotten through my honey-tasting when a sudden shift in the light outdoors caught my attention. we have been having some intensely dramatic sunsets around here of late. trust me... that photo does not do justice to the bright orange and bubble-gum pink tones. it was sheer madness!

me: maybe there is a wildfire burning somewhere west of here.
him: or maybe it's the Apocalypse. 

so now i have to add "prepare for the Apocalypse" to my to-do list. i still need to find a local crafter of wooden stakes, in case it turns out to be a vampire outbreak, and i probably should start working on my hand-to-hand combat skills for when society devolves into a Thunderdome-esque fight for survival.

however, with my stockpile of honey, i can safely say that i am ready for a viral apocalypse. bring it on, Winter.


now we wait...

i genuinely miss the days when insomnia was an occasional occurrence, as it seems to have become my default setting of late. i spent all of last night sat up in bed, watching the steadily falling snow on the other side of the windows.

it is now shortly after sunrise—in theory, at least—and it would appear that the promised twenty centimeters (eight inches) seems to have been spot-on for a change. i felt compelled for some odd reason to grab the nearest non-scientific device and verify that measurement.

that looks roughly like twenty centimeters to me. this is me we are dealing with here, so naturally i did confirm it with an actual measuring device to be doubly sure. [that is a bamboo knitting needle, by the way.]

however, as it is still snowing as i am writing this, the final snowfall amount is likely to increase before that storm front is done wreaking havoc. and, while the heaviest part of the snowing has come and gone, and the near-gale-force winds they were promising seem to have skipped us entirely, the worst part of this storm is yet to come.

Canadians pride themselves on being able to drive through the worst Winter conditions, and that is usually the case... except for the very first storm of the season. that is when everyone seems to forget how to behave in icy road conditions. without fail, this first snowfall of the season is guaranteed to be accompanied by a sharp spike in road accidents. the local news for the next day or two will be filled with reports of multi-car pileups of the kind that leave you wondering how the drivers at the end of that chain of destruction failed to notice the twenty (or more) cars ahead of them that had already smashed into each other.

being Canadians, they tend to take these things in stride, and you find the occasional report of people pulling hockey sticks out of their trunks and having an impromptu match right there in the middle of a frozen-over highway while they wait for the emergency services to arrive. firstly, only in Canada does everyone seem to have a hockey stick within reach at all times, and secondly, only in Canada could such a nightmare of a situation be turned into something so ridiculously cute. i shudder to think what a multi-vehicle pileup of that magnitude would look like back home in NYC, and i can almost guarantee you that anyone who pulls a baseball bat out of their trunk in that situation is definitely not looking for a quick game.

man, i miss New York!

it is now the middle of the usual morning drive time, and i am surprised at how near-silent it is out there. the weather service spent the past few days issuing dire predictions of strong winds whipping all of that fresh snow into zero visibility, whiteout conditions, but that part has thankfully not happened. however, most people seem to have heeded the suggestions to plan to stay home today unless absolutely necessary. you do not have to tell us that twice.

beyond that, we live on a small one-way street that is only a few blocks long, so we are usually one of the last streets to be plowed. no exaggeration... i have not heard a single car either being started or being driven down our street, and that will likely remain the case for the rest of the day.

i find it especially adorable that the people across the street took the time to put their recycling out for collection. i get the distinct feeling it will be sitting in that spot for a few days before the city gets around to remembering that we exist.

in light of all the dire warning over the past few days, we spent yesterday afternoon driving around Montreal, crossing things off a list as we went, and we were walking to the car to head back home from our last stop just as it finally began to snow.

while this is being billed as the first snowstorm of the season, we actually got a bit of light snow back in the middle of last week. i opened the curtains Wednesday morning (following yet another night of zero sleep i should add) to find this.

farewell, trough of delicious strawberries. it was lovely eating you.

we took that light dusting as a friendly reminder from Mother Nature, and we cleared up the last traces of this Summer's balcony garden project. the ceramic pots had already been brought indoors to prevent cracking due to freezing, so all that was left was to remove the last bits of greenery from the large planters, then stack and cover them to prevent the loss of nutrients from the soil due to melting snow... which is a joke in itself, as there will be approximately two-to-three days during the course of the next five-to-six months when it will be warm enough around here to melt snow.

now we wait for next year.