Monday, October 25, 2010

blooming season.

Currently Listening To: Crossfire by Brandon Flowers
Lyric Love from the CD: "Be an advocate of joy. Find your little heart's desire and follow it." - Brandon Flowers

Fall sets my heart to whirling for many reasons -- reasons I shall discuss at length with you next week. This is my most favorite of seasons; when I slide my favorite knee boots over my jeans, when coffee tastes extra yummy, when Biscuit gets extra snugly in the mornings. When fabulous fall-scented candles are flickering over the mantle. When I drive around just so I can squeal at leafy colors. (Leafy! Leafy! ... anybody else miss the show
Friends?) I plan my annual corn maze adventure with my bff Sarah. I wear dark eyeliner ( ... I don't really know that this practice has as much to do with the season as it has to do with my occasional emo-tendencies ... but somehow I think they connect).And I crave apples.

Do you remember the book
Holes by Louis Sachar? Do you remember when Stanley Yelnats talked about how his great-great-great pig-stealing grandfather cursed his whole family? I keep hearing Stanley Yelnats (or maybe Shia LeBouf) as I type today's post because, while my great grandfather did not steal pigs (not that I'm aware of), I think the apple connection has to do with him.

This story goes like this: my great-grandfather Oscar graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in agriculture. Oscar was a school teacher and a farmer and, apparently, an apple wizard. When my granny (Orangie) and my papaw (John) bought a small farm, Oscar (Orangie's dad ... I should have sketched a family tree for this post) gave them apple trees he'd grafted while he was a student at UT. Together, Oscar, John, and Orangie planted the orchard. And they couldn't have picked a more perfect hillside to set Oscar's trees. Those apple trees bloomed like crazy. Oscar's land passed down the generational pipeline and, many years later, my mom built a house beside the orchard (I always like to point out she built this house while she was a single parent ... she's one awesome chick). Oscar's apple orchard bloomed tall and proud and a little bit helter-skelter. Because the trees had been grafted, they produced different varieties of apples all on the same tree. They were mismatched in a perfect kind of way.

Oscar's orchard wasn't big - maybe ten trees total. We didn't built any kind of business off the apples; we didn't even sell the crazy amount of apples the orchard produced. Instead, the orchard was there for whoever wanted it. It was not so uncommon to see people meandering around between the trees, cradling apples in their up-turned shirt-tails. My granny loved this. Whenever people would randomly pull in the driveway and ask if they could pick some apples, Granny would say, "Law, yes! Take as many as you want!" And then she would stand on the front porch, hands on her hips, and talk and talk and talk and talk. She talked about how she'd planted that orchard with her dad. And she talked because she had this particular way of making people feel more at ease when she spoke to them. I think Gran wanted people to feel like friends, not strangers, when they left. I think that's probably what Oscar had in mind too. Those trees were giving trees.

Naturally, we ate lots of apples - bold and crunchy off the tree, fried and folded into pie. Cut into cake, sweet and subtle. I loved the orchard for all those reasons. Also, and this is frivolous but roll with me, I happen to adore the word orchard. Some words make me feel tingly inside and that's one of them (the word "violet" is another). The word orchard blooms across my imagination before I even see the letters.

Despite my affection for Oscar's Orchard, the trees didn't frame my childhood. I didn't necessarily play in their shadows, or read underneath them (I read under the willow tree -- falling apples make for precarious reading conditions ... also fallen apples attract bees). The trees never came up in conversation. Still, the orchard was always there, one of those sweet perks of growing up in the middle of nowhere that I took for granted as a kid. I never thought I'd formed much of an attachment to it.

And yet.

At some point in my early 20's, though I cannot remember when, it finally occurred to me how often I dreamed of apple trees. I see apple trees in the background of dreams that are not otherwise connected: apple trees in the fog, apple trees scattering soft morning sunlight, skeletal trees bracing for winter, then bowing, tipping, overflowing like they do this time of year. Most likely, this dreamy tendency doesn't mean anything. I rarely try to make any sense of my dreams because they are mostly nuts. (I dreamed I saw Voldemort in Big Lots once. No apple trees in that one.)

If I were a dream analyst, however, I might start here: Maybe I dream about apple trees because I'm so touched by the familial connection; specifically the connection to someone I never knew. Oscar didn't pass down a watch or a Bible or a rusty memento; but he intentionally passed down a living thing, a garden. An orchard. I don't know much about his personality but I know he had enough vision, enough foresight, to find a place just right for blooming, to push the roots deep into the ground with his own hands, to tend something, to cultivate something, not just so it would bear fruit for a season, but for generations.

Maybe my apple dreams are a spiritual thing. That's an odd word - "spiritual." I still like it though. And apples seem to have become quite iconic in that regard. Red apples probably weren't dangling from the tree in Eden, but maybe they've come to represent forbidden desire, or a particular kind of craving, in a bright-red-pop-culture sort of way.

Maybe my apple dreams derive from my slight obsession with fairy-tales. You've played those word association games before, yes? When someone shouts a word and you shout back the first word that pops into your mind? I was playing a game like that on a road trip and my friend said, "Lemon" and I shouted "Chicken!" ... I dunno. My mind tends to make food associations with pretty much everything. No surprise then, that when I hear the word "fairy-tale," the first image I associate it with isn't a prince and princess waltzing skyward on glittery swoop of air.

I think of a witch in dark robes, cradling a red apple in her gnarly hands, offering the apple to a girl who is desperate. Desperate to feel. To experience. To taste. In
Garden Spells, prophetic apples dropped from the trees and foretold death and love and all manner of dangerous things. In the Wizard of Oz, apple trees were five-star pitchers dead-set on giving Dorothy & Co. a whimsical pump knot. In Snow White, apples were the sweetest poison.

I don't know why there are apples in my dreams. Maybe they roll with the seasons: full when I'm inspired, empty when I'm listless. Maybe they're an ever present indicator of what I already know to be true of myself: that I'm desperate to experience life too, not just look at it from far off but bite into it and taste it; the bitter and tough, the sweet and familiar.

Apples. They are welcome in my dreams. Also, they are welcome in my oven. Mom and I visited a local orchard in Cleveland, Tennessee and bought several bulging bags of all different sorts: Granny Smiths (which are fabulous because they hold their texture when they bake ... also because they are the most sensational shade of green), Rome and Golden Delicious.

And then we started looking for recipes.

First we made an apple cake that was pure, wondrous delight. I'm pretty sure it had like six pounds of butter folded into it. Low-calorie, obviously. I usually associate fruity desserts with lightness, but apples aren't lightweights. Apples can be stars or supporting roles in a recipe. They headline in this particular cake. The cake was dense and moist, laced with nuts and coconut. Mom claims it's the best cake she's ever had. That's some big talk. I'll share that recipe with you some other time (because the cake has a story of its own to tell ;).

Next we made apple butter in a crockpot (which was way too fun - it involved melting Red Hots!). As the apple butter simmered the kitchen smelled like fall and sugar and cinnamon. And then the kitchen began to smell like that oh-so-familiar fragrance I refer to as, "eau-de-burn." I scorched the stuff; crazy burned it. My apple butter looked like molten lava when I dumped it out of the crockpot and into the trash. Win some, lose some.The real contender for most fun new recipe, the one I did not burn, is Apple Tarte Tatin.

This dessert appealed to me for three reasons:1. Apple Tarte Tatin sounds so fancy, so French. Imagine serving this to your friends on a fancy plate (or, if you're me, on the neon flowery plate you bought at Target). And when they say, "Is this apple pie?"

You get to say, "No, actually." *proud smirk* "This is not an apple pie. This is an Apple Tarte Tatin."

And then your smarty pants brother snorts and says, "You don't pronounce it tatt-un. I think it's tah-teen or something."

And you give him the stink eye and say, "How's this for french ...
bite me!" *tosses plate onto table* "Bite moi!"

... and thus the classy factor fades.

2. Apple
Tarte Tatin sounded challenging yet doable. I'm not a culinary whiz so if something looks too complicated, I don't go there because I know I'll get bored. This didn't look boring.

3. Apple
Tarte Tatin involves pie crust. And really, I could sling that stuff in an oven and eat it by itself. True confession: I could even eat it raw. Also, whenever a recipe calls for pastry dough, as I'm sure you know, there's an unwritten rule that you add 1+ Scoop of Vanilla Blue Bell Ice Cream.

These days I'm drawn to recipes that are pretty and rustic and a little bit messy. Apple Tarte Tatin fits in all those categories. Plus it's fancy and french (
fraynch, as we say in these parts) and that makes it doubly fun.

So I went searching for just the right recipe. First, I turned to my imaginary bff Ina Garten. But her recipe looked a little too intense. Then I turned to Joy the Baker, whose blog I absolutely love. Joy is hip and classy and awesome and breaks recipes down for people like me (I kept her video clip up the whole time I was cooking!). Following is my adventure with Joy the Baker's Apple Tarte Tatin. Which I made in a cast-iron skillet. Joy did this as well, which delighted me so much. Cause we make pretty much everything in a cast-iron skillet around here.

(My mom makes homemade pizza in a cast-iron skillet that would make you do jumpy claps.)

I roped my mom into accompanying me into the World of Tatin. And, lucky for you, we documented the journey in pictures:

Step One involves putting on the cute apron you bought at Mia Cucina. If you're going to be putting out a few kitchen fires and dumping molten-lava-apple-butter into the garbage can, you might as well look cute doing it.Next, you peel the apples, cut them into quarters, and try not to eat them. Joy says you might be tempted to cut the apples smaller but you most definitely should not. Those babies cook down in no time. (And don't worry if they look a little bruised. Once they're covered in caramel-y goo nobody will notice.)

Set your apples aside and melt butter in the cast-iron skillet. As the butter slid around the pan, it reminded me of a boat:

So I made up a beautiful song that went like this:
Row, row your butter boat all across my pan ...
merrily merrily merrily merrily ...
*pausing to figure out what rhymes with pan ... fan ... can ...*
Chris Thile's a handsome man!

Tangent: Did I tell you that I'm going to see the Punch Brothers in November? The Rogue Accountant has politely requested I not throw myself at the stage or ask Chris Thile to marry me. Chris Thile is, of course, my celebrity crush second only to John Schneider - the original Bo Duke. I think it's the mandolin. Hard not to crush on a guy who plays a mandolin, yes?

... Thinking about Chris Thile got me all flustered.

Where was I? Butter! Eventually the butter melts down to the point where it looks like a National Geographic aerial shot:
Like a land mass of fatty oil. I want to live there. On the Island of Buttah.
The next step in this process is to remove the skillet from the heat and add sugar. I stirred the butter and sugar together with a spatula until they became one sludgy concoction, like the world's most calorie-laden snowcone. Spread the butter sludge around the pan like so:
And then you add the apples to the pan in a pretty swirly pattern. Put the 600 lb cast iron skillet back on the heat:

And that's it for the apples. How cool is that? You don't have to do anything else to the apples. Turns out Butter and Sugar aren't just there for me when I need help filling out my jeans. They also bring out the best in my Apple Tarte Tatin, doing most of the work for me. As the apples cook, that butter-sugar-goodness becomes ... wait for it ... CARAMEL. And the caramel starts to bubble up through the apples like this:

Glorious! (If you look to the upper right corner, you'll note my super cute coffee cup with a bird on it. I cook more happily when I'm caffeinated.) And that's when you might be tempted to reach into the 400 degree, 600 pound cast iron skillet and snatch an apple covered in hot buttery caramel. Do not do this. It will result in third degree burns. Not that I tried, of course. As the apples start to cook down, you might be able to scoot the apples over a bit to make room for more apples to join the fun. All the apples are invited! Tis party time.So you can add more apples if you have room, but you don't stir the apples or flip the apples over or anything like that. They just chill in the butter-sugar-caramel-hot tub for awhile. While that's going down, you start to work with the pastry dough. Which I purchased in a box from Publix. Don't judge me. I unrolled the dough to find it in sheets ... lots of sheets.
They are lovely! So pretty and soft. I started ruminating about how, if chefs were poets, phyllo dough would be their parchment.

I thought about cinnamon stories
scrawled on flaky phyllo ...

... and then I said aloud, "Uh-oh. I hope phyllo dough is the same as pastry dough."

And then I looked at the recipe, and looked back at my box, and looked at the recipe again and shouted: "Bumpit!" [My niece and nephew aren't allowed to say "crap" so I'm trying not to say "crap" as much. "Bumpit" is my current word choice but I'm not sure it is going to suffice.]

"Biscuit!" I shouted (because my dog is my faithful kitchen companion, hoping against all hope I'll drop stuff in the floor). Biscuit looked up at me, raising one floppy ear. I looked down at her, frantically.

I said: "I got the wrong dough."

*wiggles tail*

Tangent: How cute is Biscuit? The Cute Factor is really out of control.

I ran for Google and typed "Is phyllo dough the same as pastry dough?" Apparently some other culinary impaired sister out there had already typed this question into the search field
*high five* because I had an immediate answer.

And the answer was: "You can use phyllo dough for your Apple Tarte Tatin but it will make the dish taste like moldy gym socks."

Bumpit. That's a problem. We scrambled. And by "we scrambled," I mean:

Biscuit found a warm patch of sunlight in which to roll over and take a nap and I scampered to lace my Asics and go to Publix while mom consulted her cookbooks and mental storehouse of food wizardry.

My mom is amazing. She ended up making a pie crust from scratch, a process neither of us care for. But this time was different. This pie crust was different. Just when I'd given up on homemade pie crust, written off my own ability to produce flaky goodness, the right pie crust came along. We thought it was too easy to be delicious.

I think the pie crust might have been the best part. It was straight up awesome and so easy. We followed a simple recipe for butter pie crust. There again -- my friend Butter, helping me out. We didn't even have time to chill the dough, and it worked wonders.You place the pie crust over the still-cooking, 600 degree skillet very carefully, so not to burn the dickens out of your fingers:

No worries if it's not pretty. You'll be flipping that sucker in the end. You tuck in the ugly-but-delicious-pastry dough down around the sides with a butter knife.

You bake it. Then you let it cool for a very, very long time. Because cast-iron is hot like the fire of a thousand suns. Hot like lava. Hawt like Chris Thile.

As the Apple Tarte Tatin is cooling, you might notice little flaky dough bits that have formed over the top. You should go ahead and eat those. I'm pretty sure that's part of the recipe Joy simply forgot to mention.

Then, after significant waiting and drooling, you do the flip. The flip involves some panache. Some sass. Confidence. Some very thick oven mitts.

We did the flip.

A few rebel apples stuck to the pan.

But I scraped them out and smooshed them back onto the Tatin. That's what ice cream is for, to cover the mess-ups.

Do I even need to tell you this tasted really, really yummy?

And that it looked so pretty on my fancy neon-flower Target plate?

The Apple Tarte Tatin was a hit. Truthfully, I think I'm still slightly more partial to apple pie. I like it when apples retain some texture in the baking process. In this particular recipe, the apples reduce more into a delicious caramely-apple goo. Still delightful to the much degree. You should make it for your family this weekend. Or make it with your boyfriend (tell him to do the flip part so he'll feel all manly and strong). Talk your roommates into skipping class next Friday, make Apple Tarte Tatin together, and watch a fun, girly movie.

Or you could make this on a Saturday afternoon with your mom. That's the best way to make it. Especially if your mom is a pie-crust wizard.
I ate the last little bitty sliver of Apple Tarte Tatin this morning while taking a break from attempting to wrangle my new project into something pretty. This new project is messy for the moment, soooo messy. But it has potential. I give up on it. I go back. I give up. I go back. Sometimes I don't know if I'll ever have enough confidence to see this dream through, but I'm hopeful. I could taste apples while I watched the cursor blinking on my screen, while I scribbled notes on a Post-It (notes that wouldn't make much sense to anybody else). While I plotted and planned and dreamed, I could taste apples. This all fits, of course. Because I tend to crave apples this time of year.

Apples always get me to thinking about Oscar's Orchard.

A few years ago, my parents sold the house where I grew up. Apple orchards don't fit easily into a U-Haul. Technically, the orchard isn't ours anymore (though I don't know that a tree can belong to anybody as much as it belongs to everybody). When Mom and I drove past the old house a few weeks ago, I noticed all but two apple trees had been cut down.

I realized I could be that stranger someday, pulling over my car, knocking on the door, asking if I could pick a few apples.

And I wondered if, someday, I might drive past and and point and say, "Did you know your great-great grandfather Oscar planted that tree?"

That's how it should be. Those trees have so many stories to tell. We didn't get to keep the trees but we get to keep the stories. I believe we kept what matters most.

I come from a long line of men and women with the ability to see what can be, what will be, with hard work and prayer and time. They believe that something wild and beautiful can bloom out of nothing. They taught me that even the worst mistake can turn my heart toward home. That even the most unexpected twist can work out for my good. That every ending can become a beginning, a chance to start over. To live better. To make a life from scratch.

A broken heart can still hold love.

An empty field can hold an orchard.

These empty pages can hold a beautiful story.

This morning, I didn't just dream of apples. I tasted them.

For Joy the Baker's Apple Tarte Tatin recipe (complete with explanatory YouTube clip!), click here.


  1. I love autumn, too! The other night I set some apple cider to simmering in the crockpot with some cinnamon sticks. We went bowling with some friends, came back, and the house was full of fall. It was beautiful. :) And your Apple Tarte Tatin looks amazing! And easy-ish. I must try this!

  2. Natalie my friend, you are totally rocking a Pioneer Woman cooking vibe with this post...I am impressed! Looks delish!

  3. Hmmm, that looks AMAZING! I'll have to try it sometimes :) I loved reading about your orchard and your fun apple adventures; it brought a smile to my face. I think Fall is my favorite too, though only recently did it move up on the list. I just love thinking about apple cider and jumping in leaves and sitting by roaring fires....even if I've never actually done all those my imagination it's the funnest season :) Hope you're having a wonderful Monday!

    PS kudos to you for writing the longest blog post in blog history while managing to keep your readers entertained down to the very last word. You definitely deserve an award for this! ;)

  4. Nice work Nats. I'm glad you mentioned the Voldemort dream in the Store-of-low-prices-that-must-not-be-named.

    Good looking dessert!

  5. What a lovely post! I loved reminiscing alongside you about the orchards and your family...makes me think off my grandparents who live next door to me (on the other side of our greenhouse and large garden.)

    Reading your posts always makes me feel extra inspired to live my day with my head held high...full of joy, awe and mysteries to be had.

    I usually do not bake...because math is NOT my thing and I tend to burn things or set them afire, but I may just have to try baking 'n' making that apple tarte tatin with my momma one of these cool autumn days.

    Hoping you have a blessed autumn day, Natalie!


  6. Natalie,

    I hear you about Orchards; I visited one in Georgia this past summer, called Lane Orchards andI feel in love. They were mainly a peach orchard, but had lots of pecans, almonds, jams, and apples too. I fyou ever get the chance, go visit it. :)

    I saved the Apple Tarte Tatin recipe to my computer. I think I may be making this for Thanksgving! It sounds delicious and looks so pretty.

    Your dog is so adorable. I want to meet her.

    Your blog is an inspiration to my everyday, Natalie. You have a gift. :)

    Have a fantastic week!

    Steffanie (new blog:

  7. What a beautiful post, Natalie!

    When I see that you have a new post, I always scroll down to see how long it is (the longer, the better in my book :). I must confess that when I saw all of the apple/cooking pictures, I thought, aw man. A cooking post? Though I want to be a homemaker, cooking is one of my serious downfalls and number one in my "needs improvement" area. So I wasn't too excited...but this post was amazing!! :) You actually make cooking sound fun.

    I love orchards, too. I dream of living in a sweet farmhouse with an orchard in the yard. My grandma's house had the loveliest yard and was surrounded by fruit- a peach tree, several apple trees, a plum tree, ancient grape vines, and more. I miss it so much.

    And now I'm really craving apple pie! :)


  8. well, now I want some of my sister's yummy apple tart. sigh.
    P.S. The dream about Voldemort made me burst out laughing, only problem is two people in this house are sleeping, hope I didn't wake them up:)

  9. I cannot get over how awesome your words are. When I try to write, what I want to say never comes out like I want it to. I always get caught up in the grammar and punctuation of a sentence, but when I read your words they make sense. It's awesome.

    Biscuit is so ADORABLE! Something I love about dogs is they're so relaxed about everything. In the midst of a potential 'crisis' they're like "eh, I'm gonna take a nap."

    My friends and I have a running joke about how we need to learn how to cook because according to some of those sorta cheesy dating books, that's what guys look for. We have made cake, and are determined to make bread from scratch some day. Perhaps after we master bread we can move on to this recipe :)

    Thank you for your words, they fill me with joy. Have a great week


  10. Lovely writing as always, Nat.
    Thank you for sharing the Tarte Tatin recipe...I've been so curious about how it turned out. Looks delicious! Also, totally jealous you're going to see Punch Brothers! They were in town recently but I had something else going on.

  11. [contented sigh]

    Your posts have the loveliest habit of making my day and inspiring me to attempt to write something as beautiful as this. :)

  12. This is lovely. My friend Amy and I are planning on cooking delightful things this weekend and I was just trying to figure out what when I read this post... (although do you think you could acquire the apple cake with the nuts and coconuts for us? the tarte tartin looks wonderful, but I'm more of a coconut girl myself.)

    And yes, I thought I was reading a Pioneer Woman recipe for a second. You cook the way I like to - with lots of Chris Thile.

  13. Oh my gosh-this looks amazing! I'm terrible at cooking, baking, anything that involves a kitchen, but you make this look so easy, maybe I'll give it a try!

  14. That looks amazing! Your words are beautiful as always :)

  15. Love you Nat! Your posts always make me smile! And they make me hungry! Especially todays post! Thanks for sharing this recipe. I'm going to make it this weekend hopefully, though we have another recipe beckoning us this weekend...saffron cheesecake. Yummy (fingers crossed!).
    Thanks again. Blessings
    Hannah :)

  16. There is too much goodness in this post to comment on! However, I need your mom's cast iron skillet pizza. Now.