The Fall of Apple Crisp
When I think about homemade apple crisp, I can still see the pan on the counter, I can still feel the crunchy crisp breaking under my fork, and I can still taste the soft, tart apples.
As someone who loves to cook there is nothing harder than trying to recreate the memory of a favorite dish.
Growing up we had a small apple tree in the backyard that produced these tiny little apples that were only good for baking. In the fall we would bring the apples in and my mom would make pans of fresh apple crisp. Getting up in the morning and having a big piece for breakfast is still one of my favorite memories of growing up.
The problem with cooking a memory is that even if everything is measured right, we never have all the ingredients that created the dish in the first place.
What I remember most about having apple crisp growing up is getting up early on warm fall days with the sun shining through the window on a pan with just enough apple crisp left to make it through the weekend. Over the years homemade apple crisp has taken on an almost mythical status for me as a dish I’ve never been able to get just right.
Around a decade ago I got the basic recipe from my mom and started making it myself. Something with it always seemed off, so I started adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that, trying things she would never do. It didn’t even taste right when I made it following the recipe she gave me.
I eventually got to the point where I replaced the apples with berries and started making mountain berry crisp whenever I got in the mood for apple crisp. It was a long ways from the dish I grew up loving, but at least it tasted right.
When I started thinking about recipes for Umami, I spent a lot of time thinking about where my tastes came from and the dishes that shaped how and what I like to eat. And there was apple crisp, sitting on the counter, waiting for me to come home and to start trying to get it just right. I knew there was no way I could start a site dedicated to using food to explore the world around us and not include one of my favorite foods from growing up.
Over the past few months, I’ve been making batch after batch of apple crisp, trying to figure out the right mix of apples, how much butter to put in the topping, where the cinnamon and brown sugar should go. There’s been a lot about the different batches that have turned out well, but there’s never been one that felt right.
Eventually, I realized I had gotten lost down the rabbit hole of my youth and that I was never going to be able to create a batch that came with Saturday morning cartoons and afternoons of pick up football.
Getting older and becoming an adult, something that is very hard for me, means there are ingredients I don’t have access to anymore. When I finally realized this, I knew my only options were to move on and make apple crisp with what I have on hand today or subsist on memories I hold close.
This has helped me as I work through batches and to start looking for different things than I did before. Now I’m working through the finer points of how much butter to add to bring the dish right to the edge of richness, but have it still taste like fall.
I’ve figured out a good mix of apples that includes several varieties and how to add flavor to them, so the bites without crisp are just as good as the bites with crisp. And I’ve gotten better at cooking with what I have in front of me.
It’s still not the dish I remember from growing up, but I’ve been able to add enough of today that it’s still something I love to eat.
Mark is Umami's publisher