October is a wonderful time of the year to take a trip home to the north shore of Massachusetts. The changing colors of the leaves decorate the sides of the highway, framing the windshield on the picturesque drive. The air is just brisk enough to cozy up to family in the evenings, but not so cold that you feel trapped inside. In fact, most years during fall break I am outside as much as possible—apple picking, hiking, decorating for Halloween, and attending an annual fair. I drink pumpkin lattes with friends in the mornings and roast pumpkin seeds with family in the evenings. I walk the dogs with my brother and wince through horror movies with my dad and, no matter what else the weekend entails, I always, always make apple crisp with my mom.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to my mom’s apple crisp each and every fall. I can recall many an autumn evening cooking together in our cozy kitchen, helping her peel apples as she worked on the more complicated parts of the dish. When I was little, she used to call it “Brown Betty,” like her mother called it and her mother’s mother, too. As far as anyone remembers, this delicious fall tradition originated with my great grandma Doris, my grandpa’s mother. My grandparents used to enjoy the dessert when they visited her, and soon my grandma began baking it herself. My mom says she made it on her own for the first time a few years out of college and distinctly remembers calling her mother for clarifications on the recipe. From that fall on, she made it every year. My immediate family has shifted the title to “apple crisp,” but the recipe itself has remained unaltered through the generations.
This year, I made this fall family recipe on my own for the very first time. Taking a trip to the grocery store with my roommates, I tried to remember all the ingredients we needed. Standing in the fruit aisle, I could hear my mom’s voice in my head reminding me McIntosh apples are the best. McIntoshes have soft red and green skin and juicy white interiors. The flavor is a little tart when raw, but they sweeten perfectly when cooked. Golden Delicious or Gala would probably work too, but I know she would say they aren’t the same. A decent-sized portion of apple crisp requires around seven to nine apples—which takes a ton of peeling. The apples need to be as close to completely bare as possible, as little bits of leftover skin will interfere with the rich smoothness of the dish. As I picked out the biggest, juiciest apples, I realized I sadly couldn’t delegate this monotonous task to my younger brother this year.
After peeling, we always cut the apples into thin slices—small enough for a bite but not so small that they will dissolve in the oven. I did this cutting part both at home and at school, as I don’t trust others to achieve that perfect thickness. Once there are enough to fill a few layers in the pan, my mom always coats them in lemon juice and a dusting of cinnamon. The lemon juice balances the sweetness of the McIntosh slices, she says, adding a tart kick to the flavor. On the side, we prepare a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and butter crumbles, sprinkling it evenly over the apples. This entire dish goes in the oven for about an hour, which is when we begin making the best part: the hard sauce!
What my mom and grandma have always called “hard sauce” is basically a variation of icing, but with an important consistency difference—it’s thicker and therefore, “harder.” The ingredients are the same as the homemade icing we make on birthdays: butter, powdered sugar, a capful of vanilla extract, and skim milk. However, for apple crisp we always use more sugar and much less milk. Inevitably at home, I always accidentally pour too much. “Really,” I instructed my roommate like my mom always reminds me, “only a tiny drop.” The sweet, creamy mixture will still be smooth at first, but after cooling in the refrigerator, it develops a thick, solid consistency. The pairing of the cool hard sauce with the warm apple mixture creates a perfect blend of temperature, flavor, and sweetness. Each spoonful melts in your mouth, the gooey apples mix with the crunch of the coating and the smooth, sweetness of the sauce.
This October, I will not be making the trek north through the red and yellow covered highways. I’ve decided not to go home until Thanksgiving due to the pandemic, so I don’t risk infecting my family. My BC friends all made the same choice, so I recreated the fun fall vibes I have at home every year here with them instead. We got a pumpkin to carve in the daytime, toasted the seeds in the oven, and seasoned them with salt and pepper. At night, we watched horror movies in anticipation of Halloween—I even asked my dad for recommendations. We didn’t make it to apple picking, but I made sure to get a bundle of McIntosh at the store.
But of course, the most memorable part of the weekend was making apple crisp. Just like my mom a couple years out of college, and my grandma after eating it at her mother-in-law’s, I now have my own story of continuing the fall family tradition. Although I definitely had to call my mom a time or two to double-check the specifics, I assumed her role with my roommates, teaching them what she taught me. It was a change to bake it in a dorm room oven as opposed to the warm, coziness of my kitchen at home, but at least I had some new people to delegate the apple peeling to!
Cover photo courtesy of Kitchn