Years ago, but not so many years ago, I stood watching a team of draft horses turn a sorghum mill. The slow plodding of the horses and the gentle creak of the mill as we fed the cane through was the soundtrack of the day. Bright, June bug green liquid, thick with sugar, flowed from the mill to a vat beneath which we stoked a hot fire. All day long, we hovered over the vat with wooden paddles skimming off the scum that boiled to the surface, raking it into buckets that would go to the pigpen--the sweet promise of future bacon.
There were always lots of yellow jackets hovering overhead, drawn to the smell of the syrup as we all are drawn to sweet things. As the day wore on we took turns tending the fire, skimming, and feeding the crowd that always seemed to assemble around the vat, watching the green syrup turn to gold and brown, watching the yellow jackets dive in the golden September light.
One evening, we hauled out an old apple cider press. Someone had come home with a pickup truck load of apples, and in a delirious, overheated, late summer frenzy, we pitched them into the wooden press and watched opaque amber juice rush out the bottom. The smell was like nothing else--fresh and floral, like a new rose, but far deeper and sweeter.
I think that one of the reasons autumn is such a lovely, bittersweet time is its intensity and richness. We are winding down from late summer's outpouring of overgrown, heady greenery and moving into a slower but no less spectacular season overflowing with lovely scented fruits and otherworldly sunsets. The sensations of a perfect fall day--bright and cool, smelling of dry leaves and burning wood--are not lost on us. We are drawn into its aura like yellow jackets to sorghum, called forth by the waning warmth of summer and the not so distant promise of winter.
Apples have become something of a quiet passion for me. When I first learned that they are in the rose family, a tiny explosion happened inside my head--of course! And if you seek out good apples--apples with odd names like Hubbardston Nonesuch or Ananas Reinette--you can spend most of autumn and winter marveling at how different and wonderful they taste. I did so last apple season, and in the process I forgot to cook with them at all.
My favorite eating apple, or "dessert apple" as they are called, is audibly crisp, tart and sweet, and juicy enough to slurp at. But there are worlds of apples beyond this. Many apples, while not perhaps the best out of hand, are perfect for cooking.
This year, I've jumped on the apple cart earlier than anticipated. I came home from a canning swap with a quart of applesauce and needed to find a good use for it. I have to admit--I'm not the biggest fan of applesauce. Not that I don't like it--it's pretty inoffensive--but I don't find myself wanting applesauce very often.
My solution was to make an apple tart. I dressed up an all-butter pastry crust with rosemary, added a hefty dose of bourbon to the applesauce (because we're all adults here), and topped my humble pie with thinly shaved slices of apple. I found a red-fleshed variety of crabapple to top my pie, but you could use any kind. I also brushed my tart with plum jelly because that's what I had in my pantry, but you could use almost any kind of jelly from apple to apricot.
Note: I made this in a shallow tart pan, but you could easily use a normal pie dish.
1/2 recipe All-Butter Pastry Dough with 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary added if desired
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Roll out the dough and transfer to a tart pan or pie dish. Trim the edges and crimp as desired. Line the dough with parchment and fill with beans or weights. Bake for 28 minutes or until the edges of the crust are starting to brown and feel firm. Remove the weights, prick the bottom crust with a fork, and bake 10 more minutes or until dry to the touch and starting to brown.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
Combine in a saucepan:
1 quart (4 cups) applesauce
1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet your applesauce is (taste it!)
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
Cook the applesauce until the butter is melted. If your applesauce is particularly watery, cook it down until the excess water has evaporated. Remove from the heat and add:
2 tablespoons bourbon
Pour the applesauce over the crust and smooth. Slice paper-thin (I used a mandoline, but a very sharp knife will work):
1 small, tart apple
Arrange the slices over the applesauce in a decorative pattern. Bake the tart until heated through and bubbly, about 30 to 40 minutes. Since the applesauce is already cooked, you don't have to worry too much about the cooking time--cook it until it looks good to you.
Remove from the oven and brush with:
Let cool completely before slicing. Serve with ice cream, whipped cream, or barely sweetened crème fraîche.