In the blink of an eye, my melancholy about the end of summer evaporated - poof! - like the puff of steam rising off a cup of coffee in the cold. I think it might have something to do with our Sunday - the day that started out with cozy, chocolate-studded rolls on the couch, the lazy morning that was too cold for my flimsy summer nightgown and called for my beloved 12-year old high school sweatshirt to be donned (much to Ben's chagrin, I'm sure).
In the crisp afternoon air (is there anything better than a September afternoon in New York City? Anything better at all, seriously? I don't know how there can be), we hopped on our bicycles for our first (we've been unpacking for a looong time, I suppose) real exploration of our neighborhood. Down one street, then another, past the archetypal Forest Hills high school, over a flimsy overpass, down a set of crumbling stairs, we emerged triumphant near Meadow Lake - a pretty little body of water situated conveniently between two highways (aaaah, New York, so pretty, so peaceful - does there need to be a highway everywhere? Apparently, yes.).
From there, where we saw a little turtle sunning himself insouciantly on a water pipe and wild geese getting their webbed feet wet, we cycled over to Flushing Meadows Corona Park where we saw cricket matches and soccer games, heard the crowd roaring for the Mets at Shea, and felt our bicycle tires whooshing through the very first little yellowed leaves, fallen and crisping along the walkways. Back home, we kept our balcony door closed, and cooked up our gateway meal into the colder season - the perennially delicious lemon chicken. And all the while I was thinking, practically humming: fall is here and it is glorious.
I am fickle, aren't I?
The next few months stretch ahead deliciously - with tickets to The New Yorker Festival (finally, after years of spending that week at a convention center in western Germany), a blustery weekend for walking on the beach, reveling in the cloudless blue skies on near-constant repeat, and apple-picking galore. The apples now are so good - hard and crisp, snowy-white, glossy-skinned. I know I was just mourning the passing of those mounds of warm summer tomatoes, but if I can have a counter top filled with new apples, bursting with juice and crunch, I can be happy indeed.
The truth is that these first apples of fall are best eaten raw, really, polished to a high sheen on the lapel of your jacket (ooh, jackets, appealing again after so long) and munched on an outdoor walk, or quartered and coupled with a piece of cheese, beads of apple juice pooling at the bottom of the plate. But if you've got your mother, say, coming to town and need to serve a wholesome dessert after dinner that can be eaten with a spoon (is there anything more soothing after a transatlantic flight or at the close of the kind of day that makes your hair stand on end?), you'd be well-served to bake a few of your apples in an inch of fragrant apple cider, stuffed with a chunky mixture of dried fruits and nuts.
Basted with the cider and a spoonful or two of syrup, the apples soften and swell, turning cloud-like in the heat. Firm apples are the ones to choose, but even those might not be immune to an explosion here or there, snow-white flesh spilling out of its red-jacket casing like a Victorian bosom. You could pour a thin line of heavy cream around the apples, creating a caramel-cream sauce, but that almost goes too far - we ate these warm and plain and found them divine.
Maple Baked Apples
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons roughly chopped dried cherries
3 tablespoons chopped dried figs
2 tablespoons roughly chopped toasted sliced almonds
2 tablespoons roughly chopped toasted pecans
6 large firm baking apples, cored but not peeled
3 tablespoons butter, cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, cherries, figs, almonds and pecans.
2. Place the apples in a baking pan or casserole dish and stuff their cavities with the fruit and nut mixture. Place a piece of butter on top of the stuffing.
3. Pour the apple cider and maple syrup into the bottom of the baking pan and bake the apples, basting every 5 to 7 minutes, until they are tender, 25 to 35 minutes.
4. When the apples are tender, transfer them to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep them warm. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture until it becomes syrupy and reduces to a sauce, about 5 to 10 minutes. Spoon over the apples and serve immediately.