Learn Some Manners Apple Tarts

What is it with people and free food? Last week I had the opportunity to remind myself why I will do anything to avoid the “reception immediately following” portion of any event I attend. I don’t mean things like weddings or various mitzvahs, where the kindness of a friend has brought me to a celebration. I mean things like a book signing, a lecture, an art opening. An event where strangers have gathered to listen or see someone or something and then are reminded of the buffet that awaits them after they have paid attention to the someone or something that has brought them out of their homes in the first place.

My avoidance of free food stems from, of course, a childhood trauma. The summer I was eight my parents enrolled me in a field ecology day-camp at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. I remember loving it, exploring Shinnecock Bay, catching frogs, hiking in the mud and generally getting grubby and wet. And the coolest thing was the name tag rope necklace we got to wear—a slice of a branch with “Miranda” written in white paint. I kept it for years. But at the end of the week-long adventure there was a little graduation party and reception. My father accompanied me while my mother stayed back at the house with the siblings. After a few remarks from the director and a counselor or two, they invited everyone to enjoy the snacks set up on the long table at the back of the room. Like semi-comatose teenagers brought to life at the ringing of the class dismissed bell, this group of parents and their kids raced towards the food, lunging for juice, grabbing cookies and fistfuls of pretzels. I was paralyzed. Then Dad and I witnessed a chubby man give his soon-to-be chubby son a little shove towards the buffet and utter these words of wisdom, “You gotta push to the front. It’s the only way to get what you want in life.” Horrified, Dad grabbed my hand and said, “We’re out of here. I’ll buy you ice cream on the way home.”
So you can understand my issues. But last week’s occasion merited a rethinking of my policy. My friend Abigail Pogrebin was interviewing Danny Meyer at the JCC as part of her What Everyone’s Talking About series. Before the conversation began, Abby reminded her audience that, this being an evening with one of the most successful restauranteurs in New York, there would be a delicious reception awaiting us of dishes from the Union Square Café Cookbook. (For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Meyer, the Union Square Cafe was his first smash hit restaurant.) The crowd appreciatively oohed and aahed and I looked at Marsha, my date for the night, to indicate, “Yum.” We had planned on going out for a drink but now here was this alternative idea. Abby did a wonderful job peppering her subject with questions exploring everything from his childhood as an eater to his 20’s as a cook to his success today. Mr. Meyer is the author of a terrific book that I read last year—it’s both memoir and business guide and his theories on hospitality are fascinating. Much of what was discussed further explored what he covers in Setting the Table, The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business but hearing it from the boss’ mouth was a real treat. One of the main qualities his Union Square Hospitality Group looks for when making a hire is a high “Hospitality Quotient.” An “HQ” is defined as “how much pleasure someone derives from providing pleasure to others.” Seems like a basic enough expectation to have if you are an employer in a service industry. What a pity that so many of the evening’s attendees would not make it past the first round of interviews with Mr. Meyer’s HR department.
Because Marsha and I have taken our fair share of writing classes at the JCC we know which staircases lead where and ushered my friend Jane along with us so to avoid the impending crush headed for a different stairway. When we got to the buffet a crowd had already gathered and as I looked towards the main entrance to the area all I saw were wild-eyed, starving masses clawing their way to the table. Marsha and Jane quickly grabbed tiny glasses of gazpacho while I spooned an artichoke something (I couldn’t read the rest of the sign once a woman squeezed her way between me and the table but I think there were some potatoes too) onto a plate and jumped out of the way of the tangle of elbows, NPR tote bags and plastic weaponry, I mean cutlery.

But the thing is I wasn’t really surprised. The JCC sits in the middle of my neighborhood which is filled with unpleasant grocery stores known for their amazing selections and maddening physical spaces. Tiny aisles, too many people, workers pushing teetering dollies of produce all contribute to the awkward dance of simply trying to buy a quart of milk and a bunch of lettuce without sustaining any bodily harm. And they often have samples. Don’t get me started on the olive oil tasting area. Are people so ravenous when they go grocery shopping that they need to park their carts in the middle of the aisle, grab heels of “free” bread, that have been breathed on and touched by so many others, all so they can sample some rosemary infused oily goodness? Hey, how about actually purchasing a sour dough boule, a bottle of oil and getting out of the store? But my neighbors know their food. So of course they’d stampede in order to get their paws on a free morsel with a Danny Meyer imprimatur.
As much as I love sweet treats I love my sanity more. So Marsha and I finished our snack and headed across the street for what had become a desperately needed glass of wine. But I was so sad. Among the mini-desserts I had to leave behind untasted was a teeny tiny apple tart. I could see the glistening puff pastry supporting the few bits of sugared apple yet my arm wasn’t long enough to stretch over the group of munching attendees who’d commandeered that section of the table. I thought about what I’d missed out on for days. Until I remembered my mother has a copy of the Union Square Café Cookbook. Bingo! These tarts are so easy to make. I cheated and bought a jar of apple butter rather than make my own as indicated in the recipe. But they were still delicious and have a wonderful balance of crisp, bright and sweet. Vanilla ice cream brought the tarts to perfection and these would be lovely to serve if you are having a smaller gathering for Thanksgiving. They’re so festive and pretty. You could even make them a bit smaller so your guests can have more than one dessert!

I am back to my avoidance of free food. Oh, unless of course I have to go to Costco before turkey day. If they’re sampling Cheesecake Factory Strawberry Cheesecake I may have to revise my policy. But I will never “push to the front.”

Adapted slightly from The Union Square Cookbook, 1994, by Danny Meyer & Michael Romano
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1/2 pound puff pastry (I used Pepperidge Farm)
1/4 cup apple butter (spiced without added sugar)
2-3 Granny Smith apples
2 Tablespoons butter, melted and divided
1-2 Tablespoons superfine sugar
creme fraiche, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

On a floured surface roll the puff pastry to a 11-inch square.
Cut out four 5-inch circles with a sharp paring knife, using either a plate, a bowl, or tart ring as your guide.

Transfer the circles to a parchment lined baking sheet.
Place a Tablespoon of apple butter on each circle and spread it with the back of a spoon or a small off-set spatula leaving a 1/4 inch border. Refrigerate.

Preheat oven to 375
Peel, halve and core apples. Place the halves cut side down and turn the half so that the bottom stem end is pointing to the left.
Using a small paring knife, thinly slice the apple halves.
Remove pastry circles from fridge and arrange apple slices in a tight concentric circle, overlapping slightly. Using a pastry brush, brush the tarts with half of the melted butter.

Bake 25 minutes.
Brush the tarts with the remaining one Tablespoon melted butter and continue baking until the apples are golden and the pastry is nicely browned.
Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle each tart with 1-2 teaspoons superfine sugar.
Serve warm with creme fraiche, whipped cream or vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
Serves four


Late Bloomer Pear Ginger Muffins

Little girls and their fascination with make-up is nothing new. Back in the day, I remember lobbying my mother for my share of Tinkerbell cosmetics, to no avail. That sort of thing fell to indulgent grandmothers and birthday presents from girls whose names I no longer remember. Today, whenever I am hanging with the nieces, there is the inevitable moment when they start rummaging around in my bathroom, searching for a pink lip-gloss, face powder, the stray velcro roller. Because it’s my job never to deny them a thing, I conspire with them; I help them apply the sticky gloss or roll up their hair. But the one thing I always tell them is that “this is just dress-up.” They can’t leave the house with anything on their faces until they are much, much older.

I’ve felt the need to stress the “not till you grow-up” theme more and more recently. When I was a kid the beauty parlor was a place Nana went to once a week for a wash and set and a manicure. Now, with nail salons multiplying faster than TD Bank or Starbucks, the customer base seems to have expanded downward, with girls as young as three coming in for a “Baby-Mani.” The fact that there is a name for it is cause enough for concern. When did this happen? Sure, we all played with make-up but Mom or Grandma paying an Asian adult woman $10 to clean, cut and polish the tiny fingers of their toddlers? That is just unseemly.
Whenever I meet someone without a lot of New York City experience I always find myself defending having grown up here. No, I didn’t do drugs when I was 11. No, I wasn’t sneaking out of my parents’ apartment to dance on tables at Euro trash bars when I was underage. No, I wasn’t having sex in Central Park. What do you mean, “What did you do on weekends?” We had a city outside our door. “Did you wish you’d lived in a house with a yard?” No, apartment living is all I know. I don’t feel like I missed out on a thing. And I don’t really think city kids grow up so much faster than their suburban or rural counterparts.
I suppose that’s a sort of controversial statement but I think a lot of it comes down to your family of origin. Of course the Big Apple has many more readily available temptations, and none of them involve asking your parents to play chauffeur. But at the same time, if you have a strong sense of right and wrong, and parents who acknowledge that there are those temptations and create an environment where you can talk to them about anything, than you’ll probably turn out okay. And of course you can’t ignore the strength of one’s own moral compass. My parents were pretty permissive after I proved myself to be trustworthy, and I was a total good girl. In fact I was really boring and kind of clueless.

Now, do I regret having been so good? Not really. Seriously, have you ever met anyone who says, “I wish I’d started drinking to excess when I was 14. Then I could have spent summer vacation at Betty Ford.” Or “Why did I wait so long to start dating? I could have gotten an STD at a much younger age.” Of course not. Then again, it might have been better had I known a bit more about some of the things going on in the social lives of the more adventurous. When I was a freshman in college I was in Florida visiting my grandparents at the same time a camp friend was visiting hers. She knew a whole other crowd (meaning people who were younger than 70) down there and one night a group of us were driving to some club. I was sitting in the back seat when a guy in the front asked if anyone had a mirror. I assumed his contact lens must have been knocked off center and helpfully handed him my compact. You know where this is going. Imagine my surprise when he handed my Ralph Lauren gift-with-purchase makeup palette back to me, the mirror covered with the faintest dusting of white powder. And no, he wasn’t from New York. He was from Short Hills, New Jersey.
But those were the 80’s and I really hope kids today aren’t snorting cocaine in the front seat of a suburban prince’s BMW. Then again, I’m probably just living with my head in the sand. Where am I going with all of this? My point is that you really never regret waiting or taking it slow. Being a late bloomer may seem like a tragedy when you’re in high school but you will be so grateful when you are an adult. There are years and years to act grown-up (and it will be an act, of that I’m sure). Why rush it?

The only area in which I regret having been late to the party is, surprise, food. Nowadays it is no big deal to see a young family of four sharing a jumbo sushi boat or squeezing next to each other to feast on Korean barbecue or passing around a platter of chicken tikka masala. But I was raised on 60’s cuisine. The only kind of sauces we had were béarnaise, Hollandaise, and A-1. I didn’t know what curry was until my Pakistani friend invited me to dinner at her Auntie’s. (Yum.) And fruit meant bananas, apples, and the Christmas fruit tower from Harry and David. My palate was even more stunted than my social life. Sad but true.
It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to love things I used to hate: spicy food (except garlic), fish, feta cheese, olives, prunes, anise, ginger, squash and pears. The pear thing is really strange. I’m not sure why I used to object to them when now I love them so much. Maybe it was the slightly liquor-y taste? In the fall and winter they replace peaches in my late-night fruit and yogurt snack.

The other day I was feeling a little piqued, almost like I was car sick, although I hadn’t been in a car. I wanted something sweetish but also comforting and soothing. I had a few pears from the green market that were really ready to go and thought warming them up with some ginger might help fade the green around my gills. This muffin recipe did the trick. They really pack a ginger punch, so you should be a fan if you’re going to embark on them. (Or you could hold off on the extra sprinkling of crystallized ginger that garnishes the tops.) The process couldn’t be easier and the smell is sublime; mix the dry, mix the wet, gently mix wet into dry, fold in pears. Bake. A pear-ginger muffin and a cup of English Breakfast tea righted all that was wrong. Okay, maybe a muffin and a cozy cup of tea isn’t the stuff of cocaine dusted compact mirrors, but it’s this wild New Yorker’s drug of choice.

Late Bloomer Pear-Ginger Muffins
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1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2/3 cup firmly packed golden brown sugar
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 Tbs. peeled and grated fresh ginger
2/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 eggs
1 cup milk
6 Tbs. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups peeled, chopped pear (about 1 large)

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, brown sugar, ground ginger, fresh ginger and 1/3 cup of the crystallized ginger. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until blended. Stir in the milk and butter. Pour the egg mixture over the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula just until moistened. Fold in the pear. Do not over-mix.

Using a standard ice cream scoop, spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them about three-fourths full. Sprinkle the remaining crystallized ginger evenly over the tops.
Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 2 minutes, then remove the muffins from the pan and let cool completely. Serve warm. The muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.
Yield: 12 muffins


The Most Important Principle Baked Pancake with Caramelized Apples

I have no principles. I realized this recently when I found myself abandoning a selection of various proclamations without thinking twice. That’s the problem with making any grand statements: if you don’t follow through or really commit to them you turn yourself into the girl who cried wolf. And then there goes your credibility. I guess you could say I have become officially incredible.

It started with brunch. Shortly after my anti-brunch rant, my friend Susan announced she was coming to town and would getting together for Sunday brunch work? " Sure!" I said without stopping myself for a hypocrisy check.
So to brunch with Susan and Rich I went. And I’d imagine that now Susan regrets having provided me with the chance to cry wolf. It’s funny, when you spend time with the same people you fall into patterns of behavior that everyone expects. I know that Rich will speak so softly that the waiter won’t hear him. Rich knows I’ll ask the waiter a million questions, thinking I’m being charming, when really I’m being annoying. And neither of us cares. Enter Susan. She did care. After she and Rich both plainly placed their orders (yes, the waiter said, “I’m sorry?” to inaudible Rich) it was my turn.

“Ok, I’ll have two poached eggs. Wait, can I get the Salmon Eggs Benedict without the hollandaise?”

“Sure,” the waiter said scribbling.

“Oh! But I just had smoked salmon.” I looked at Rich, “maybe I should have the omelet?” Rich rolled his eyes and said, “But then we’re all getting omelets.”
The waiter began looking around the packed restaurant and the frozen smile on his face started to thaw and morph into a grimace.

“Oh, I know I’m being a pain!” I said trying to be adorable. Yeah, not quite. He just stared at me. “Okay, I’ll have a cheddar and tomato omelet,” I said giving Rich a sorry—too bad face. “But wait, does anyone want anything sweet? I wish I could have just one pancake. Do you have sides of pancakes?” I asked the waiter.


It was at this point that Susan let out a “Really?!”

“Okay, okay. And we’ll have an order of pancakes for the table. Thanks.” I said timidly. I was totally embarrassed.

I actually consider myself to be a very decisive person. And the thing was, I didn’t really think I was being that bad. Someone in heaven, or the kitchen, must have thought I was because when the pancakes came they were totally mediocre. I was being punished for my pestiness and left the meal still needing the itch for a good pancake to be scratched.

A few days later I went out to dinner with my friend Margot. Thank God for Margot. She is the only person I know whose dining habits rival mine in the Princess and the Pea meets Goldilocks category and she helped me get out of my shame spiral. When I met her at the appointed restaurant I could tell by her face that she wasn’t happy.
“What?” I whispered.

“The fan. It’s blowing right on our table.”

‘The fan?’ I thought. I was sure she was going to complain about the stench of truffle oil. “Sir, can we move to that table by the window?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “That’s for four persons only.” The restaurant was totally empty.

Margot and I exchanged glances. “I’m not feeling it.” She said. “Me neither, let’s get out of here.”

This is the part where, had we been with other people, we would have been mortified. We did to our neighborhood what I had done to the waiter on Sunday. We walked up to, debated the pros and cons of, and rejected three more restaurants before Margot had a Eureka moment and remembered a place where she’d had a fabulous Greek salad with grilled salmon. And to quote my heroine, “It was just right.”
Why does being picky and exact get a bad rap? Especially if it's in the name of a satisfying gustatory experience. It doesn’t bother me when other people grill a waiter or ask a cab driver to take a specific route or want to wait to see a play until they can get the seat of their choice. So why should I feel funny about doing those things myself?

In the meantime I kept thinking about pancakes. I knew that was going to happen. Whenever my craving goes unsatisfied it haunts me until it is. The pancake problem for me is that I really think a stack smothered in syrup is too sweet. I hate starting the day that way because you crash from your sugar high an hour later and then you’re starving. So I set out to find something that would feel pancakey enough to shut my palate up but not leave me in a diabetic coma. I remembered the David Eyre's pancake my mother used to make when I was a kid, usually on a Sunday night if we’d had a really big lunch. The great thing is that it bakes in the oven so there’s no standing over a griddle, timing things just right for a crowd. It puffs up really dramatically and is more of a blank canvas than the typical vanilla-y over-sweet pancakes found on a restaurant menu (or in a box of Aunt Jemima).
I knew the pancake on its own wouldn’t be enough. I wanted something fruity to go with it. So I abandoned another one of my principles and sautéed some apples in maple syrup. Supposedly I think “apples are overrated” and I once had a roommate I rejected as ever being a friend because she opened our refrigerator and called out with glee, “Ooh! An apple!” as if it were a hot fudge sundae. (Come on, could you really be friendly with someone like that?)

The combination was fantastic and I highly recommend this take on a cozy fall breakfast. The caramel of the apples is offset by the squidge of lemon juice. The pancake is light and eggy with a nice bit of crust and the dish is substantial enough without leaving you with that overstuffed, carbo-loaded post-brunch feeling. And even though I have now revealed myself to be completely without conviction you really should believe me. I haven’t let go of my most important principle: good taste.
The Most Important Principle Baked Pancake with Caramelized Apples
from the New York Times, 1966
printer friendly version
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup whole milk
pinch of ground nutmeg
4 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Caramelized apples--see below

Preheat oven to 450
In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs. Add flour, milk and nutmeg
and lightly beat until blended but still a bit lumpy.Melt butter in a 12-inch oven-proof skillet (I used cast iron) over medium-high heat. When butter is melted and very hot, but not browned, add batter and bake in oven until pancake is puffy and golden brown. About 15 minutes(While pancake is baking making caramelized apples.)
Remove pan from oven, be careful, it is very hot, and sift/sprinkle or shake with powdered sugar and return to oven for one-two minutes.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with lemon juice. Cut into wedges and serve with caramelized apples (or jam or syrup or whatever you want if you hate apples)
YIELD: 2 big or 4 light servings

Caramelized Apples
2 Tablespoon butter
3 Granny Smith (or whatever you have) apples, peeled, cored and cut into eighths
2 Tablespoons maple syrup
In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add apples and cook, stirring now and then, until they've released their juices but aren't too mushy and start to settle down.
Add maple syrup and let the apples become dark golden brown, stirring occasionally so they don't burn.
Spoon over wedges of pancake.