Apples and Islands

Last year I was gifted — or, rather, pushed to take — boxes and boxes of apples from a very prolific tree in Inverness. I was a leetle bit nervous about what I was going to do with them, but when someone desperately begs you to help her out you really can’t say no. After letting them linger in the closet for a few weeks while I attended to other things (read: tried to avoid dealing with them), I finally broke down and bought a food mill, a lot of mason jars, did some research on the USDA site about how to process and preserve applesauce, and spent the better part of a sunny Sunday afternoon coring, chopping, and generally making a mess of my kitchen floor. I swore I’d never do it again, but, you know …

This year I was presented (thank goodness!) with just a smallish bag of those near-wild apples (I call them ‘nearly wild’ because I think the trees are left to their own devices and are neither watered nor fertilized) and I let them languish far less. I didn’t feel like undertaking an enormous preserving activity again — not least of all because I would have had to do it all myself and as I may have mentioned once or twice, I don’t exactly love applesauce — but I did want to tuck away a few jars for the upcoming holidays. Also, I like projects. This means that this weekend I made the tiniest batch of sauce, which I shall distribute for various Thanksgiving celebrations (including my own, to take place in the former ‘apple capital of the world’ in Sebastopol). It was much less involved and complicated this time round; dare I admit I might even have enjoyed myself (also, the kitchen floor hardly got sticky at all)?

[Apples from Sally, October 2008.]

Sunday has become my day of cooking — I guess it always sort of was, but lately it’s been ever more so devoted to industrious kitchen activity. This week, I got up early and went through the fog to yoga (hardly anyone was out save for a few solitary runners, and the air smelled like summer), walked through the Panhandle to my favorite coffee spot, and then whisked through the farmers’ market to pick up some gorgeous produce — all before 11 a.m! Later, I cooked myself a big dinner of quinoa with garlic, mushrooms, green beans, and chickpeas topped with a lemony tahnini sauce. I also made a milk chocolate pudding which I unfortunately cooked just a bit too long so the milk scorched slightly (rats! Still pretty good, though). I did up that wee pot of applesauce. And I finally made an apple cake I’d searched out after reading an article last month in the New York Times about Smith Island, Maryland.

[Peelings, October 2008.]

I have a sort of inexplicable fascination with the south. Perhaps I’ve read too much Ellen Gilchrist or have drunk too much bourbon, but I just have this feeling for it. Really this makes no sense because though I lived in Washington, DC, for the better part of a decade I only made it to Florida (once), West Virginia (once), and North Carolina (twice, though I ended up there again this April for a wedding, bringing the total visits to three; my favorite time there was a long August weekend in the Outer Banks where we swam in the warm, churning sea and watched lightening storms break far out over the water). Yet still, I am enamored.

I want to make buttermilked sweet potato biscuits (leaving off the ham but probably dousing them in honey and butter) this November, to eat in the cool early dark the night before Thanksgiving. I am dying to go to New Orleans and and drink chicory coffee and eat fried pastries and listen to jazz. I want to go back to the Outer Banks some day and drive down the long coast to a rambling, splintery old house filled with light and spare furnishings and hole up there for a week with books and friends and swim in the ocean every day. I am socking away funds against the day when I can finally go to Charleston and bury myself in the scent of spring flowers.

Now, Maryland is not really The South — certainly it’s not in the Deep South — strictly speaking, but thanks to wikipedia I’ve learned it’s “occasionally considered Southern” (whatever that means) and to me it always felt much more southern than not. And nowhere did it feel less like its northern relations than near the Chesapeake Bay.

Smith Island, pop. 240 (about 155 households), sounds like my kind of place. The only way to access the island is by ferry and there are few cars there; the Times piece describes it as “isolated. It’s a place to get away from it all — cellphone service is spotty — and savor life on the water” — which to a water baby like myself sounds just dreamy. Of course, I’ve never been there but simply through reading that article I was a bit smitten and knew I’d love to go someday. I’ve been through some of the little towns scattered along the great Bay in Maryland (and once even went to Assateague Island, where I discovered the ponies I’d read about during hot Northern California afternoons safely ensconced on the couch, fulfilling a girlish dream, though I didn’t realize when I was 8 years old that the mosquitoes were quite so … consistent) and there’s something special about them — perhaps it’s the same feeling I got when I was in Maine. I love this country’s small towns (I grew up in one, after all, though 7,000 residents is a lot more than 250); though I may currently live in a city, I’m definitely a country girl at heart.

Perhaps some day I’ll get to Havens Smith Island (and South Carolina, and Louisiana, and and and) — I truly hope so, though lately my travels to that part of the world seem to involve weddings and alas there is not too much time for exploring elsewhere. Luckily, however, I can take a little side trip or two all without leaving the comfort of my own San Francisco kitchen. All it takes is a little imagination.

Because I’m rarely content to just read an article and move on when I find something interesting, I did a search for Smith Island and came across the local website. I learned that because of overfishing in the Chesapeake (not to mention pollution) the islanders’ main source of income for generations — men oystering and crabbing, women shucking and preparing crabmeat for export to mid-Atlantic markets and restaurants — has been threatened; efforts now are turning to tourism to sustain the community. I also found a few recipes (one for a for sky-high cake composed of paper thinly-sliced layers filled with a sweet, fudgy chocolate icing which has recently attracted some media attention and thus is helping bring in tourists); one in particular that caught my eye was for an apple cake.

Now, I don’t know why exactly I was drawn to this cake: It’s fairly simple, made with the usual quantities of flour and sugar, with a little cinnamon and vanilla to deepen the flavor of the apples. I think probably because it seemed very fall-like, and we’re in the thick of apple season here in the Bay Area (and of course, I had all those apples to use up!), I thought I’d like to try it. And I thought of generations of women I’ve never met sifting ingredients together in their own kitchens in a place I may never see — and I knew I had to do the same. I’m fortunate enough to have a gang of office-mates who seem to like everything I bake and bring in — and it’s a good thing because this cake is no lightweight. Thick and heavy with good butter and eggs, lush with apples and vanilla, it’s a late-October dream. When I baked it Sunday night my apartment, already filled with delectable smells from the applesauce and the pesto (oh yeah, I made pesto, too), was elevated into something almost magical.

It’s true the other night I was in my little kitchen in a city on an entirely other coast and not on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake, but somehow, for the time it took to bake that cake, I could almost smell the salty water of that eastern bay. I swear I could hear water slapping gently against a sandy shore, could see the birds dive and splash as they fished for their dinners. I imagined myself in a clean-painted, white-walled house with a view of all that blue stretching as far as I could see — and then I sat down with a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and dug in.

Apple Cake, adapted from a Smith Island recipe

So I maybe should have followed the recipe exactly so the result would have been completely authentic, but I went against my own health-judgment and substituted butter instead of vegetable oil and upped the amount of vanilla (and I can’t regret it, either). The original recipe also calls for leaving the apples unpeeled but I decided to go with peeling them, just because. I think next time I might try it as-is, but I must admit I’m happy with the result, regardless.

4 large, peeled apples
cinnamon & sugar (2 tsp. cinnamon to 1 Tb. sugar)
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil (or one cup butter)
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
½ t. salt

½ cup orange juice
1 Tb. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a tube pan or a springform cake pan.

Peel, core and slice the apples. Put in a bowl and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl and add the eggs one at a time, beating well. Sift together dry ingredients and mix into batter. Add orange juice and vanilla. Pour a third of the batter into pan. Layer with one-half of the apples. Repeat for one more layer.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours until a tester comes out clean.

Join the Conversation

  1. Add Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina to your list — you’ll love the food, culture, arts, beach, FOOD, everything! Come on down for a visit, y’all ;)

  2. I am with you on the love for the South. I’ve never been there, but I can’t wait till I take a little road trip down there… It’s full of history and culture, life from years past. California is awesome, but I wish we had towns and landmarks that were around 2 hundred years ago.

  3. Oh, I so badly want to make sweet potato biscuits. And now, that cake. I think part of me is Southern though, like you, I have only a handful of experiences there.

  4. Sounds wonderful – a lovely fall dessert.

    You must add Savannah (my former home town) to your list – I assure you the cuisine offers more than just Paula Deen, and there are so many lovely nooks in the islands near the water. When I return, the humidity envelops me with a welcoming embrace, and the air is thick with nostalgia. It’s a great visit.

  5. “my favorite time there was a long August weekend in the Outer Banks where we swam in the warm, churning sea and watched lightening storms break far out over the water).”

    you and richard gere, huh?

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