Apples are a fundamental part of the New York food experience. Not just New York City--“The Big Apple”--but the entire state. I would argue New York State more so than the City. Every fall there’s apple picking, apple festivals--with pies and cakes and ice creams and every dish imaginable made from apples. We preserve apple sauces, apple butters, and apple chutneys. We make pies and cakes and crisps. Apples, to me, mean home.
I’ve written before about how I remember the smell of my mother baking apple crisp and think of home. But apple crisp also remind me of Connie, my former boss. My old school had an active “Sunshine Committee”. They organized happy hours and holiday parties. They organized staff lunches for PD days. Most importantly, they organized birthdays.
The rule for birthday celebrations was that you set up the birthday celebration for the person whose birthday was immediately following yours, so for most of my time at that school, I set up Connie’s birthday celebration. Being a fellow Libra, she was equally indecisive, but eventually I learned that she loved apple crisp, and I started making it for her for her birthday. I would make the apple crisp the night before and lug it into school. Dragging it to the J train, then, arms aching, walk up through the Lower East Side to the school--it was a labor of love.
Two weeks ago, Connie passed away after a long battle with cancer. Like with most long illnesses, all of us, including her, have had time to prepare for this, but it doesn’t really make it easy. I can honestly say, this world is better because she was in it, and I am better for having known her. She devoted her life to teaching the young women in one of the poorest parts of Manhattan (which in recent years, has also become one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Manhattan). She and another woman began a school for middle school girls, taking a rat-infested building that had been closed by the Archdiocese, living in it and teaching in it, and transforming the building into the warm, friendly, loving place where I had the honor of working for four years. A place that is still a part of my soul, even though I had to move on to new opportunities. She knew it was, too. Once she told me: “You’re a lifer, like me. You love this place--it’s gotten inside you. I can see it.” She was right.
When people have been talking about her for the past few weeks, they’ve talked about her like an angel--and she was. But I also want to remember her as a person. One who prayed with me when my stepfather had a stroke; one who looked at me with eyes full of hurt when I told her I had to move on to a new job. A violinist. A teacher. A friend. A wine lover. An apple-based dessert lover. And, as trite as it is to say, an inspiration.
She is all of those things, but when I remember Connie, I choose to remember her at a bar in St. Louis during a conference. At one of the times when she made me laugh. The development director and I had had a couple too many and were discussing very animatedly the virtues of going and making a lot of money before working with low-income girls. The conclusion we came to is that we were chumps (a word one only uses after several beers or if you’re the guys on Car Talk)--if we had made a lot money first we would have gotten some sort of award from Oprah.
We really should have made lots of money first.
Connie was by the bar.
“Oh. Look. Connie’s talking to Brother Leonard.”
“Brother Leonard?” I asked.
“He runs one of the other schools. He’s not a ‘brother’ anymore, but everyone still calls him that. Connie has a huge crush on him.”
“Look. He’s buying her a drink.” We giggle like school girls. Just then, Connie turns, looks at us, fans herself with her hand while Former-Brother Leonard is talking to the bartender. She mouths the words: “So hot.”
Heather and I laugh so hard we almost fall out of our chairs.
Yes, every saintly adjective you hear used to describe Connie is true, but she was also funny and human. She was inspiring on so many levels. And in her honor, I baked an apple cake. Fellow Libra, fellow apple-lover. This one is for you.
Adapted from Tart & Sweet
A couple of recipe notes: the original calls for whole wheat pastry flour, I used a blend of apf and whole wheat instead. It also calls for peeled, chopped apples. I didn’t peel mine, because that’s just how I roll. I also made some adjustments to to the cooking time and temperature. I found the cake was taking a LONG time to set, (after an hour and ten minutes of baking the center was still liquidy), so I raised the temperature to 350. It was set about 10 minute after I did that. I’m not sure how this actually translates to baking temperatures and times, so I’m leaving those unchanged. The recipe does reflect my ingredient substitutions.
1 ½ c unbleached apf
1 ½ c whole wheat flour
1 t kosher salt
1 t baking soda
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground cloves
¼ t ground ginger
¼ t ground nutmeg
1 ¼ c neutral flavored oil
2 c sugar
3 large eggs
1 c apple butter
2 apples, cored and chopped
Dermerara or other coarse sugar
Preheat the oven to 325. Butter and flour a 9” round cake pan (I used a springform pan).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together the oil and sugar. Add the eggs, one at time, mixing well after each additions.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet, ⅓ at a time, stirring after each addition. Keep mixing until the batter is smooth and all of the dry ingredients have been incorporated. Fold in the apple butter and the apples.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, scraping in any bits that remain. Sprinkle the top with coarse sugar. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes (see notes), or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool completely before removing from the pan.
Makes one 9” cake