The first time I made cookies on my own (peanut butter, at age 8), I knew I wanted to keep baking. I just had to figure out how. Neither of my parents baked, so we didn’t have a mixer or cookbooks or cake pans. My only guide was one of my favorite aunts, who seemed to have a tin of blueberry muffins, crackly, tender and steaming, in her oven-mitted hands every morning we visited.
During one trip, I stood next to her as she cracked eggs and poured sugar into a bowl, all without measuring. She scooped a handful of flour and mixed, and maybe sprinkled in a bit more. When I asked how much she had added, she said, “Oh, just the right amount.”
As she slowed her batter-beating, I asked why. She replied, “Because it’s almost ready.” My aunt’s style of baking by feeling became my goal. Now, when I cook for family and friends, what drives me is the desire to nourish when all is well, to comfort when things fall apart, and to offer hope and joy when everything that rises starts to converge.
That means keeping dishes simple, but simple doesn’t mean boring. Sometimes, the most delicious form of a dish comes from stripping away excess and fine-tuning the balance. Ease can mean streamlining the steps that require time better spent with those you’re feeding. It’s also about swapping finicky techniques for flexible fail-safe ones.
Baking is often presented as an intimidating science: If precise steps aren’t followed, then an inedible disaster will occur. There’s also an assumption that you need a stand mixer. But it’s not necessarily the best tool for learning the art of baking.
Skipping the mixer and working by hand allows you to experience the tactile joys of the process. You want a mixer to whip a dozen egg whites into clouds, but, to smash a high proportion of butter into flour, you want to use your fingers.
Think shortbread. Press it into a tin, and you have a tart crust. Break it into crumbles, throw in nuts and oats, and you get the cookie-meets-granola topping of apple crisp. Squeezing dry ingredients into butter allows you to experience how flour meets fat, to learn how to stop as soon as you feel everything form a sandy, putty-soft dough.
This warm dessert can quickly satisfy sweet tooth cravings, especially if you forgo peeling the apples, which adds a nice chewiness to the crunchy toasted topping and juicy, saucy apples. Choose a variety of apples, then adjust the amounts of sugar and lemon juice to strike the right tangy balance for the filling. Or customize your crisp by using your favorite spices and nuts. This dessert tastes particularly comforting hot out of the oven, with the caramelized apple juices bubbling around the nutty cookie-like clusters, but it’s just as good cold for breakfast the next day.
Ingredients for topping:
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg, or combination
• 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
• 1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
• 1 cup pecans or walnuts, or combination, chopped
Ingredients for apples:
• 1-4 tablespoons sugar
• 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg, or combination
• 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 3 pounds apples, preferably firm, mix of tart and sweet-tart (8-10 apples)
• 1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Make the topping: Rub together the flour, both sugars, the spice and salt in a medium bowl.
Toss in the butter and nuts to coat, then pinch the butter into the dry ingredients until no floury bits remain.
Add the oats, and gently rake and squeeze them through the buttery mixture to form peanut-size crumbles. Freeze while you prepare the apples. The crumb mixture can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Prepare the apples: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon sugar for all sweet apples; 2-3 tablespoons for sweet-tart apples or a mix; and 4 tablespoons for all tart apples.
Mix the sugar with the flour, spice and salt in a 10-inch cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet.
If you’d like, peel the apples. Cut into 1/2-inch chunks, discarding the seeds and cores. Add to the skillet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon lemon juice for tart apples and 2 tablespoons for sweet-tart and sweet ones.
Mix until evenly coated, then spread in an even layer. Crumble the frozen crisp mixture on top. (There will be gaps.)
Bake until the topping is golden brown, and the apples are tender and bubbling, 45-50 minutes. Cool for at least 15 minutes on a rack before serving hot, warm or at room temperature.
Total time: 1 1/4 hours, serves 6-8.