After my family recently picked twenty pounds of Jonamacs and Empires at a local orchard I suffered from visions of a culinary future dominated by apples, soon followed by early-onset fruit fatigue. This condition is commonly associated with the humble, horrible apple: probably the boringest fruit there is (I dare you to name one that’s more dreary), yet, curiously, the one with the worst reputation, a key prop in the biblical tale of original sin. I have a suspicion that the translator for the King James Bible identified the Hebrew “forbidden fruit” after being served one too many apple scones in late October. Had the first English-language Bible been translated in Wisconsin, you can bet we’d read that the serpent lured Eve into snatching a squash; this would support my contention that there is a direct connection between the Fall of Man and zucchini bread.
To be fair, my malaise was not just the apple’s fault; it’s what we tend to do with the apple, especially when there are loads of them: drown them in gooey syrup, crowd them with globs of batter or oats, suffocate them with cinnamon and bake them to within an inch of their lives. What comes out is soupy oatmeal or dry biscuits swimming among smushy apple slices. You know what that is? Breakfast. But we call it “Crisp” or “Cobbler” and pass it off as dessert.
As shameful as calling these foods “dessert” is the fact that they are distant relatives of more substantial and admirable recipes, dumbed down to suit the unambitious cook. Desiring a better fate for my apples I undertook a quest for apple dessert nirvana. And where did it lead me? Where culinary aspirations so often do: Julia. If anyone can do something with an apple that was really worth doing, it was Julia Child, and there is no surer guide than she to haul the home chef up the mountain of French cuisine.
Of the seven recipes for apple desserts in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the one that presented itself as the obvious choice was Pouding Alsacien, which looks like the ultimate source for Apple Crisp: a dish of sautéed apples given the gratin treatment (something layered and topped with crusty stuff—the definition of gratin, which I only mention in case you, like me, grew up thinking au gratin meant “from a box with cheese powder”). I’m not going to isolate the recipe here like some sad culinary orphan; if you want it, reference page 626 of The Book, where it is happily included within a broad discussion of the fruit dessert family.
The Gratin takes more effort, and a bit more time, than the Crisp. By my clock, it was fifty-one minutes from the time I picked up the peeler to the moment I was sliding the dish into the oven. And note, I can do up to three things at once (like: browning the apples, preparing the sauce and separating eggs) (actually four, if you include my simultaneous efforts to keep a child from harassing a pit bull with a cello bow). At least half that time was dedicated just to prepping the apples, which you have to do for a Crisp as well as the Gratin, so really it’s not that much longer to pull off the French dish. To complete Julia’s recipe I also made a pretty big mess of the cutting board, a skillet, the baking dish, a saucepan and two bowls for beating different ingredients based around the separated eggs. But it was so worth it.
Like any classical French dish, this one builds up layers of flavor. The apples are browned in butter and then folded with rum and plum jam (which seems like a cheat, but I’m not one to argue technique with Julia). Eggs are separated, the yolk mixed with sugar and wheat breadcrumbs and later the whipped whites, which increases the body and overall taste of the gratin crust. Once it’s out of the oven, you’re advised to let it sit for a day and let the flavors blend. Sacrebleu! It was worth the wait. The top of the Gratin is less sweet, and more cakey-bready than a Crisp. It complements the flavor of the apples, which are much better off for all the steps it took to get them into the dish. Overall it’s more complex, more sophisticated and more grown-up than the Crisp. The Crisp never really brings together the different parts of the dish: the flavor of apple, cinnamon and oats remain distinct. The Gratin is a whole new comprehensive and cohesive event of deliciousness in the arena of your mouth.
My family did not gush over the Gratin as much as I did, and admitted they would be as happy with the standard Crisp; but then again, each of the members of my family has the palette of a grade-schooler (which is age-appropriate for two-thirds of them). But for me, I say merci, Madame Gourmand, for once again leading the way to a marvelous treat, time well spent, and a great way to make use of all those apples. Until we meet again over the next culinary challenge, au revoir.