I wasn’t going to write about my little weekend adventure into historical cooking, but then I caught this post which, in addition to being very moving in its broader terms, included a kicker towards the end: “I sometimes worry that commoditized simplicity will become fetish, and ultimately an over-stressed trend.” Ah, yes, that back-to-basics lifestyle showcased so perfectly on many a Pinterest board transformed into a danger all its own? I took her point.
Here I’ll offer a flip side to the situation, however. Ever since devouring Della Lutes’s The Country Kitchen (Little, Brown, and Company, 1936) during a road trip last summer, I’ve meant to go back and actually try to cook some of the classically imprecise recipes sprinkled throughout the text (though Lutes does go the extra mile in trying to help the reader get a handle on how things were done if classic biscuit ratios aren’t already ingrained). It was the current chill that finally got this project accomplished, however, and in the end I settled on making the Apple Dowdy: “not a dumpling, a pudding or a pie–deep-dish or otherwise. It is just a dowdy–sort of common, homely, gingham-like, but it has character.”
Now, as I have likely mentioned before, I hate to measure. Reading and then correctly following instructions goes against my genetic makeup. As a result, baking often terrifies me. But in this recipe, I felt a permission to follow instinct that your typical, weighed out in grams baking situation doesn’t encourage. Portions where emotional (“with generous judgment”) and relaxed (“a slight scattering”). Plus, with a suggested cook time of 3 hours (!!) there would be none of this “at 18 minutes it’s baked through, at 20 minutes it’s burned” stress. I exaggerate, but you’ve been there, right?
Not having a “deep earthen pudding dish” on hand, I used a ceramic pie plate. This turned out to be too large, requiring that I roll my dough thinner than the indicated 3/4 inch and, as a result, reducing my baking time to 2 hours. I suppose I could have tented it with foil to prevent over-browning, but it smelled so good that I could wait no longer. I’ll try and follow the directions more carefully next time, but served warm out of the oven with a splash of cream, this dowdy was straightforwardly delicious. I hesitate to get into any additional cliches of “classically simple” and “old world,” but maybe because its construction was so basic (pantry staples!), its assembly so laid back (15 minutes, inspiration to oven!), it was a truly fine and satisfying way to warm up the house and the spirit on a cold winter’s afternoon.
Aunt Hanner’s Apple Dowdy
for the filling
4 or 5 medium apples, tart and firm, peeled and quartered (I used an apple slicer/corer and so ended up with 8 slices per apple)
brown sugar (sprinkle enough to suit your apples)
nutmeg (“a slight scattering”)
cinnamon (“a little less”)
butter (“with generous judgment,” about a teaspoon per serving)
1/2 cup warm water
for the crust
1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk
Heat oven to 325°F.
Fill your baking dish with prepared apples and scatter sugar, spices, and butter over top. Pour in water at the side.
In a medium bowl whisk flour, baking powder, and salt, and cut in butter. Add milk and stir just until dough comes together. Roll out on a floured counter until about 3/4-inch thick and just large enough to cover apples. Fit and crimp down over top and slash top to vent.
Bake for three hours, watching to make sure crust does not over-brown. Serve warm straight from the oven with a splash of cream and extra sugar if desired.