Sometimes the best hidden treasures are the ones that I hide from myself. While it might be fun, in theory, to stumble upon a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or, say, a wooden chest with a pirate’s cache of jewels and coins, there is a special satisfaction reserved for the finds that are familiar—the old, forgotten-about something that resurfaces, resplendent, when I least expect it.
Take, for example, that tube of Chanel “Vamp” lipstick, ten years old but barely used, unearthed last week from an early grave beside my bathroom sink. A color somewhere between blood and black, it made me feel daring and dangerous at seventeen, and at twenty-seven, dangerously nostalgic. Then there’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a plain white paperback with a title scrawled in color and a coming-of-age hero—a novel I read at age sixteen, then wedged on the shelf between Wise Blood and Beloved and nearly forgot until last December, when I found it again and devoured it whole for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then, of course, there’s dessert: a slip of paper that fell not long ago from the dark, forgotten recesses of my recipe file, a sketch of ingredients for applesauce with a crunchy meringue cap.
Like a few other notable food finds, this one comes from the table of my host family in France. On the occasional lazy evening, my host mother would open a bottle of applesauce, set her beaters to a bowl of egg whites, and, in doing so, make her children very happy. She would spread the applesauce into a baking dish; smooth it with a sweet, pearly layer of meringue; and slide the whole snowy mess into the oven until its top was crisp and laced with fissures and fault lines. It cracked under the spoon like crème brulée, a crunch giving way to silken and soft.
One night, after a bowlful or two, I jotted the concept on a piece of paper, folded it up for safekeeping, and promptly forgot about it.
But six years later and five thousand miles away, it fell into my lap—as all the best things do—when I was looking for something else. And once flushed from hiding, it crawled free from the bars of its Clairefontaine paper and onto my kitchen counter. With a nod of gratitude to the recipe’s Gallic origins, I politely swapped the store-bought sauce for my own homemade stuff, a simple, softly tart mash of apples with a smoothing, softening slip of vanilla. Tucked beneath a blanket of meringue and sent away for a good, long bake, it came back sweet and sour, satiny inside and shatteringly crisp on top, at once old and new, a little retro, rustic-chic. Something tells me that I might have to hide it from myself, just for safety’s sake.
Vanilla Applesauce with a Crunchy Meringue Cap
Store-bought is alright, but by my watch, the time has come for a revival of good, old-fashioned, homemade applesauce. Not only is it remarkably easy and quick to make, but it has a lively, full-mouthed flavor that the vacuum-sealed stuff—even organic brands—can never match. And with a cap of sweet meringue and a couple of hours in the oven, it makes for a surprisingly sophisticated dessert. Should there be any leftovers, seal them airtight and tuck them into the refrigerator: although the meringue will soften to a more spongy texture, it still tastes delicious for a day or so.
3 pounds apples, preferably a mixture of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick slices
½ cup good-quality apple juice or cider
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
Scant ½ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup egg whites (about 4 large whites)
A pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine the apples, apple juice, and lemon juice. Cover the pan, place it over low heat, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, until the apples are tender and beginning to fall apart, about 20 minutes. Stir in the sugar, and cook until it dissolves, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat, and using an immersion blender, puree the mixture to a smooth sauce. Stir in the vanilla extract; then set the applesauce aside while you prepare the meringue.
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment—or, alternatively, a medium mixing bowl. Add the salt. Beat the egg whites at medium speed until they are opaque and loosely foamy. Increase the mixer speed to high, and add the sugar in a very slow, very gradual stream; do not rush. Beat until the meringue is glossy and bright white and holds very silky peaks.
Spoon and scrape the applesauce into a baking dish or several individual-size baking dishes; I like to use a 2-quart Pyrex bowl or about 10 ½-cup ramekins. [You may have a tad bit of meringue left over.] Using a rubber spatula, scoop the meringue on top of the applesauce, and gently coax it evenly to the edges of the dish. Slide the dish or dishes into the oven, and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, or until the meringue is firm and feels crisp and dry to the touch. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: The applesauce can be made up to three days before finishing with the meringue.
Yield: 6-8 servings