I pulled up to the orchard, and my nerves were trembling most pleasant, my spine shivering. It was a long drive by myself to get there, a long drive past the Ocoee River spent exploring my own winding, narrow back roads, places not a little treacherous, tiny white crosses dotting the shoulder. I listened to glitter & entropy on the radio, living, for a moment, in a strange glow. I felt great love for the tiny lavender flowers and golden rod bending out of the rocks on my left, the river rushing to placid rushing to placid on my right. It was all me, and I was all it. I was rushing placid rushing and deeply occupied with traversing my own lascivious landscapes while I traversed the literal landscape. These are the things we do alone, and I love to wander in familiar, damp underground tunnels, lost in my favorite stories to tell myself. My face gets warm, every nerve in my body lights up, and I feel a lash of energy whip through me. I like driving alone. Especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains when the end game is fruit. The fruit. Apples. Apples for pies, for apple butter, for crunching, for chicken & pork. And for salty caramel dumplings, mostly.
When I drive alone, I don’t like to stop. I always think I might just drive right into a different life, a new dimension of the scintillating multiverse. A whole other planet. It’s a feeling that’s always with me, a whisper I live with. The universe saw fit to give me a house on a precipice to live in. It’s beautiful here. And I won’t jump or fall today, not that I think there’s a difference between the two. Not today. Today the river, the flowering rocks, the smoky ridge, and all the spoils of orchards keep me.
So I do stop. At Mercier Orchard. And I go about living normally, wholly & wholesome. I pull into the lot and as soon as I open the car door the smell of fried pies hits me, all butter and fruit and spice. You can taste it. And I’m glad to be a real girl in a living world
I made my way past the pond, the sun just starting to set over the orchard. Children ran, parents bickered, and everyone walked to their cars with great bags of apples, of barely blushed Cameos, the pink of their skin streaking into yellow. Of brown speckled Golden Delicious and proud Fujis and everything so ripe. I caught the last tractor into the orchard and wandered from the hill down into the valley, lost and alone in the trees and dust, fallen apples scattered and littering the ground, half rotting. Being alone in the trees was so good, those nerves could really bounce around out there. I had room to be a hot ball of light for a moment before it all got sucked back in to my ribcage. I picked an apple and ate it, juice running down my fingers. I licked it from the inside of my wrist, feeling full and flush and so ripe on the bough. Easy picking.
I filled my bag with Cameos and only Cameos. They’re full, firm, and tart. Good for baking. Good for baking whole wrapped in that flaky pastry crust of Thomas Keller’s I always use, changing the liquid and fat and method here or there, but always keeping the ratio the same. Because it never lets me down and is oh so easy. So tender. In between concupiscent reveries born, perhaps, of some archetypal orchard (I saw no snakes), I dreamt up ways to cook forbidden fruit. There’d be hazelnuts and dried cherries because they’re special. Smoky, salty caramel. Sugar and spice. Stuff I’m made out of. Right. And a big dollop of my homemade ginger crème fraiche. Lightly whipped. D’accord.
Make pastry crust. In a medium bowl combine flour, salt, and sugar.
Using your fingers cut in the butter until no pieces larger than a pea remain. This takes minute. Just get it nice and mealy with no big chunks of butter.
Pour in the buttermilk, stir with a wooden spoon just until it comes together.
Form dough into two discs, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 45 minutes.
Make caramel. Melt 1 cup of sugar over medium low heat. Don't stir the sugar, just let it melt, occassionally pushing on it with the back of a spoon to help the sugar on top get to the bottom. As it gets more melted you can stir it a bit to help get all the chunks out.
When the sugar is melted and nice and caramel colored, whisk in the butter one tablespoon at a time. It will bubble vigorously, so be careful.
Once all the butter is incorporated add the salt and vanilla.
Remove caramel from heat and slowly, slowly whisk in the heavy cream. It will bubble even more vigorously than the butter.
Return pot to heat and bring to a simmer. Cook until it reaches 230°F on a candy thermometer or alternately just cook it at the simmer for about a minute. Strain into a bowl or jar and allow to cool.
Heat oven to 450°F.
Now to assemble the apples. In a bowl combine the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and clove.
Peel the apples and rub them with lemon to keep them from turning brown. Cut about 1/4" off the bottom so they sit flat, and then core them with a melon baller, creating a nice little cavity for filling.
Mix the chopped hazelnuts and dried cherries in a bowl and stir in 5 tablespoons of your caramel sauce. There will be caramel sauce left over. Oh no! Oh wait. That's ok.
Roll the apples to coat the outside in your spiced sugar, and then fill them with the caramel, dried cherry, and hazelnut mixture. Reserve unused sugar & spice for sprinkling on top.
Roll out your crust on a well floured surface to about 1/8" thick, rotating it to keep it from/make sure it's not sticking. Cut approximately 5x5" squared of dough out for each of the 6 apples, rerolling if needed to get all the squares. Reserve the scraps for patching holes and making crafty little leaves and what not.
Pull the corners of each square up around the apple and then bring up the folds and smoosh. Think of it as playdough that you're molding around the apple. Try to get it as covered as you can with the square, and then patch as needed with the scraps. Don't worry too much about the hole on top, you're going to put crafty little leaves on that, remember?
Once all your apples are happily wrapped in pastry dough & topped with whatever shaped or scraps you like, brush the tops lightly with heavy cream and sprinkle with some of the reserved sugar & spice.
Bake apples 10 minutes at 450°F, and then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake an additional 30 minutes until cooked through.
Top with lightly whipped homemade ginger crème fraîche & additional caramel sauce.
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