How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be. -Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation)
If I was so bold as to call last week a doozy, I’m not really sure what word I can use to describe this past one. Tortuous comes to mind, but since I’m trying to curb my inclination towards the melodramatic, I’ll instead opt to say that it was incredibly long and as slow as Moses is often purported to be. It wouldn’t have been so bad really, had I not been asked to work on the rainiest and gloomiest Sunday we’ve had in some time. What had been promised to be a short three-hour day quickly turned into what was clearly going to be a nine-hour affair; in that moment, I saw my hopes of a semi-normal Sunday, i.e. marmalade making and reading on the couch, fade into oblivion.

To be fair, it was a matter of some urgency. We had a mediation brief due in Hawaii (in a remote location on the island of Maui that, if you can believe it, is called nothing other than Haiku) on Tuesday and, to get to tiny poetic Haiku, where mediators work only with paper and for such vast sums that they never need to leave their dreamlike lives and locations more than 5 or 6 times a year, the brief needed to be Fed-Exed by Monday afternoon. No matter that I valiantly offered to hand deliver it myself (surely more trustworthy than any mail service) at least twice! Since that escape was denied me, all that was left at my disposal–and really, all that I had any energy for most nights this week–was the sheer pleasure of coming home and watching YouTube videos of Nigel Slater making impossibly good-looking food in his kitchen and garden (Nigel asks, in an accent oozing with charm and good sense, “Why buy apples when you can pluck them from your own tree?” If only it were truly that simple). At moments like these, I realize that I’ve become one of those people–someone who fantasizes about manicured kitchens, rustic gardens with pluckable apples and, most importantly, enough time to effortlessly throw together deliciously offbeat meals on a nightly basis–but then I wonder if there’s really anything wrong with seeking the simple pleasures in life…? I can tell you that contemplating the ephemeral delight of poached pears is a lot more satisfying than wondering if you’re working for the good guys or the bad guys. Food, even if the most complicated recipe in the world or the slimiest piece of okra, is so much simpler than untangling the motivation, memories and moods of people.
This is why, at the end of a long and hard week or six-day stretch, I have to remind myself that, even when times get tough, I choose simple. Call it my slogan for the year or a new rule to live by, but it can’t get any better than this: no fuss or unnecessary negativity (minus the occasional public transportation rant). While I realize I sound like a yoga instructor, I think there’s value in both my words and the wisdom of yoga instructors; why complicate things and exhaust ourselves when it’s so much easier to embrace simplicity?

 This is why I like to bake, as well as why I will often reach for an apple and a jar of peanut butter for a snack. When I sit there with the spoon in my hand and can smell the overwhelming scent of peanuts mixing with the tart fruitiness of the apple, I recognize that I’m probably as close to nirvana as I’m ever going to get. But when I discovered that Ben Mims, a Southern baker with a serious sweet tooth, had taken my favorite snack and turned it into a tart, I realized two things: 1) sometimes it’s okay to complicate things, especially if buttery pastry is involved, and 2) I had to have his book because he and I clearly were in agreement about most things in life. When I put his book, Sweet and Southern, on the cookbook Christmas list that the Greek had asked me to prepare for him (he can’t keep track of my weekly obsessions; to that end, sometimes neither can I), I was really hoping that it would be the one he picked. Non-spoiler alert, my boyfriend, genius that he is, chose well. On Christmas Day, I pored over this book, dreaming about Southern layer cakes, Reversed Impossible Chocolate Flan, cantaloupe upside-down cake, Ambrosia pavlova and corn bread pudding. It’s an incredibly unique book, with creative takes on classics (from Key Lime Pie to île flottante) and with so many brilliant and fun recipes that it’s hard to know where to begin. Melissa Clark went with Reversed Impossible Chocolate Flan, which nearly convinced me that I should go that route too, but, for me, the choice was simple: apples and peanut butter were the only way forward. I was a goner as soon as I saw the words peanut frangipane; whereas frangipane, a pastry cream consisting of nuts, sugar, butter, eggs and flour, is usually made with almonds, Mims uses both peanuts and peanut butter to create a rich, nutty base on which the apples can rest.
I made this dessert in Pennsylvania for New Year’s Day dinner with my family and, given that we are peanut butter-eating people, it was a huge hit. There was only one naysayer amongst us, my aunt, who found the tart to be too rich. While I polished my piece off without blinking (in another life, I’m convinced I was southern), I will say that I’m not convinced that, given the combination of peanut butter and peanuts, two sticks of butter are really necessary in the filling. In fact, if the butter were to be cut down to a stick and a half, I don’t think anybody would notice the difference. Even one stick might suffice, but it could also be taking it too far; after all, if you’re baking from a southern baking book, don’t you have to give into its excesses? That said, Mims is all about cutting down on both sugar and fat where possible, but without sacrificing flavor. There is only one other improvement I could see being made to this tart: Mims has you cut the apples and mix them with lemon juice before pressing them into the frangipane base. It seemed to both my grandma and me that the apples might benefit from being tossed with sugar–Muscovado, light brown, granulated–which will help to caramelize them. Otherwise, this tart, which has become my favorite apple dessert of all time (no hyperbole), is nothing but sheer sweet and salty perfection. I recommend you make it and soon.

Peanut Butter-Apple Tart

Adapted slightly from Ben Mims’ Sweet and Southern
Yields one 11-inch tart (8-10 pieces)

For the pastry, you can use your favorite recipe, but just in case you want Ben’s, which, after a few pastry disasters, I’ve decided is as foolproof as he claims, here it is:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup ice water + more if needed

-Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a medium bowl, then add the butter. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour, pinching and rubbing the mixture until it forms small pebbles.
-Make a well in the mixture and pour the ice water into it.
-Using a fork, slowly incorporate the flour and butter mixture into the water, stirring from the outside. Keep flinging the flour and butter mixture into the center until evenly moistened. Add more water, one ice-cold teaspoon at a time, if necessary.
-Dump the dough onto a clean work surface and push and knead until it just begins to stick together.
-Form into a rough ball (some bits will be shaggy) and shape into a disk about 1″ thick. Smooth any cracks at the disk’s edges, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one hour or overnight (the dough can be frozen for up to one month).

For the tart:

 1 disk pastry dough
12 ounces roasted salted peanuts (2 1/3 cups)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (I used Jif; natural would be too oily)
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tart green apples
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar (your choice) for sprinkling on the apples

-Preheat the oven to 375 F.
-Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/4″ and press it into a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom (we used a 10-inch tart pan, which resulted in extra dough; so as to sample the tart before serving it, we lined a mini-tart pan with it and filled it with some extra frangipane and apples). Refrigerate until ready to use.

-Place the peanuts in a food processor and pulse until very finely ground.
-Add the flour, brown sugar, cubed butter, peanut butter, eggs, vanilla and salt, then process until a smooth paste forms.
-Transfer the frangipane to the chilled pastry shell and spread it evenly with a spatula or knife.
-Peel, core and chop the apples into small 1-inch cubes. Toss them with the lemon juice and sugar,  then arrange them evenly over the frangipane, gently pressing them into the surface.
-Place the tart in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden, the frangipane has thickened and the apples have caramelized.
-Let the tart cool completely before slicing into it. Know that your patience will be rewarded.

4 thoughts on “On Choosing Simple

  1. Aloha και πολλούς χαιρετισμούς from Hawaiʻi Island, the next exposed mountain peak over from Maui and the only one in the archipelago that’s still growing.

    First, I’m very sorry about the insane demands of your job. I hope you at least like your co-workers!

    Second, a correction regarding the town of Haʻikū, Maui: Its name is Hawaiian, not Japanese, and it’s pronounced HA-ee-KOO, with about equal stress on the first and third syllables. The word itself means either a sharp break, or to speak abruptly. As a place name, “Haʻikū” suggests something like “broken hills.”

    As for the mediators, they probably work only with paper because they can’t afford computers! The cost of living in Hawaiʻi (and especially on Oʻahu’s “neighbor islands”) makes the Bay Area seem like a bargain. Okay…maybe the Maui mediators have managed to cadge a few DOS-capable Compaqs via Craigslist, but surely they can’t scrape up the cash to go all fancy-tech with printers, scanners, or fax machines!

    Finally, let me take this de-lurking opportunity to say how much I enjoy your blog posts, which I’ve been reading for many years even though I’ve stuck fast to a vegan diet for decades and have no particular interest in cooking. I originally landed here because I’m a Russian lit fanatic, but I suppose I keep returning because I want to know how your story turns out. 🙂

    Feel free to visit our stunningly beautiful islands any time!

    P.S. Try bananas with a jar of peanut butter for another deliciously simple snack. (Also, please forgive me if you’ve received more than one copy of this comment. Blogspot seems to think I’m not logged in…or something.)

  2. Anna, hello and και πολλούς χαιρετισμούς! Thank you so much for your comment and for setting me straight regarding the pronunciation of Haiku; I love fun facts like this and, let me also just say that, the place being actually called Haiku (as in the poetic form) seemed too good to be true. And alas, such was the case! 🙂 Thank you also for reminding me that the Bay Area isn't as ridiculously expensive as it can get; somehow, I think it makes more sense to pay for the beauty of Hawaii than the fog of San Francisco, but perhaps that's just my feeling on yet another gloomy, grey day.

    I would be happy to visit your stunning islands any time; by the way, I'm very curious about *your* story; it seems you're a Greek who ended up in Hawaii? Was it your inner attraction to islands that led you there?

    I like that I've become a character for you; I am often aware that I've turned myself into a character starring in my very own life story. The wonderfulness and weirdness of blogs! 🙂

    As for bananas and peanut butter, thanks for reminding me that there's an alternative to apples (they're fast becoming mealy); I've been a fan of ants on a log (chocolate chips instead of raisins, please) for years!

    Best wishes!

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