31 January 2013

Hundreds of them

I'm twenty-eight and so far I've given a ton of thought to the matter of what foodstuff I just wouldn't feel comfortable without. I wouldn't align such meditation with the ubiquitous desert island or doomsday scenarios, no. It's more of a benign pondering about a bite of what I, a serious and devoted eater, would be happy to have on any given day, come what may. In general terms, I can't do without fruit. But: there is fruit and then there is fruit, by which I mean there is fruit and there are...apples. One, two, three apples a day -- that's for me. Of course, of course I wouldn't collapse on the floor in tears if there is none, oh no, I wouldn't, especially if there are slurpy, oil-coated fried noodles around, or spicy chana punjabi, or cake, yes.  Yet, should one thing be stripped off my plate for good, please, for fruit's sake, may it not be apples.

But look, don't think I'm so noble. My views don't stand unwavered. Every summer I run away with the circus of fresh berries and stone fruits thoroughly trimming my old allegiances to the bone. It surely is joy to frolic in the sun with the summer's ruby-cheeked and gentle offsprings, and it would make me such a big liar to say I would never not do it -- I'm not so prudent (who is?). But even then, ask me what my all-time favorite is, and apples I'll say. But wait, it's not because I'm so healthy either. I don't find it outrageous at all to start my day with a slab of one cake and to finish with another. Not to take away from the nutritional value of cake, but you know what I mean.

My fondness for apples -- beyond their crunch, and the way their skin splits open under my teeth, and their sweet and tart flesh, and how they quench my thirst  -- may have something to do with longing. Ivan Bunin wrote about such kind of longing in his Antonov Apples. I was fifteen to read the story for the first time. I didn't pick up much on Bunin's nostalgia for the times of land-owners and their peasants, but I did smell from the pages that honey and befallen leaves and ripe apples in the thinning autumnal Russian countryside, and that longing of his, not the ideological kind but the physical pulling in the gut, was somehow -- through the obsolete words, and the barking of a stray dog below my windows, and the air around me heavy with the smoke and the scent of decaying leaves -- also mine. Mine, because I, too, longed.

There had been a year earlier when my grandparents' apple trees bore the unexpected bounty of late harvest fruit, and so a lot of it was stored in wooden crates for winter. My cousins and I got a couple of crates each. Every day while my fruit stash lasted I popped out onto my parents' balcony where the crates sat to pick up a few apples, each not larger than a tennis ball, in the morning and a few at night. Those that hadn't yet become wizened and started to smell of a cheap cider were as crisp as air on clear and frosty days and had a vague scent of tea roses. I devoured hundreds of them, already reaching for the next while only a few bites into the first. As if I knew that I should -- what if next year the apple trees wouldn't bear fruit at all, or the year after my grandparents would sell their dacha. As if devouring those apples meant to devour the barking of a dog at dawn, the cotton fog lifting slowly off the ground, the image of my grandfather trying to knock the fruit off the brunches with his cane, the soft and quiet sun...

I don't mean to say that every apple I hold now sends me down memory lane and into that place where a continuous anticipation for, and apprehension of, the moments to come competes with a constant longing for the moments that passed. That would be overwhelming. But eating an untoward amount of apples appeared to be somewhat habit-forming for me -- I'm glad things didn't go down the aversion road -- which is fine with me seeing my predilection for cake three times, or more, a day (see above).

Apple and Spelt Muffins
Yield: 12 muffins

These are my favorite muffins. To communicate how much I like them, let me tell you this: if nobody ever invented cake (again, see above), I would never complain to spend the rest of my life with only these muffins around. That's how much.

A few years ago I teamed up with a food photographer to do a project together. We brainstormed and agreed to play around spelt, now that it's reliving its former glory here in Holland. My task was to develop a number of recipes utilizing the grain in its various forms, and I wouldn't be myself, you understand, if I didn't do something with apples. The project didn't sell, but it was a good experience for me anyway. Last week I unearthed this one recipe and tinkered with it some more, and whoa, fully loaded with spelt flour, apples (!), spices, citrus, and oats, these muffins, nutty, and wholesome, and fragrant, and moreish, knocked me off my feet.

Often baked goods with spelt flour have a dry reputation, and I had a fear that completely foregoing conventional wheat flour this time around could put my muffins at great risk, but I shouldn't have worried so much. A few tweaks here and there -- largely, pairing baking powder with baking soda and using vegetable oil in place of butter -- and these little darlings revealed the interior that's tender and moist, and most importantly, it stays so. If you let it to, that is. 
I noticed at my health food store that spelt flour comes in two forms: refined and whole-grain. So you know, for this recipe I used the refined type.

Ok, let's do it.

260 g (9 oz) spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
60 g (2 oz) rolled oats
1/4 teaspoon table salt
130 g (4.5 oz) sugar
zest of 1 medium lemon
zest of 1 lime
2 large eggs
80 ml (1/3 cup) buttermilk
80 ml  (1/3 cup) non-fragrant vegetable oil
300 g (10 oz) peeled and coarsely grated apples (from about 2 1/2 medium apples, such as Elstar)

Warm the oven to 180 C (350 F) and oil a 12-pocket muffin tin.

Sieve together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. In a blender or a clean coffee grinder, coarsely grate the oats. Add to the flour, along with the salt, and mix well.

In a separate mixing bowl, rub the citrus zest into the sugar. Break in the eggs and beat on high speed for two minutes. Mix in the buttermilk and oil.

Incorporate the flour mixture into the egg and sugar mixture. The lot will appear to be somewhat dry, but fear not. Fold in the apples; their juices will bring in more moisture.

Scoop the batter into the muffin tin, a good 1/4 cup per pocket. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the muffins look nice and dark-golden brown. Let cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then twist each one out and remove on a wire rack to cool completely. Stored in an airtight container, these muffins keep well for up to two days, but they are at their best a couple hours after baking. (Storage tip: to prevent the muffin tops from getting 'sweaty' from the emanating moisture, place a piece of paper towel together with the muffins in the container.)