Fight or Flight (featuring Pink Lady Apple and Browned Butter Tart)
Last August, as Francis and I relaxed next to our washing machine drum firepit, Amelia, our lab/schnauzer mix, ran triumphant loops around our small backyard.
“You meddlesome mutt! You chaotic canine!” I teased as I encouragingly clapped my palms on my lap.
Thrilled to be noticed, her eyes flared wild and alive. She stopped quickly, butt in the air, paws spread wide, ready to bound into another lap. I roared with laughter and Francis left the fire’s side to egg her on.
“Meals, oh Meals!” he cheered (that’s our nickname for her).
All lights green for turmoil, she howled and doubled back into our yard with the lightning speed of freedom. Playfully avoiding us, she ran into our tiny tool shed next to the house and wiggled something free from the hashtag of firewood. She often stole pieces of kindling to gnaw on so I wasn’t worried until I saw something soft and orange.
“What is that?”
“It looks like a sponge,” said Francis, who suddenly remembered that the tools he’d used to stain some wood a year before were still in the shed. “Amelia, come here!!!” which, of course, only emboldened her to run to the far side of the yard.
I was confused. I didn’t much care if she gnawed on a sponge. She’s been known to eat things on walks that… well… that aren’t things you’d encourage someone you love to put in their mouth.
“I used those sponges with a water-based wood stain. I’m pretty sure they’re clean, but I don’t want her to eat them!”
My inner monster of maternity, suddenly enlisted and empowered, yelled louder than thunder, “GIVE ME THAT SPONGE, NOW!!!”
Amelia stopped short when she heard my tone, dropping the sponge and waiting for further instruction. She’s a good girl.
Francis took the sponge and smelled it.
“I think it’s fine. It doesn’t smell like anything.”
I grabbed it and inhaled deeply. Nothing. I squeezed it. I put it against my cheek. I sniffed it again and almost bit into it. It’s true, it didn’t smell like anything but a sponge. It was dry and seemingly innocuous.
“So what do we do? Go to the hospital? Go get her stomach pumped or something?” I felt like I was shouting down a long hall though we were outside.
“Let’s see what happens.” Francis was calm sounding, but his eyes gave some fear away.
Amelia looked at me and then at Francis—panting, grinning, wagging, confused by the sudden mood shift.
We waited and waited… for something to happen, something that my desperate-to-find-the-worst-disaster-possible imagination thrives on. I lingered in that powerless space, like a piece of cut fruit encased in a non-recyclable plastic clamshell. Not fight or flight, just airless, uncertain waiting.
And then, maybe 30 minutes later, my feet took me into the kitchen and my arm opened the freezer. My fingers grabbed a spoon and suddenly my hand was thrusting scoops of Ben and Jerry’s Whirled Peace ice cream into my dry mouth.
It helped. The act of filling my cavernous hole of doom with food sure felt good. Amelia sat at my feet, not having seizures or fits of toxicity. She softened her eyes, knitted her brow, and tilted her head in the, “I’m pretty sure I’m starving to death™” canine tradition. She wanted some ice cream, too.
I was reminded of that day when I saw the attack on Ukraine begin. A powerless pajama-clad couch zombie, impotent within my privilege, I walked into the kitchen, methodically separated eggs, measured ingredients, and baked a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. A half-hour later I sloppily frosted the hot cake by the dim light of our range hood (you NEVER frost a cake right out of the oven because the heat from the pastry melts the frosting and it becomes a big mess. I was already a big mess so I didn’t care at all). I ate that cake while I tried to process the news of the world we live in, powerless over everything but my caloric intake.
This story isn’t about me. It’s about all of us. It’s about the thin wire of stability that we’re balancing on every single day. Of course, it’s nothing like the true flight or fight call to action the brave citizens of Ukraine are experiencing. It’s a call to your worst-case-scenario fantasy play.
I’m lucky because I chose to do the task that calms me down for a living. Cooking is my therapy, my mediation, my zombie walk, my way to fill the holes. And then I get to share the results of my therapeutic actions with others. I know how special that is.
I’m not going to misappropriate Ukrainian recipes to share, but instead, recommend that you find a local Ukrainian restaurant to support. Taste their food, listen to their stories. Or buy a Ukrainian cookbook (here’s one being sold directly from my favorite Ukrainian restaurant, Veselka, https://www.veselka.com/store/product/cookbook/. I’m both happy and sad to report it’s out of stock currently. PS, it is my recommendation that you buy the book from Veselka.com directly, not from Amazon, even though you might have to wait for them to restock.
I was thinking I’d share the recipe I used for the yellow trauma cake that I made last week, which is a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. But here’s the thing… I didn’t follow it very closely. I have 6-inch cake pans to make half cakes so I halved the recipe… kinda. I used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour (cake flour is very important for fluffy cakes), I didn’t whip the whites very hard (peakless), I used 2 eggs whites instead of 1 ½, I used dark chocolate because I didn’t have any milk chocolate. It didn’t matter to me at the moment because I was like a junkie looking for a fix (that fix being both the ritual of cooking and the sugar.) And though I thought it was the best cake I’d ever made, I’m terrified to bake it again because, 1) I don’t know that I can recreate the zombie magic without the zombie inspiration, and 2) My pants no longer fit.
So, here’s a recipe for something I’ve been asked to cook a lot recently. It takes a little focus, but it’s not a hard-to-follow recipe at all and the result is both dazzling and delicious. It’s the perfect distraction for mind, body, and spirit.
Pink Lady Apple and Browned Butter Tart
Makes one 9-inch tart
Tart Shell Ingredients
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (not olive)
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 heaping cup all-purpose flour
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In a medium size stainless metal bowl put the butter, oil, water, sugar, pinch of salt, and almond extract. Don’t stir, don’t fret. Just put the bowl into the preheated oven for 15 minutes.
- Carefully remove the metal bowl from the oven and stir in the heaping cup of flour. The dough will come together easily while stirring. Place the dough ball into a 9-inch tart pan and press the dough into the pan and about a half-inch up the sides. To keep air pockets from forming in the dough, prick the flattened pastry with the tines of a fork 10 times about 2 inches apart. You don’t have to measure this distance. It’s just to let a bit of air escape while the pastry cooks.
- Bake for 15 minutes. Let tart shell cool.
- Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.
Apple Browned Butter Tart Ingredients
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated into 2 tablespoons and 6 tablespoons
- ¾ cup sugar, separated into ¼ cup and ½ cup
- 3 Pink Lady apples (I love the tart/ sweetness of pink ladies, but use your favorite apple), peeled and cut into ¼ inch slices
- Dash of salt
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste (preferably paste rather than extract, but if extract is all you can find it’s fine)
- Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add ¼ cup of sugar and a dash of salt and stir until the sugar starts to melt. Add the apple slices, stir to coat, and turn the heat down to medium low. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring once to make sure the apples are evenly coated.
- In a small pot, melt the 6 tablespoons butter. Cook over medium/ high heat until the butter begins to brown and the solids separate and darken. This will take 5-8 minutes. Take pot off heat, but it doesn’t need to cool to continue.
- In a medium bowl, whip the eggs with ½ cup sugar (preferably with an electric beater, but your hand can do it too) until thick and fluffy. Add the flour, the salt and the vanilla paste and beat for another minute. Add the browned butter and beat for 30 seconds.
- Pour browned butter/ egg mixture into cooked tart shell and then arrange the apple slices decoratively in the custard. Place tart pan in oven and cook for 35-40 minutes.