John Green wrote that everybody gets a miracle. And I think I get mine on a daily basis. The list is extensive, cause I learned how to appreciate: a patch of blue sky over London. A great film I’ve seen. A day with someone I love – the friends I met here and who are precious to me, more than anything. The smell of cinnamon filling the kitchen on a Friday afternoon. And there’s a few more apple memories to go with that, too. Especially the one I remember pretty well, and it happened to be a nature’s revelation to a child – and lead to a marvellous weekend dessert.
I loved the unkempt orchard a lot: it was a great space to pretend we’re soldiers or superheroes, filled with nooks to hide in when we were playing hide-and-seek, and trees that you can climb and talk about everything with your best friend while eating the wild, green apples. And once, I was playing outside just to find that I’ve found some unusual apples – not the hard, sour ones, prepared by the sandy soil of central Poland to survive in the storage through the hardest winters, but huge and golden. The Garden of the Hesperides was unravelled, and I felt like a goddess that has been granted not only one, but a handful of golden apples: I ran back to my grandma to boast about what I found, and I left her astonished. Reneta, Polish for a russet apple tree, has gone mad a while ago, so it wasn’t bearing fruit for a long time. It decided to wake up that autumn, and I got to be a messenger of the reborn.
When I was a kid, I also used to bump into that agriculture TV programme when I was channel-surfing on a Sunday morning. I’m not sure if you can have a nationalist opinion on apples, but the lady on TV certainly had one; she said that the variety of apples in Poland can’t be compared to anything else, and that if you ask an Englishman to distinguish between them, they’ll name it by colour, while a Pole will start throwing varieties at you – reneta, antonówka, papierówka… I couldn’t believe that, and I discarded her arguments as funny. After all, it was so hard to believe, knowing that “apple a day” saying and living nearby the apple reign of the country. On the way from my town to Warsaw, you pass square kilometres of apple fields. On the local market, the variety is counted in tens, and you can get a kilogramme for around 20p in the second half of the year. And if you’re a kid which needs to earn their pocket money, as it was in my case, you’d often go apple picking; and what you did for the entire day was processed into juices, sauces, jams, cider… and, well, into cheap fruit wine with a wheedlesome name, “jabol” (and how you call that shameful yet somehow admired beverage does vary in the different parts of the country).
My mum would be proud: szarlotka is her signature. Made from papierowka – Polish paper apple – was a usual summer treat, and with the winter apple varieties, it used to fill the kitchen up with the smell of cinammon. Its crust is crispy, but not flaky; it has a hint of vanilla, and a slightly sour apple tint. And it makes you stay in, with a cup of hot tea, over the book you wanted to read badly, when there are no masks and no distorted reflections.
Paper apples for a paper girl.
Polish Apple Cake – Szarlotka [my variation on this recipe]
Serves 9 (large), 12 (small) | Preparation time: active ~45 mins, total ~1h 30 mins
8 medium Cox apples
3 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon
3/4 glass of apple juice
Juice from half of a lemon
3 and a half cups (450g) of plain flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
200g of cooled down butter
1 cup (225g) of sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of buttermilk
1 tablespoon of lemon zest (from the half a lemon, above)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Start with the filling: zest the lemon half and leave aside for the dough, then squeeze the juice out to a small cup. Peel, core and chop the apples into small pieces, place them in a large pan, then pour the lemon juice over them. Add the sugar, apple juice and cinnamon. Bring to boil and cook for 5 mins, until the apples soften slightly, then remove from the heat and leave to cool down. Don’t drain the liquid yet.
For the dough, mix the egg yolks, whole egg, buttermilk, vanilla extract and lemon zest until it’s well combined. Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and stir to mix thoroughly. Add the butter and combine it with flower mixture until it becomes coarse. Add the egg mixture and mix into a dough. Dust a pastry board, or a countertop, with flour. Put the pastry on top and roll it into a ball.
Preheat oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Grease a 23 x 23 cm baking tray and dust with a bit of flour.
Split the dough in half. Wrap one half in foil and freeze for 1 hr.
Put the remaining dough into the greased tray, covering the bottom and tiny bit of the sides, as if you were making a tart. Prick the dough with a fork. Put it into the oven and bake for around 15 minutes.
Put the pre-cooked apples over the crust, with a little bit of the remaining juice – discard the rest.
Remove the frozen dough. Using a grater, separate it into tiny pieces. Separate them evenly over the apple filling and put the baking tray back in the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the cake is golden on top and the dough has cooked (use a toothpick to check that).
Serve warm, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.