I love the Fall. Probably because I grew up in a place without seasons. Even my childhood home in northern Florida, which gets relatively cold (compared to the rest of the state, anyway) never really had a Spring or a Fall. And my hometown of Sarasota has three seasons: Hot, Hotter, and Surface of the Sun. I never owned a winter coat or a wool sweater, and I never saw snow (except for a dusting during a particularly cold winter in Pensacola when I was 10) until I went to college.
The Catholic high school I attended in Sarasota took great pride in its college acceptance rate, and as such all juniors were required to regularly meet with college recruiters. I had never heard of Mary Baldwin College when I decided that looking at college literature was a better deal than Sr. Mary David’s Junior Lit class. I sat in the second floor library on a sweltering September morning leafing through prospective student literature that featured glossy pictures of smiling students in suede jackets walking beneath rust-colored trees as a cool, Fall breeze blew through their hair. I gazed through the library window at palm trees rustling in the hot, Florida breeze and sighed. I was hooked.
When I visited Mary Baldwin on a prospective student weekend a month later in mid-October, the Virginia countryside, the Blue Ridge mountains, and the trees blazing with golds and oranges charmed me and sealed the deal. I filled out my application and handed over my application fee before I caught my flight back to Florida. And, despite years of high school academic apathy, I actually got accepted (I had a really good SAT score).
And that is how I ended up attending Mary Baldwin College, instead of Florida State, or University of Florida, or any of the other Florida colleges that my parents were pushing for the in-state tuition break. I was the first of their five kids to leave for college, and they were about to trade five private school tuition bills for four private school tuition bills and one college tuition bill. By the time I was a senior, my tuition-abused parents had three children in college, two in private schools, and no hope for early retirement. Poor Mike and JoAnn — literally! I try to make it up to them now, especially since they are now footing the bill for my nephew’s private school education.
So, off I went to Virginia for college. One of Mary Baldwin’s most treasured traditions is Apple Day. On Apple Day, classes are canceled and students spend the day eating apple snacks and playing apple-themed games. In the “old days”, it was the only day all year that students were allowed to wear pants, and a bus trip out to the Virginia apple orchards followed by a day of free student labor was considered a good time. That would have sucked. In the early 80’s, Apple Day festivities began the night before with a big party where the beer flowed freely and students from neighboring men’s colleges descended on our campus. The next morning started with an apple-themed breakfast in the dining hall, followed by a day of apple-themed games and general frolic and fun.
When I was in school, the drinking age for beer in Virginia was 18, so I could drink as a freshman (not so for present day MBC students, poor things). I was fresh out of twelve years of Catholic schools, and although I was no saint, I was also not accustomed to drinking with impunity and then passing out in my dorm room with relatively little consequence, instead of having to face a really pissed off mother along with my hangover the next morning.
So, on the morning of my first Apple Day in October of my freshman year of college, I was laying in my dorm room bed feeling mighty peaked, when my “friends” Anne Ashworth and Meg Brittingham pounced into my room with the express purpose of disturbing my hangover and dragging me out for apple pancakes and apple games on the campus lawn. (The way I figured, if they were really my friends, they would have let me sleep it off.)
But despite the hangover, and my general animosity at being forced to participate in apple hopscotch instead of being tucked beneath my comforter in Spencer Dorm, I had to appreciate my first participation in an actual Fall Event. A real sweater wearing, apple eating, leaf changing Fall Event. I liked it, and I looked forward to it every year I was at Mary Baldwin. (And I learned to be more judicious in my libation consumption as I became a more mature college student.)
When I graduated from Mary Baldwin, I swore I would never turn into one of those alumna who pathetically clings to college traditions and loyalty a little too fervently. I had a boss who graduated from University of Maryland in the 1970’s, but still attends and tailgates at every football game. Loser! And a roommate who was in her late twenties and in graduate school, but attended every Bryn Mawr alumnae tea, fundraiser, and cocktail party within 30 miles of Washington D.C. Double Loser! I worked with a copywriter who wore her college sweatshirts every casual Friday, and decorated her office with artist drawings of University of Virginia and montages of her old college friends. TOTAL LOSER! And don’t even get me started on Harvard alumni. They are the worst. I swear they wear Harvard underwear.
So, I wasn’t even thinking about Mary Baldwin College, or Apple Day, when I made Dorie Greenspan’s Applesauce Spice Bars over the weekend. I was making dinner for some friends, and since it was October 1st, and the first crisp day of the year arrived right on time, I made this stuffed turkey breast, which was super good, especially with mashed potatoes and honey roasted carrots and green beans with saffron butter. I spent the day visiting my local Italian store for pancetta and dried porcini, and Whole Foods for a turkey breast (which I actually successfully boned, with only a minor thumb injury), and made pretty little carrots I had purchased at the Takoma Park farmers’ market glazed with honey I had purchased in Durham while visiting an old (Mary Baldwin) friend. It was a perfect October day.
For dessert, I was considering making a pumpkin pie, but I figured that might cross the line into November food. This was an October dinner — a Welcome to Fall Repast. So, I chose a dessert item that is tasty and homey but full of Autumn flavor. I made Dorie Greenspan’s Applesauce Spice Bars. They have the nostalgia of an after-school or bake sale treat, but with the addition of Black Seal rum as a flavor enhancer (or Calvados, either optional according to Dorie, but not me) they are taken out of after school treat category and are firmly placed into that of a casual adult dessert.
I made these on Friday night, and all of my friends exuberantly consumed them with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. I sent the leftovers home with my guests, so I had to make more on Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, my house was still filled with the lovely scent of apples and spice. I opened my windows and let the Fall air into my little bungalow and watched football with my dogs, my sweetie, and some applesauce spice bars.
According to my alumnae Facebook update, Apple Day is scheduled on October 6 this year. Maybe I’ll make these bars again to celebrate. Not because I’ve turned into one of “those” alumnae, but because they are really good and I’ll use any excuse to make them again. And if I decide to finish off the bottle of Black Seal by making a Dark ‘n Stormy to go with my applesauce spice bars, my mom is five states south of me and has focused her wrath on my teenage nephew, and the only ones that will disturb my hangover have four legs and are named Winnie, Maggie, and Henry. Anne and Meg have better things to do now, thank God. But I’ve forgiven them.
Dorie Greenspan’s Awesome Applesauce Spice Bars
from Baking: From My Home to Yours
This is a great cookbook, by the way. I very highly recommend it.
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick (8 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp applejack, brandy, or dark rum (optional, but awesome)
1 apple, (I used a Fuji), finely chopped (I grated it on a box grater)
1/2 cup plump, moist raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2-1/2 tbsp heavy cream
1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2-1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp light corn syrup
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9×13-inch baking pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, butter the paper and dust the inside of the pan with flour. Tap out the excess flour and put the pan on a baking sheet.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and whisk until mixture is smooth, about 1 minute or so. Remove the saucepan from heat and let cool for a minute or two.
Still working in the saucepan, whisk in the eggs one at a time, mixing until they are well blended. Add the applesauce, vanilla and applejack or rum (optional, but darned good) and whisk until smooth. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear, then mix in the apple, raisins and nuts. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until the bars just start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the baking pan to a rack and let the cake cool while you make the glaze.
In a small saucepan, whisk together the cream, sugar, butter and corn syrup. Put the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking frequently. Adjust the heat so that the glaze simmers, and cook, whisking frequently, for 5 minutes. It will become a little thicker and shiny when it is ready. You want it thick enough to spread over the apple bars, not so thin that it is absorbed by the apple bars. Err on the side of thicker rather than thinner. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Turn the bars out onto a rack, remove the paper and invert the bars onto another rack, so they are right side up. Slide the parchment paper under the rack to catch any drips from the glaze, and pour the hot glaze over the bars, using a spatula or icing knife to spread it evenly over the cake. Let them cool to room temperature before you cut them.
Cut into 32 rectangles, each about 2-1/4 x 1-1/2 inches. (I like triangles better.)
Yield: 32 Bars