A few years ago, I got an email from the cookbook site Eat Your Books, saying that it had indexed more than 3,000 of my recipes. I had no idea I’d published so many. My husband’s quick comeback: “I had no idea I’d eaten so many.”
My recipes are gathered from places too wide to corral. No trip is a success for me unless I return with a recipe or an idea for one. Somewhere in a notebook I started in the 1970s, there are instructions for a Burgundian chocolate cake I had at an inn near the cloisters in Cluny. I’ve never been able to make it work, but I remember how pleased I was that the chef wrote down the basics for me on a sheet torn from a server’s order pad. I’ve gotten recipes from home cooks, famous chefs and vendors in outdoor markets. A cookie recipe came to me in a note from a reader. A Parisian hairdresser told me how to roast pineapple with rum and spices. Just last week, my daughter-in-law called from Italy to say that she was returning home with a recipe she’d nabbed for a chocolate tart that was kind of like tiramisù, but not. I have recipes from cooks far away and from neighbors down the street. They come from everywhere except my childhood. There isn’t a single recipe from my family, including from my mom.
I remember my mother in a soft cashmere wrap coat, a sequined cocktail dress (that’s what she was wearing when she came home to find that I’d burned down the kitchen) and in Capri pants with kitten heels. I can’t ever recall her in an apron. I don’t remember her cooking. Anything. Instead, I remember her saying, “Let’s go!” Let’s go to the once-famous Brooklyn seafood house Lundy’s, for steamers we’d drag through clam broth and dunk in melted butter. Let’s go to Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor for hot-fudge sundaes. Let’s go buy as many different kinds of olives as we can find. My mother loved food, but she didn’t cook it and she didn’t want to.
A child of the Depression and a workingwoman of the ’50s, my mother was grateful for a freezer and TV dinners that she’d serve as though she were offering us caviar. She drove a white convertible and dyed her hair whatever color struck her as fun at the moment. She was beautiful and glamorous. My friends came to our house after school because my mother would let us play with her makeup; we didn’t care that she beat us at Scrabble. She gave all of us advice on what to wear and later helped us choose prom gowns. (I’ve forgiven her for dressing me in yellow. We both should have known better.)
It never seemed odd to me that she didn’t cook. In fact, I didn’t even think about it until someone, wanting to know how I came to write about food, asked me to describe the dish my mother made that I loved most. I couldn’t catch a memory. When pressed for a birthday cake that I’d liked or a Thanksgiving pie, I still came up empty. Since I’m the only one in the family left to tell its stories, there wasn’t anybody I could check with to see if there might have been a cookie or a bowl of cornmeal mush from the old country that I was forgetting. I let it go.
And then this summer, when I was walking down the spiral staircase in our Paris apartment, I stopped on the third-floor landing and said out loud to no one: “Baked apples! My mother made baked apples.”
Of course she did! She made them often. We kids ate them (I ate them with more enthusiasm than my brothers), but I think they were made for my father, who loved them. I’m sure my mother didn’t make them from a recipe — for all the books in the house, it’s a safe bet not one of them was a cookbook — but they changed over time. I remember baked apples made with brown sugar. I remember them made with Sweet and Low poured out of pink packets. There were apples made with no sugar when my mother put my father on whatever diet was in fashion. Did my father top his apples with cream, diet or no? I think so.
My mother always used large baking apples — Cortlands or Romes. She cored them, filled the hollows with raisins (my father’s favorite dried fruit), sweetened them and seasoned them with cinnamon. Too much cinnamon, now that I remember. They baked in a Pyrex roasting pan until they were soft and their skins crinkled and were shiny from the juice that bubbled beyond the hollows’ borders. I found them beautiful. I still do.
Without realizing it, I’ve been baking apples almost the same way my mom did. I use Cortlands or Romes when I can get them, and when I can’t, I choose Fujis or Galas or Honeycrisps — they don’t always get very soft, but their flavor is always good. And while I love raisins almost as much as my father did, these days I add dried apples and bits of candied ginger to the scooped-out centers. The filling is do-as-you-please and can be any other kind of dried fruit or none. I add a pat of butter and sweeten it all with honey, but only a drizzle.
When it comes to baked apples, my father knew best: They’re at their peak served warm with something creamy on top. Knowing my mom, that cream would have been ready-made. What I don’t know — and what I now wonder about — is if it meant something special to my mother to bake those apples for us. Did she like the peeling, scooping and basting? Was she just a bit proud of her work? And how did she do it without chipping those beautiful Helena-Rubinstein-red nails.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 22, 2019, Page 30 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: My Mother’s Best (and Only) Recipe: Perfect baked apples for my father, for me and maybe for her.
Makes 4 servings
4 large baking apples, like Rome Beauty or large apples like Honeycrisp or Fuji (see above)
2 lemon wedges
2 to 3 dried apple rings, cut into bits
4 tiny pieces crystallized ginger (optional)
3 to 4 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup/240 milliliters apple cider or juice
Heavy cream, whipped cream or ice cream, for serving (optional)
Cinnamon, for dusting (optional)
Center a rack in the oven and heat to 375. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil, and set a 9- or 10-inch glass pie dish on top.
Cut a small cap off the top of each apple, and set aside. Using a paring knife or corer, core the apples, making sure not to go all the way to the bottom. Cut away and reserve about 1/2 inch of peel around the tops of the apples. Rub the peeled portions of the apples with the lemon, squeezing a little juice into each opening.
Fill each apple with an equal amount of dried apple and ginger, if using, pressing down lightly as needed to push bits into the opening. Pour 1/2 teaspoon honey over the dried fruit in each apple. Cut the butter into 4 pieces, and top each apple with a pat. Pop the caps back on the apples. (It’s O.K. if they teeter). Transfer the apples, lemon wedges and a few of the reserved peels into the pie dish; pour in the cider or juice, and stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons honey. (The honey won’t blend evenly into the cider, and that’s fine.)
Bake the apples, basting occasionally with the cider and honey, until you can poke them with a skewer or the tip of a knife and not meet much resistance, 50 to 70 minutes. Since apples are so variable, check early and often, as you might need more or less time.
Let them cool for at least 15 minutes before serving moistened with a little pan sauce, and if you want, top with cold heavy cream, whipped cream or ice cream and dust with cinnamon. The apples are good warm or at room temperature. They’ll keep, covered, for 2 days in the refrigerator and can be reheated in a microwave.