Fall is, by definition, a time of transition. This year, it’s hard to find something that’s not changing.
In my house, I now have a middle-schooler, two kids in new karate uniforms and two elderly pets that need more care than I’d expected in their final months.
As a reader of this fine newspaper, you’ve noticed more than a few changes to the website and print design in the past few weeks.
The biggest change in my life, however, is taking place 600 miles away. My dad’s cancer is spreading faster than doctors can keep up, and my mom, who hasn’t lived without him for 46 years, is starting to face the reality of what's to come.
Watching a parent suffer isn’t something any of us look forward to, but it’s something many of us eventually face. I didn’t think I’d be doing this at 35, when my kids are still so young. I didn't think they'd graduate high school someday without their grandfather cheering them on.
It's a sad time, but we're also finding the joy in spending as much time together as we can. I’ve been making more frequent visits to see my parents in Missouri this year. We go to doctor’s appointments and Walmart and take their little long-haired dachshund on walks to the park. We stay in and watch Netflix and take naps when Dad’s having a bad day and drive to Springfield to visit friends or go to a movie on the days he’s feeling good.
A few weekends ago, my sister, Chelsea, and I visited at the same time. The last time we were together there, we made applesauce muffins, a childhood treat my mom used to make for us and that we make now for our own kids.
Apple season starts in September in Marionville, a small town near my hometown that has an orchard we always go to in the fall. So on this visit, my sister and I went straight from the airport to Murphy Orchard, where we bought 20 pounds of Fuji apples. Unlike the pristine “firsts," these were “seconds,” the blemished, bruised apples that are so good for baking and making cider and applesauce.
My parents were unsurprised when we pulled up to the house with more apples than we could eat in a month. We didn't have any doctor's appointments that day, so Chelsea and I got to work peeling and chopping apples while watching some of my dad's favorite home renovation shows on HGTV.
We went to my grandma's collection of recipes, still housed in the same spot in the kitchen where she cooked for more than 50 years, to find Gaga's apple cake— a chunky, buttery cinnamon cake that she always made in a casserole dish. We replicated her cake and then, since we had so many apples, decided to make a second batch as muffins that our mom could give away at church a few days later.
We still had more apples to use, so we kept peeling and chopping.
Inspired by her favorite apple crisp recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, Chelsea got to work sauteing apples, which helps start them before they go into the oven. We didn't cook the apples in apple cider, which is one of the America's Test Kitchen tips, but I will the next time I make a crisp.
Even after making a big batch of applesauce in the Instant Pot, we still had 10 pounds of apples left. By the time Chelsea and I left a few days later to go back to our respective families and states, the apples were still there, and the freezer was full of our apple treats for our parents to enjoy in the weeks to come. I'm not sure that they'll get around to using the rest of the fruit we bought, but when you live in a small town there are always plenty of neighbors and coworkers who are eager to swing by to take some off your hands and maybe even drop off some dinner while they are at it.
As I wrote in an earlier column about the applesauce muffins, supporting my dad while he goes through this has become a new normal for our family. But as that normal starts to shift again, we cling to what we know. I know that baking with my sister is something we love to do together. I know my mom loves having us around the house, and that the home renovation shows we love to watch together will sometimes make us cry. I know that I love my job of telling stories like this one and that I'll keep doing so.
I know my dad loves whipped cream with his apple cake, and I know that I'll make that 1,200-mile round trip again in just a few weeks to bake another one for him.
Apple Cake or Apple Cake Muffins
I have made this cake or muffin recipe with as little as 1 cup of sugar and as much as 1 1/2 cups, depending on the sweetness of the apples. To make a quick streusel topping, mix together equal parts brown sugar, flour, oats and softened butter. You can leave out the flour and double the oats, or you can add some Grape Nuts for extra crunch. I store a bag of this in the freezer so I can quickly add to cakes, muffins or pies.
1 stick butter, softened
1 to 1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
5 to 6 cups chopped, peeled apples
1-2 cups streusel topping (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl using a handheld mixer or a wooden spoon, cream together the butter and the sugar. Add the eggs and mix thoroughly. Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and allspice. Mix well and then fold in the apples. The dough will be quite stiff, but you can scoop it into a paper-lined muffin tin or a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Top with streusel topping, if you’d like. Bake for about 25 minutes for muffins or 30-35 minutes for a cake. We like our cake a little on the gooey side, so you can bake it longer or until a toothpick comes out clean.
— Adapted from a recipe by Carolyn Cook