Saturday, October 1, 2011

English Apple Shortcake with Brown Sugar & Cream-Cheese Crust . . .

Household circumstances sometimes have a way of forcing your hand. You know what I mean. There's the long front hedge bordering your neighbor's driveway, so shaggy at times it demands to be trimmed lest it bring shame upon the family. There's the faucet that gasps and yawns and refuses to put in an honest day's work until the plumber is finally called in.

And, this morning, there was the problem of the ignored bookshelf. I'm talking about the big 7x4-footer with six really deep shelves. It was barely 9 a.m. when that thing finally gave up the ghost, collapsing under its burden with a mighty crash.

I was in the basement, romancing the ironing board again, when thunder rumbled above my head. Instantly I knew what had happened. I'd been expecting just such a catastrophe. I merely nodded to myself in acknowledgment and kept on ironing. I'd confront the monster soon enough.

The warning signs had been staring me in the face for months, but I'd ignored them. I'd ignored the obscenely overladen shelves, each one sagging in the middle like a tired mule. I'd ignored the fact that the brackets holding up each shelf were pathetically inadequate even to my untrained eye.

Eventually I trudged upstairs and stood there silently, gazing in resigned disgust at the aftermath. Books that had been packed together sardine-style had thunked to the floor willy nilly, a few stragglers still plummeting now and then in solidarity.

The resulting pile was about 18" deep, easily six feet wide, and thoroughly impassable. It was the Niagara Falls of literature. I thanked the fates that my husband hadn't had to face this right before heading off to work. It would have been too much for him. There would have been copious cussing. Better it happened this way.

About this recipe . . . 

As in so much of life, such mishaps often reveal their own silver lining. As I was sorting and stacking the  victims, one volume fell open at my feet and a particular page caught my eye. It was The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater. (Slater, in case you're unfamiliar, is a British food writer and a passionate home cook.) I sat down amidst the destruction and read through  the recipe that inspired today's dessert.

I made a few small changes to Slater's formula and ended up with something wonderful. Instead of using Bramley apples (which I've never seen in Michigan), I used Sweet Tango apples; they're firm, crunchy, and they'll make you pucker. Instead of turbinado sugar in the crust dough, I used light brown sugar, and I subbed some cream cheese for part of the butter, also adding in a generous pinch of kosher salt. I added a mixture of superfine- and light brown sugars to lightly caramelize the simmering apples, instead of just using a very small amount of superfine alone. We served this with a dollop of delicately sweetened whipped cream on top. Especially when served slightly warm, this makes for a comforting and rustic dessert.

English Apple Shortcake with Brown Sugar & Cream-Cheese Crust

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a metal baking sheet in the oven to heat up. Butter a 9" or 10" pie, cake, casserole, or quiche pan.

For the crust:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, large, at cool room temperature
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
1 and 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 generous pinch kosher salt

For the filling:

2 and 3/4 lbs. firm, tart, and sweet apples (I recommend Sweet Tango or Honey Crisp apples.)
half of a lemon
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar

For the top of the crust, before baking:

A couple tablespoons of milk, half & half, or cream
2 Tbsp. superfine sugar

Peel and core all of the apples, and slice them as you would for apple pie (I made my slices at least 1/4" thick). Put the slices into a big bowl of cold water and squeeze the lemon-half over them; this will help keep them from turning brown while you're preparing the crust. Set the bowl aside.

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the large bowl of your mixer, on medium speed, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and brown sugar for a few minutes, until light and fluffy. Blend in the egg.

On low speed, add in the dry ingredients and blend until combined.

Dump the dough, which will be very soft, onto a heavily floured surface (do not skimp on the flour!).

Flour your hands, and knead the dough a few times, just for a minute or so, until it's smooth.

Divide the dough into two equal parts. Use a rolling pin to roll out half the dough; it will be thick. Carefully transfer the rolled out dough into the buttered pan and press it gently into the corners. It doesn't have to look perfect. Wrap up the second piece of dough in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge along with the dough-lined pan, while you finish prepping the apples.

Drain the apples in a colander. Heat a large frying/saute pan, and add the 4 Tbsp. of butter. Toss the apple slices into the hot butter and let them simmer over medium heat until the butter looks frothy and the apples start to just soften around the edges, stirring now and then.

Raise the heat and sprinkle the 1/4 superfine sugar and 1/3 cup light brown sugar over the apples. Cook the apples until they just begin to caramelize; they should be slightly soft and have taken on a deeper yellow color. Take the pan off the heat.

Remove the second dough half from the fridge and roll it out as you did the first piece.

Remove the dough-lined pan from the fridge. Spoon the apple slices into the dough-lined pan.

Carefully place the top crust over that.

Pinch the edges closed.

Use a pastry brush to coat the top crust with milk or cream, but don't brush it on the outer edge (that'll be the first area to burn). Sprinkle liberally with superfine sugar.

Bake the shortcake for up to about 40 minutes, or until it's fully golden and feels firm. Let the finished shortcake cool on a rack until it's no longer hot.

Good served warm or cold, with sweetened whipped cream.

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