Fall seems to offer something for everyone: the World Series, football, Halloween, pumpkin lattes, and a new TV line-up. It takes a real pessimist to find fault with autumn; I am that person. On a recent beautifully warm fall day, I found myself scowling and saying, “Seriously? I just put all of my summer clothes away!” It was then that I realized I needed to rediscover the joys of the season (and maybe just joy, in general).
I begin, as I begin all things, with a little research; I type, “things I love about autumn” into my internet browser. A shocking number of self-posted lists emerge—many of them accented with an abundance exclamation points! People are really ga-ga for the colors of the changing leaves, the smell of wood fires, the feel of fleece and wool clothes, and all things apple (cider, pies, the fruit itself). People are also excited about lots of things that don’t necessarily belong on a fall list—as they can, and should, be done year-round—like “drinking coffee,” “reading novels,” and “walking my dogs.”
Nevertheless, the lists do provide inspiration as they remind me of a fall activity I haven’t done in a very long time—apple picking. When my husband and I were newlyweds, we moved from Florida to Ithaca, New York (very different from its downstate city counterpart). Because I had spent most of my life in Florida in the dead hot center of the state, seasons were a novelty; I found them delightful.
It was the first time I used the words “crisp” and “fall” in the same sentence and the first time I owned a real coat. I—un-ironically and without Halloween looming—donned overalls for a visit to an orchard. We plucked apples all afternoon. With my bounty, I planned to make applesauce, pie, turnovers. I was full of ideas and possibilities—newly-married and in a new place. It was an exciting time.
And now, here, just outside of Chicago, I am once again immersed in the miserable glory of the changing seasons. In my life, the seasons have become much like my spouse of 13 years—taken for granted. Winter is too long; summer too hot; spring and fall a tease, gone just as my crush on them turns to love. What better way to honor the wonder of fall than getting out in it? I decide to go on another trip to pick apples, this time with my two children. Plus, I can use the apples to make dessert for our Yom Kippur's break-fast. For the Jewish holidays, apples signify the hope for a sweet year. Perfect.
It is the day before Columbus Day weekend and, for reasons that I don't understand or appreciate, Glencoe schools are closed; I have the whole day with my two sidekicks. But when I look online to find a nearby orchard, two words keep coming up: overcrowded and over-picked. The real-time data suggests that there are no good apples left on the trees, and good luck getting to them past the hoards of people. What did we do before the internet? I guess we elbowed each other to pick beat-up apples.
I instead concoct another way to enjoy the fall day—we head to Wisconsin for grilled cheese at the Mars Cheese Castle (a place that is cheesy in all ways) then to pick out our pumpkins at Swan’s Pumpkin Farm. Wisconsin schools are in session and we have the place to ourselves.
We complete the corn maze so many times that my son can do it from start to finish in 52.8 seconds. He starts timing me but it takes so long for me to get through the maze on my own that when I emerge, both of my kids are chatting with two concerned-looking adults (so much for all of those “stranger danger” lessons). We also do the “Spook House” three times and let me just say, it actually is a little spooky with only us in there. After much negotiating and arguing (“no fair, your pumpkin is bigger!”), each child picks a pumpkin and we head home.
But I still need apples. We stop at the store and buy a few pounds of tart Granny Smiths to put in our apple cake from Baking Illustrated. It’s a bit of a letdown to be standing in the produce aisle bagging apples from who-knows-where after our grand plan of hand-picking them. It was still a great fall day though and we are returning with seasonably-appropriate pumpkins to prop on our stoop.
The apple cake recipe is mostly a recipe on pan preparation. It involves soft butter and sprinkled sugar then more sugar (both brown and white) delivered in heaps to the bottom; it is messy and not terribly exacting—perfect for a five-year-old. While my daughter works on the pan, I start the batter. The instructions are complex and I find myself constantly referring to the recipe. It asks me to add things at "one-second intervals" with the mixer still running. A few notes to the recipe maker: first, a one-second interval is no interval at all, it is simply the amount of time it takes my hand to get from mixer to ingredient; and second, adding anything with the mixer running is a messy proposition.
By the time the cake goes into the oven, the kids are headed for bed and I remember another thing I love about fall—shorter days which translates into earlier bedtimes. Oh my, am I becoming an optimist?
The next day is Yom Kippur which involves a fast. We spend the day as a family watching Disney movies and playing games and listening to our tummies growl. In the evening we have friends over to break the fast. We start eating while still standing in the kitchen.
The apple cake draws rave reviews. Apples give off water and can either make a cake moist or sodden; luckily this one stopped at moist. The tartness of the apples is the perfect foil for the sweetness of the cake. Though, it's not what I think of as "apple cake," really. I had envisioned apples and spices incorporated throughout (like a coffee cake). This is more like a delicious butter cake with apples propped on top.
We gorge ourselves then tell stories and play games and in general have a fantastic time. And though I wasn't able to visit an orchard, I realize that I have, despite it all, recaptured the joy of discovery that I felt 13 years ago in Ithaca. My husband and I are affectionate and playing a game together. We are not newlyweds anymore, but we are a team. At one point, there are five adults and seven kids in the room and everyone is jockeying for a space in the conversation and I find myself to be completely, unexpectedly, content. It feels like a sweet new year indeed.
*Please note that after this week, "Flour on the Floor" will be moving to a bi-weekly format.