By early afternoon both boys are restless. Sam refuses to nap or snuggle on the couch with me. Drew has finished working and is pacing up and down. He has already cleaned off his car and shoveled our steps. I am drifting off as the two of them bicker about going outside to play in the snow. Drew wants to go. Sam wants to stay. He complains that it’s too cold for playing outside. We’ve been in this house together for three days now—the weekend and now this stormy Monday. We left briefly for swim class and a birthday party and then kept busy with Legos and movies. Getting some fresh air is now a must.
The oven beeps. I promised apple crumble this afternoon.
I help Drew wrestle Sam into his snow gear: we start with the scarf—a Hungarian soccer club’s green and white colors—and snow pants. Then it’s a fleece vest, winter coat, boots, gloves. His coat was too big for him last year, but now as I zip him up I realize that I will probably have to buy him a new one before winter is over. I pull his hood over his hat and make sure his ears are covered. I kiss his warm little nose before they head outside into the cutting wind and cold.
I watch for a second as Drew pulls him away from the house on a sleigh, off to find a large enough snow pile for digging and sliding. I shiver just looking at them; the blowing snow obscures their figures just a few feet from our building. I try to remember what the tree in front of our kitchen looked like in the summer, the color of its blooms, the shape of its leaves. But nothing comes back and the piles of snow, the icicles hanging in front of our window, the mix of salt and slush in the driveway seem permanent, fixed. “Damn groundhog,” I mumble. Six more weeks of…this.
I never had snow days when I was a child. My elementary school was around the corner from our apartment and on snowy days my mom would pull me and my brother to school on a sleigh. School never closed, life never stopped.
Now I have these unexpected days at home when it seems that life does come to a standstill. Right around this time of the year, after many, many snow days, I stop trying to fill them with purpose. I stop reading articles about “easy crafts for snow days.” The TV is on. We don’t have to read all day or play with puzzles, or practice letters. We eat. We talk. We nap. We pretend to be firefighters. I poke around on my laptop and catch up with friends.
We bake apple crumble.
More than having a job, or a child, or a car, baking and cooking make me feel like I am a real adult. There is something about the ownership of a functioning kitchen, kitchen utensils, baking pans, and a pantry stocked with flour and sugar and spices, that makes me feel my age and my status in life. Thirty eight. Married. One child. On most days and in most situations I am baffled by how I’ve gotten here and why the world expects me to know what to do, how to behave. I am bad at negotiating teachers and other parents at Sam’s preschool. I still feel like I am fresh out of college at my job. Friendship, love, marriage—I keep expecting that I will get better at them, but the opposite seems to be happening.
But this, this I can do. I can feed two hungry men in my house. With stews and soups and roasts and veggies and salads. I can bake and cook and bring comfort: hot chocolate with whipped cream after a hard or cold day. Honey lemonade for a bad cough. Chicken soup for the flu. And apple crumble for a long day indoors.
I have to move quickly—I don’t think the boys can stay outside for too long in this cold and I will have to help with taking off the snow gear and then make hot chocolate for Sam.
I start with the apples. Drew brought some fresh ones and he also set out a few old ones from the bottom of our fruit basket. They have a couple of soft, brown spots—I cut those out and slice the rest of the fruit thin. I am surprised that Drew hasn’t thrown them away—he is very intolerant of imperfect fruit.
I grew up with imperfect fruit. Nothing ever went to waste: if there was a bit of mold on top of a homemade jam, it was just simply spooned off. Before picking apples from our trees, we picked up the fallen ones from the ground and my grandmother made jam from most of those. But the ones that were not too badly bruised, we ate fresh. At the end of the evening, after dinner, my dad would bring a bowl of apples, some cheese, and a knife to the living room and he’d peel apples for us as we watched TV or talked. It’s sort of like how other people’s sandwiches always look better, or the way a meal cooked by someone else tastes better than the one you had to make: the apple slices peeled and cut up by my father were the sweetest, juiciest apples I can remember. The small knife he used with the wooden handle, the creamy tang of the cheese he put on top of each slice, the way he reached out his hand with the delicious bites in his palm—I try to recreate these for Sam. When Drew is away on a business trip we eat apples in bed some nights, like some special, secret treat.
These apples I am peeling—apart from the older ones—are perfect, blemish-free, shiny. They don’t have the same taste as the free-range apples of my childhood, but they will hold up well in this recipe under all the butter and sugar and cinnamon.
I use a blue glass baking dish—a wedding gift missing the rest of its set. The apples go in first, then a generous sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon mix. I get out my favorite mixing bowl, a happy, yellow ceramic number, that’s just the right size. Flour, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, baking powder, salt.
That’s one of my favorite things about baking—adding salt to everything sweet. It makes me feel like a bit of a rebel, doing something that shouldn’t make sense. But it does: the salt, bringing out the sweetness of the sweet, doing something unexpected and almost forgettable. And the cakes and cookies and pies would turn out all right without salt, but not quite. You could always taste that something was missing, even if you couldn’t put a finger on it. Then someone would mention “salt” and it would all make sense.
So in goes the salt.
I am a messy, inexact baker. So I throw in about three-four shakes. I never level off the flour in the measuring cup, or pay attention to the order of wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Or is it the other way around? I don’t really care. If a recipe hinges on these minor details, I am in trouble anyway.
I have to dig a bit for my hand mixer because it’s been a while since I used it. But I find it, along with its blades, on the lowest shelf, behind the slow cooker. I bought this hand mixer when Drew and I started dating, about 15 years ago now. I wanted to bake a cake for his birthday that required a lengthy beating of eggs that I just couldn’t manage by hand. The cake turned out flat and rather tasteless in the end, only saved by the chocolate icing I cooked myself. But the mixer is still here and working—and so are we.
As I mix the ingredients for the crumble together it hits me that this is how you end up with ancient small kitchen appliances. My mother’s hand mixer belonged to her mother and it was maybe 20-30 years old when I was a child helping my mother bake. It seemed like an antique then—square and impossibly heavy—but now my little “modern” mixer is halfway there in age. Its once bright white color is starting to fade; the handle is sticky from years of goo on my hands. Will it hold up for another 15 years? Or was it made to be disposable? We’ll see.
The crumble goes on top of the apples already soaking in the sugar and cinnamon. I drizzle the whole thing with melted butter, after cleaning up a minor butter explosion in the microwave.
The heat from the oven hits my face and fogs up my glasses when I slide in the pan. I set the timer—45 minutes.
The dishwasher is still running so I do the dishes by hand. The boys are still at the end of our lane and I can see that Drew’s shoulders and head are covered in snow. The water is warm on my hands and I finish the dishes quickly. By the time I hear their voices on the front stoop the counter is clear and the kitchen starts to fill with the scent of cinnamon.
They shake off the snow before coming in and I quickly strip Sam’s snow-covered, wet, cold clothes. He keeps his scarf on—I am wearing one today too just to feel cozy—and runs into the living room to flop on the couch. I warm milk for hot chocolate and check on the apple crumble. The butter is bubbling on the edges of the pan. “That is going to be so good,” Drew says and I feel him right behind me, his body radiating cold. I tuck his hands under my armpits to warm them and he laughs at the gesture.
Later in the afternoon the snow picks up, heavy bands of it moving across the parking lot. Drew’s car is covered again. The apple crumble is cooling on top of the stove. We are all snuggled on the couch, warm, content.
Waiting for spring.