Louise said truthfully that it was not at all bad. But that did not satisfy Stella, and by the time she had finished her apple charlotte, she had cross-examined Louise about everything and knew about there being four different categories of work - cooking, parlourmaiding, housemaiding and laundry - and that they changed their jobs every week, that two mistresses taught cooking...
Marking Time, Elizabeth Jane Howard
Across England, baskets and boxes outside greengrocers, and at farmers’ markets, are filled with squashes and apples. I’m so thrilled that November has finally arrived. Around Bonfire Night, when the air smells of wood smoke, the mornings are cold and grey, and fog settles over the city in the evening, I can't imagine anywhere I would rather be. If there are 'seasons' for different cities, then autumn surely belongs to London – the parks carpeted with fallen leaves, the first suggestions of the Christmas season in shop windows, the heavy grey skies providing unrivalled backdrops to Victorian terraced houses. It’s my favourite time of year for food too; I look forward to the English apple season all year.
It was a year ago that I read The Light Years, the first in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I fell for its charms immediately, and have strictly rationed the next four in the series – I’ll be reading one each summer until I’m 33. This second book leaves behind the easy summer of the first; it is now 1939, and Britain has been plunged into war. We see the story through the eyes of three teenage cousins: Louise, Polly, and Clary, as the multi-generational Cazalet family are faced with a changed landscape. I think, if possible, I loved the book even more than the first.
Reading it, I was again struck by the proliferation of perfect meals but especially the apple-based desserts (of which there are many). And so I've been holding out for November to arrive. I initially considered making the apple strudel Louise eats a few chapters later but, honestly, the idea of patiently stretching pastry until it is thin enough to read the Saturday paper through felt like a job for another weekend, when I have time and energy to dedicate to the task. This week, I wanted an apple charlotte. It’s a dish I haven’t eaten nearly enough: apples baked within a layer of butter-soaked bread. I’m struggling to imagine anything I’d fancy more on a cold autumnal night. Instead of offering a dense, soggy layer around the fruit, as in a summer pudding, the bread in a charlotte crisps and browns in the presence of butter, functioning more like a layer of pastry. But as much as I love any excuse to have bread and butter for dessert, the stars here are the apples – so it is worth considering which ones you fancy putting into it.
A dear friend pulled an Ashmead’s Kernel from her backpack last week, an apple she’d carried for me from Gloucestershire. Its skin like tarnished metal, a dull faded gold, it is my platonic ideal apple – sharp and crisp, and smelling unmistakeably autumnal. It would be good here, its firm flesh holding shape inside the casing of bread and butter. It’s a simple dessert, but a special one, showcasing the best this season has to offer.
130g salted butter
500g cooking apples, peeled and diced
500g sharp eating apples, peeled and diced
50g dark brown sugar
2 bay leaves
Loaf of white bread
Crème fraîche, double cream, custard, or ice-cream
2lb pudding bowl or loaf tin
Greaseproof paper (optional)
Chopping board or plate
1. Melt 30g of the butter in the large saucepan, and tip in the apples. Add the sugar, bay leaves, and cinnamon, and cook over a medium heat until the cooking apples have lost their shape and the eating apples are soft and yielding – about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Slice the crusts off the bread, and slice each piece into thirds. Melt the butter in the second pan.
3. Prepare your tin/pudding bowl: I like to line my tin with a piece of greaseproof paper, just to ensure the charlotte will drop out easily. If you’re using a pudding bowl, a disc of paper at the base may provide reassurance. Dip each piece of bread into the butter, and use them (butter side to the tin) to line the tin/bowl. Overlap where necessary, to ensure there are no gaps. There should be bread right up to the edge of the tin/bowl. Make sure you have about a third of the bread left at the end to do the top.
4. Fill the tin/bowl with the cooled apples (don’t forget to pull the bay leaves out), pushing them into the corners. Place a layer of the butter soaked bread on top, with the butter facing up. Squidge the edges of the bread together to seal it, place a board or plate on top, and then use something from your pantry to weigh it down.
5. Leave the weight in place for 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 180C. Remove the weight and board/plate, and bake the apple charlotte for 45 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool in the tin a little, and then invert the tin onto a serving plate. Serve in big slices, with crème fraîche, ice-cream, custard, double cream – whatever you fancy, really.