The only cookbook I remember my mother using while I was growing up was a stained, dog-eared copy of the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook, circa 1972. You know, the one with the red-and-white gingham-checked cover. By the time I became interested in cooking, most of the tabs had either worn off or been torn, the pages were yellowed, and some were missing from the index. Nothing in that cookbook ever failed me, and my recipe box today is full of recipes copied from its pages. It was my inaugural culinary guide, the initial catalyst for my love of being in the kitchen, of good cookbooks, of traditional homecooked foods. I still call my mother on the phone and ask her to read aloud recipes while I copy them down.
But my favorite recipe from that cookbook is Apple Betty (known to some as Brown Betty). Growing up, every fall I welcomed the change in the air – smoky breath on the way to the bus stop in the mornings, the need for tights and kneesocks to cover bare legs, the leaves beginning to turn color on the trees – because I knew that fall meant apple time, and thus, Apple Betty. There was always an afternoon when I’d arrive home from school to a house filled with the aromas of apples and cinnamon, and walk into the kitchen in time to see my mother pulling her yellow stoneware pie plate from the oven, a steaming Apple Betty mounded into it. She’d scoop some into a bowl, pour some milk on top, and I’d settle down at the kitchen table to slowly savor every bite. It was always good warmed up for breakfast the next morning, too.
Whenever I mention making Apple Betty, someone inevitably asks, “What’s a Betty?” I’ve gotten used to this. For the record, a Betty is a crustless fruit dessert baked in a pie plate with a crumbly flour-sugar-and-butter topping, prepared somewhat like an apple crisp, but without the oatmeal that is the crisp’s trademark. I’ve had my share of crisps, and I think the crunchy Betty topping style is far better.
In my twenties, my mother bought me a copy of the most recent version of the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook, and I was sorely disappointed. Traditional foods had been replaced by microwave recipes, and most of my childhood favorites were missing – including the Apple Betty. I donated that cookbook to Goodwill some time ago, and have never looked back. The venerable Joy of Cooking and Julia Child’s Mastering set are my standbys these days, and rightfully so. But in spite of my successes with New York Style Cheesecake, tarte tatin, Crepes Suzette, and the like, Apple Betty remains my favorite dessert.
It seems to be Eli’s as well. I thought I had reached the pinnacle of desserthood with Blueberry-Peach Pie last summer, but following his first bite of Apple Betty, he simply said, “This beats The Pie.” I’ve made Betty after Betty this winter, slowly using up the bushel of apples we picked and stored last October, and neither of us ever gets tired of it. I still like it best with milk; Eli prefers vanilla ice cream. Here’s my version, slightly modified from the original (I use a little more cinnamon and substitute lemon juice on occasion).
Adapted from Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel, core, and slice enough apples to fill a deep pie plate or round casserole (8-10 apples). Toss with 1/4 cup orange juice or 2 tablespoons lemon juice, whichever you have on hand. Set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup flour, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Using a pastry blender or two sharp knives, cut one stick (8 tablespoons) of chilled sweet cream butter into the dry mixture until it resembles crumbs. Spoon over the apples, being careful to cover them completely. Bake 50-60 minutes, until the topping has turned golden brown, the filling is starting to bubble up through it, and the inside is very soft when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool; the top will collapse a bit. Serve warm with milk, cream, or vanilla ice cream.