There are some dishes you know are going to be an instant hit with the kids in my "food appreciation" classes. Usually they would have something to do with dessert.
The kids are always begging to make cakes or something sweet, and I'm just as stubborn trying to steer them away from sugars and fats and refined flours.
But this week I wanted to do something with apples--something relatively simple and old-fashioined--so I started cruising through my regional and more obscure cookbooks, searching for a seasonal apple dish that we could make in less than an hour.
I had a vision of an apple crisp, or something like it, and landed on the idea of an apple pan dowdy. I've never made apple pan dowdy before, and discovered it is relatively labor intensive and not so quick to make, requiring a crust, an initial baking, then breaking up the crust with the fruit filling and baking it again.
No, I wanted something much more simple. In one of my collection of cookbooks from Maine, Good Maine Food, by Marjorie Mosser, I found this recipe for Brown Betty and was immediately sold.
This is a bit like a crisp but what I like most of all about it are the incredibly simple ingredients: apples, bread crumbs, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and lemon. The process is one of first peeling and chopping the apples, then assembling them in layers with the bread crumbs and the other ingredients.
I can just see the farmer's wife, racking her brain for an idea for dinner with only a few apples in a bowl on the countertop, a piece of yesterday's bread, some staples from the pantry. The idea of bulking out the pudding with bread crumbs is pure genius--you would never know they were there, tasting the finished dessert. Brown Betty easily passes for poverty fare, but just as surely deserves a place in our lexicon of great comfort foods.
The kids have great fun with this because they get to peel the apples on a mechanical peeler that I bring to school, the kind of peeler you would use to make a big batch of apple sauce or a dozen pies. I let the older kids cut the peeled apples, then assemble the ingredients in the pan. Very soon they are fighting for a turn at the action.
We baked the mix in a deep (3 inches) but small (6 inches across) cake pan, then removed the cover so the top layer of bread crumbs could brown. The mix sinks into the pan, forming the most delicious near-pudding that we served with whipped cream (it is wonderful with ice cream as well).
To make enough Brown Betty for four persons, have ready 2 cups peeled and chopped apples (such a Macintosh), 1 cup fresh bread crumbs (we processed a rustic loaf from Whole Foods, but whole wheat would work well, I think), 1/4 chilled butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, zest (chopped fine) and juice from 1/2 lemon, 1/4 cup hot water.
Grease a small, deep cake pan or souffle dish and lay a layer of chopped apple on the bottom. Dust with some bread crumbs, dot with some butter, sprinkle on some brown sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest, and add some of the lemon juice. Repeat this process in three layers, or until all the ingredients are used up. Pour the water over the top.
Place in a 350-degree oven, covered, for 40 minutes. Remove the cover and bake another 10 or 15 minutes to brown the top layer of bread crumbs. The mix will probably have sunk one third in volume and turned a golden brown. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before spooning it into individual bowls and serving with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Note: I don't think this dish would be nearly as good with canned bread crumbs. For fresh bread crumbs, remove the crust from thick slices of bread, break the bread into pieces and pulse it in a food processor. If you don't have a food processor, you could just tear the bread into small pieces with your fingers.