On Gratitude and Apple Tarts

It's the last day of September, something that makes me both happy and sad. A part of me is desperately sorry to see this month go; it's the month of beautiful, just-right Michigan weather, it's the month when our family of four celebrates three birthdays, it's a month of fresh starts and new beginnings, and I know that turning this particular page on the calendar means that colder, darker days are ahead.

At the same time, a part of me is breathing a sigh of relief. September (along with December and May), for parents of school-aged children, at least, seems to have become a month of absolute insanity when it comes to the family schedule. Fall sports begin, there's a back-to-school curriculum night for each grade level, and every activity that was put on hold during the lazy days of summer kicks off again. Between the standard busyness of back to school and the birthday celebrations, I've barely had a moment to catch my breath.

And we started Sunday suppers. A month into this "experiment in rest and connection," here's what I can say. Our dishwasher has never been working harder. The cloth napkins we received for our wedding, which previously sat unused in a drawer in the dining room, have finally seen the light of day. The stack of books on my side of the bed has changed from current fiction to Wayne Muller's Sabbath, Catherine Steiner-Adair's The Big Disconnect, and Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach (I'm dog-earing a lot of pages, and I'll share some of the best tidbits here eventually). Launching this project has launched dozens of new conversations, both in person and online, about how we're living and what we're choosing, and that's been so fun to see. I've peeled several pounds of apples, and the girls have gotten very good at setting the table.

Looking back on a month of Reclaiming Sunday Supper, it's a mixed bag. When it comes to rest and connection, we're failing spectacularly on the former and succeeding happily on the latter. We've had so many fantastic moments with family and friends around our table this September, and they're moments I know we wouldn't have had if we weren't being so intentional about making time for these Sunday meals. I read a blog post by Shauna Niequist that hit me in the gut called "Why It Doesn't Matter How You Feel About Your Friends" and I'm more than a little proud that we're actually turning our warm feelings toward our nearest and dearest into actual, scheduled time together. I'm even more proud that we've done it in spite of the craziness that is the month of September.

But as far as rest, as far as cultivating a space for being still and knowing, as far as creating traditions for our family that allow us to spend Sunday being creative and lazy, we're not even coming close. In fact, these Sunday suppers have made our weekends feel even more scheduled than usual, and when we close the door behind our guests and load the dishwasher on Sunday evenings as the sky gets dark, I feel several things (satisfied, loved, grateful), but "rested" is not one of them. I imagine -- I hope! -- that there will be Sundays ahead this winter when we are able to make more space for that quiet, but I am beginning to suspect there are hard choices to be made (saying no to those birthday parties and hours of errand-running, weighing the value of that soccer game against the value of two or three hours of spreading out in the living room with a mess of crayons and Legos) if our family is truly serious about finding more rest.

For now, I'm taking a minute to be truly grateful for the journey we're on and the small moments of connection we've enjoyed so far. I read a study last year (can't remember where or which one) that talked about the many reasons it's important to practice gratitude regularly with young children, so we commandeered a neglected journal of Annie's and turned it into our Sunday night gratitude journal. One of the girls is usually in charge of recording the little things we're thankful for after we've finished eating, and it's fun to look back to last winter and see "our whole family being on the chairlift together" or last spring and see "daffodils coming up in the front yard" on the weekly lists. We have one child who's naturally inclined to see the good in the world and another who needs a little nudge (ahem), and we've noticed a definite uptick in all our attitudes when we wrap up the weekend by taking the time to list the good things, one of which is this apple tart we served Sunday night. 

So on the last day of September, I'm grateful for good friends around our backyard table, for silly little girls writing in our journal, for pumpkin beer, for sunny fall days, for Reclaiming Sunday Supper, and for Smitten Kitchen, who pretty much never steers you wrong.

Apple Tart with Salted Caramel, adapted (barely) from Smitten Kitchen

Tart base

  • 14-ounce package puff pastry, defrosted 
  • 3 large or 4 medium apples
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cold, cut into small bits

Salted caramel glaze

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt 
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • dash of cinnamon, to taste (optional)

Heat your oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper. 

Lightly flour your counter and lay out your pastry. Flour the top and gently roll it until it fits inside your baking sheet, and transfer it there. You want to just stretch it out a bit in every direction; don't worry too much about the exact size.

Peel, core, and stem the apples. Slice the apples halves crosswise as thinly as you can with a knife, or to about 1/16-inch thickness with a mandoline. Leaving a 1/2-inch border, fan the apples around the tart in slightly overlapping concentric rectangles — each apple should overlap the one before so that only about 3/4-inch of the previous apple will be visible — until you reach the middle. Sprinkle the apples evenly with the first two tablespoons of sugar then dot with the tablespoon of butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges of the tart are brown and the edges of the apples begin to take on some color. If you sliced your apples by hand and they were on the thicker side, you might need a little more baking time to cook them through. If your puffed pastry bubbles dramatically in any place during the baking time, simply poke it with a knife or skewer so that it deflates. 

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes into the baking time, make your glaze. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt your last 1/4 cup sugar; this will take about 3 minutes. Cook the liquefied sugar to a nice copper color, another minute or so, being very careful not to burn it. Off the heat, add the sea salt and butter and stir until the butter melts and is incorporated. Add the heavy cream and return to the stove over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until you have a lovely, bronzed caramel syrup, just another minute or two. Stir in the cinnamon, if using. Set aside until needed. You may need to briefly rewarm it to thin the caramel before brushing it over the tart.

After the tart has baked, transfer it to a cooling rack, but leave the oven on. Using very short, gentle strokes, and brushing in the direction that the apples fan to mess up their design as little as possible, brush the entire tart, including the exposed pastry, with the salted caramel glaze. 

Return the apple tart to the oven for 5 more minutes, until the caramel glaze bubbles. Let tart cool completely before cutting. Makes 9-12 servings, depending on how large you cut the slices.