First, I’ll tackle this question existentially: What am I doing with 100 apples? It so happened that the last time I saw apples in Havana was about six months ago. We were down to our last few baby-food squeeze packs of apple sauce that look increasingly luxurious and wasteful the longer we have been in Cuba. So when I finally encountered apples outside a market recently, I didn’t take any chances. I bought an entire crateful.
Perhaps as a testament to how rare apples were, my kids were extraordinarily well behaved the morning we went to look for them. We’d gotten a tip the night before that apples had arrived in Havana, but no precise location. We drove around to a couple of markets, to no avail. Then in one shopping area, we spotted them — boxes and boxes of apples bearing the words “San Clemente” stacked on top of each other, around which a bunch of parents, grandparents, young adults, and children had gathered.
I engaged in the usual line-queueing game that Cubans play: “El ultimo?” I asked. “Who’s last?” Someone in the middle of the loosely-formed line raised their hand. Now it was my job to remember that he was ahead of me and to remember the next person who would join the line; then we were theoretically free to roam wherever we wanted and perhaps even queue up somewhere else for other items like eggs, meat, and any other rare good that had suddenly become available down the block. But we wanted nothing else but apples, so my kids and I waited patiently for everyone ahead of us to buy their apples. Most bought a few, maybe a dozen at the most. At about fifty cents each, they were expensive for Cubans. But they were so worthwhile, I discovered when we got home, after I took my first bite of one: crisp, slightly tangy, and no mealiness. My daughter devoured three that same day!
Perhaps to relieve my guilt for buying a whole crateful, I gave some away. It’s normal to gift things like apples or milk or juice in Cuba, because they are coveted. Five went to a girlfriend; two went to a friend of my daughter. I exhorted our housekeepers to take some at the end of their shifts.
I gave a bunch to a Cuban clown. I’d recently met him when I was writing an article for a magazine, and he’d invited my family and me to one of his clown shows. We snuck backstage just as he was taking his bows. I handed one of his fellow clowns a bagful to share, and he returned a smile so genuine that I could see it even through his white-and-red makeup.
I went through sixteen making apple crisp for my daughter’s school. Some of the kids, perhaps so unused to the idea of apples, took only a cursory taste and left the rest of their portion for the ants. It pained me to see such leftovers. The Cuban teachers, on the other hand, were grateful and finished off their portions, which we served on paper napkins since paper plates are always in short supply. They ate the dessert from the napkins as if it were a cookie or a brownie.
In just about a week, we had gone through about fifty. The rationing in our household would soon begin.
8 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/8-thick pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 cup oatmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the apples, sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour, cinnamon, and lemon juice together. In a separate bowl, mix the remaining six ingredients together until clumpy. (If it doesn’t clump well, add another tablespoon or two of melted butter.)
Place the apples in a well-greased 9-inch pie plate or a 9-x 9-inch square baking pan; the shape of the pan is not important (above I used a disposable pie plate), but the apples should all fit flat and snugly in the pan or plate. Pour the oatmeal and flour mixture over the apples. Make sure the topping is evenly distributed and fully covers the apples.
Bake for 45 minutes in the 350-degree oven, until the topping is slightly crisp and the juice is bubbling. Let it cool for at least 10-15 minutes before serving, making sure that you serve it to people who appreciate apples as much as my children.