When she has the kitchen all to herself, Phyllis Grant of Dash and Bella cooks beautiful iterations of what solo meals were always meant to be: Exactly what you want, when and where you want them.
Today: Sometimes the only thing to do is to make an apple tart. Phyllis's, rich with vanilla bean, brown butter, and apricot jam, is the one you want.
I ask my grandmother what kind of soup she wants. I need her to eat. Butternut squash? No response. White bean? Nose scrunch. Split pea with a ham hock? Her big smile brings me relief. She wants soup. She is still here. But the tone in the nun's voice is enough to push me up and over into tears: We are not God, you know. But she is close.
My friend Margi tells me that hospice knows. I don’t want to believe her. But it is enough to send me to the phone. To call my parents. To tell them to fly home.
I am not hungry but I need to make a tart. I move into my kitchen for the day.
I take dough out of the freezer, brown and cool some butter, tell my son that if he doesn’t take a bath he will have to move out before the first of the month.
I pick up a rolling pin and wack wack wack the dough until it is soft enough to handle. I roll. I try to let her go. I roll. I try to let her go.
My son dives underneath the bath water to see how long he can hold his breath. His silence brings me running to the rescue. He is absolutely still, floating face-down in the water. I scream. He pops up with a laugh. What, mom? What? You worry too much.
As I arrange the apple slices in concentric circles and paint them with vanilla bean-flecked brown butter, I hear my dad telling me about this tart he had in Paris, somewhere slightly northeast of the Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It wasn’t gooey like a tarte tatin. It wasn’t doughy and gelatinous like a pie.
My daughter climbs up on the dresser to tape a series of cupcake photos to her wall. The house-shaking crash -- drawers and clothes and child flying -- sends me running.
I’m just trying to keep everyone alive.
I go back to my safe kitchen and finish up the tart with egg wash and turbinado sugar. I slide it onto a hot pizza stone. Thin and crisp. That’s what my dad always said he loved about that tart in Paris.
I smile. This might be the closest one yet.
My parents land late. They are stressed. Anticipating death.
They find apple tart on their kitchen counter. They eat it with wine and cheese, turning it into dinner.
There is nothing else we can do.
1 recipe of your favorite tart or pie dough (or puff pastry)
6 to 8 Granny Smith apples
3 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, halved and scraped of its seeds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons heavy cream
4 tablespoons turbinado sugar
3 tablespoons apricot jam, any large chunks of fruit finely chopped up
Photos by Phyllis Grant