This past summer, I enrolled in a 9 week mindfulness meditation course through UC San Diego. I can sense your mouse hovering above your browser's back button as you read that and think, "I sure as hell am not going to read yet another new-agey blog post from a snooty coastal liberal."
Relax, friend. This is not chakra territory. You're safe here.
For some time now, I'd felt a certain... lack of focus? I spent (well, I spend) too many days with 17 browser windows open, flitting back and forth unthinkingly, scrambling to cram my work into the last few hours of the day. I spent (okay, spend) entirely too much time spent scrolling through the vitriolic comment hellscape that is the comments section of mundane climate change articles. I'm a low-key masochist.
I was hoping a formal mindfulness practice might hone my mind, training me to block out these unthinking distractions and just focus on a single task.
I wish I could say my mindfulness practice has truly changed my mental faculties and, as a result, made a significant impact on my quality of life. Unfortunately, my practice has been characterized by fits and starts. (Those who know me well are thinking typical.)
A primary contributing factor to my mixed results is the simple fact that meditation is hard. People unfamiliar with the practice like to envision it as some blissed out state of pure relaxation, but as we were taught to approach it, it's largely the opposite. As opposed to one's mind becoming a blank slate, instead, one's mind becomes intently focused on something minute, which is frankly difficult.
It may sound simple to lay on your back and focus deeply on the feeling within you stationary big toe, but then you're suddenly startled awake by your own large snore.
Around week seven of the course, we were scheduled to take part in an all day meditation session. We were to maintain silence. We were to keep our gaze down and avoid eye contact to remain in a sphere of our own mind as much as possible. We spent about 7 hours going through a variety of group meditation practices, and I was surprised to learn that, although I struggled at certain points, I had surprising stamina for focus across the session.
On the night of the last session we were encouraged to bring something as a sort of offering to share with the group. It could be a poem or a song or some food--as tangible or intangible as we liked. We sat in a circle and talked about our experiences in the course, moving our thumbs over the small meditation stones the instructor had just given us.
As my offering, I, of course, brought food. A tarte tatin.
Offering food has become my go-to over the last few years. I actually believe the old adage that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach is too narrow. The way to endear yourself to anyone—to feel a connection to another person through shared sustenance is one of the most primal forms of community. There was a bond built among the eight or nine of us in that room over the course of eight weeks as we shared our struggles and reactions to a new practice that was foreign to us, and I felt that bond strengthened as my classmates reached for a second slice.
Fast forward a couple of months to the first week of November and community was suddenly an idea that felt tattered and trampled, aside from perhaps a communal sense of despair. I needn't tell you why that particular time frame was remarkable because if you currently live in these United(?) States, chances are that time frame found you either celebrating the imminent white utopia or wondering how hard Danish visas are to acquire.
It struck me as a time when perhaps my mindfulness practice should be put to greater use, when clarity and focus would be an important virtue; assessing how to move forward against an administration that would promote xenophobia as the order of the day would require sustained attention.
In the meantime, however, I was desperate to find some small way to make a positive impact to quell the feeling of doom. And the tarte tatin experience provided inspiration in concert with a friend's idea to have a good old fashioned bake sale. I ran with that idea and offered baked goods in exchange for donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Southern Poverty Law Center.
I am happy to say I raised over $1,000. But just as important for my personal sense of peace was that same feeling of community bond that was generated. Spending a full weekend covered in flour, making something with your hands is truly a nice antidote to the disconnected despair that endlessly scrolling through the news tends to create.
I'd encourage anyone who reads this to make some food for someone in their life in the coming days. Feel the humanity in feeding someone. Pay attention to the small sensations produced by cutting a carrot or rolling out dough. Take a deep breath and look at the birds perched outside the kitchen window. Tell someone you love them.
(And don't forget to go outside vote, volunteer, donate, and march.)
People will tell you this tarte tastes so fresh and bright! They have no idea it's essentially all butter and sugar. Cooking times for the apples will vary based on liquid content evaporating to create caramel but be warned: if the caramel takes too long to develop, the apples will lose texture and begin to mushify. The finished product will still be delicious, but the texture won't be optimal.
- To make the dough, whisk the salt and powdered sugar into the flour.
- Using your hands or a pastry cutter, incorporate the softened butter until the mixture feels like moist sand.
- Mix the beaten egg into the flour mixture until you can form a ball.
- Using the palm of your hand, mash the dough into a clean work surface a few times until the dough is smooth, however don't knead as you would pasta or bread. Gather into a ball and flatten into a disc. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator while you prepare your apples.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F
- To make the filling, peel, core, and cut the apples into quarters.
- In a large 9 to 10-inch cast iron skillet (or other oven-proof skillet), melt the butter.
- When butter has melted, turn off the heat and sprinkle the sugar evenly on top of the melted butter.
- Place the quartered apples in a circular arrangement in the skillet, as snuggly as you can fit them, fanning them out in whichever way you find visually appealing.
- Put the skillet on high heat and allow the apples to simmer in the caramel for about 10 to 15 minutes. You can swish the caramel around a bit to prevent from burning and ensure the apples are cooking evenly.
- Once the caramel begins to turn slightly amber in color, immediately remove the skillet from the heat. The apples will have shrunk slightly and with a fork, you can gently bring them as close together as you can, shrinking your overall circle. Leave them to cool slightly while you roll out your pastry.
- On a lightly floured surface, work quickly to roll out the pastry dough to about 1/8 inch thick.
- Place the dough over the apples and cut off any excess amounts, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Tuck the dough in around the outer edges of the apples. Make a few slits on top of the dough, to allow the steam to vent.
- Bake the pie in a 375 F oven, for about 30 minutes, until the top of the pie is golden.
- Do not wait more than 10 minutes before flipping your pie over onto a serving plate. The apples must still be hot when you invert the pie otherwise the caramel will harden and the apples may stick to the skillet. Before inverting, first run a sharp knife along the inner edge of the skillet to separate any dough that has stuck to the side. Using oven mitts and a plate that is wider than the top rim of your skillet, hold the plate tightly against the skillet and flip them over in one swift motion.
For the crust
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 stick butter, at room temperature and cut into cubes
- 1 beaten egg
For the filling
- 6 to 8 medium to large apples
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 stick butter