Book Bites: Stranger & Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Very excited to announce a new column, called Book Bites! Book Bites is Cooking the Books‘ more easygoing sibling. Authors talk about their book and share a recipe, all in one tasty bite.

Even more exciting are our inaugural guests: Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown have dropped by to share a bite of their book HOSTAGE with you.

Book Bites, with Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown

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Book View CafeAmazon | Barnes & Noble

Our YA series, The Change, starting with STRANGER and HOSTAGE (download an excerpt here) is set in a kind of Gold Rush crossed with X-Men setting, on the ruins of Los Angeles. That called for a diverse set of cultures—and that means an interesting variety of foods. We describe food a lot in the books, because we both really like food.

So when the opportunity came up to do this Book Bites blog, the first thing to mind was apple crumble. Rachel had one recipe, which is a delicious one. Sherwood faced a dilemma.

She said:

Over the years I’ve enjoyed variations of this dish under various names—apple crumble, Apple Brown Betty, baked apple surprise, and my dad’s inimitable apple crapple.

My favorite version was the one I grew up with, as made by my mom and my grandmother. I asked my grandmother for the recipe some forty years ago, when I was making a big dessert for some pot luck. The only thing I recollected all these decades later was her saying, “And be sure to spritz the apples with lemon juice. That’s the most important ingredient.”

“How much,” I asked, without much hope, as the recipe had begun with, “You take and put your peeled apples in your greased pan,” and went through amounts measures in pinches, a good handful, and several shakes. When I tried to pin her down with a specific amount of flour, she said, “I filled that blue cup of your great-grandmother’s.”

“How much was that?”

“Oh, a bit more than a coffee cup, but not so much as a beer.”

So, the lemon? “You spritz it good.”

My attempt back in 1975, predictably, was dismal, and I didn’t try it again. But when the prospect of this blog came up I called my mom and asked her for her recipe. She said, “Oh, it comes from the old Betty Crocker recipe book—the one I got after I married. I’ll photocopy it for you and send it.” (1950.)

She did—it came—I looked at it in surprise. I didn’t remember graham crackers in it, but maybe I didn’t notice.

That recipe:

  • 2 cups bread crumbs or graham cracker crumbs.
  • 3 tbsp. Melted butter
  • 3 or 4 medium apples
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • ½ grated lemon peel
  • ½ cup brown or granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup hot water

Combine crumbs and butter. Stir over low heat until lightly browned. Place one third in greased baking dish. Peel, core, and slice apples. Arrange half in layer over crumbs. Sprinkle with half the lemon juice, peel, and sugar. Add second layer of crumbs and remaining apples, lemon juice, peel, and sugar. Cover with remaining crumbs. Pour over water. They can moderately hot oven 375 until apples are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve warm with lemon sauce.

Somehow none of this sounded right, but I struggled with it all, having a tough time peeling lemons as our kitchen doesn’t have many gadgets. I got it into the oven. Then my mom called, and she said, “You know, I have been thinking about that recipe. I don’t use melted butter. I don’t think I’ve put melted butter in it for years. I guess I have been adapting the recipe, and hadn’t thought about it.”

Okay. I got out a pencil and paper, and this is what she dictated.

  • 8 to 10 apples, peeled and cord and sliced
  • a cube of unsalted butter still hard
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. nutmeg
  • ¾ cup brown sugar

Start the oven at 350. Grease the bottom of an 11 x 13 baking pan, preferably glass. Cut the unsalted butter into the flour over and over until the butter is tiny little blobs well distributed through the flour. Then fork-stir all the dry ingredients into the flour mix.

Put down a layer of apples. Sprinkle the butter/flour mix over the apples. Repeat until you use up all your ingredients. Bake at 350 for about forty-five minutes.

So I ended up making both. Maybe as a little kid I had eaten the graham cracker version and loved it, but it tasted terrible to me now. No wonder my mom had been adapting it over the decades! The thing that got me was she had completely changed the recipe while still thinking it was Betty Crocker’s. Plus, hers was not the same as my grandmother’s — she did not put lemon in it, and my grandmother hadn’t used nutmeg.

I’ve since made my mom’s recipe a couple times — but I added lemon juice. I liked the idea of combining their recipes. Tastes great!

This experiment caused us to discuss how recipes evolve over time and among families. How people prepare food and hand it down is integral to story telling—in fact, every time I ask someone about a family recipe there is almost always an interesting story involved.

Our recipes for apple crumble turned out to be slightly different, but that’s fine. In Las Anclas, there are probably a dozen or more separate recipes for apple crumble.

But Sherwood is convinced that Jack’s secret ingredient is a spritz of lemon.

Book Bites is a new column for Cooking the Books.



  1. It’s funny when some random circumstantial element becomes key to a recipe–like baking something in a bread-loaf pan because you don’t have a pie tin, or using ground-up Corn Flakes because you don’t have bread crumbs… and then that element becomes a sacred part of the recipe.

  2. I am convinced that all recipes that linger start out exactly like that. Long before they turn in up five star menus, way out of the price range of the hair-pulling kitchens that first made them as a result of using what was on hand. They spread from having guests, wanted or otherwise, and then as each household goes through the “Well the Heyeses did it, but I’ll try mine with pears, because well the pear tree is in overdrive this year”, and so on until it becomes a “cuisine”.

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