I have selective hearing when it comes to family history. On one level I recognize that there are books’ worth of stories about the people that came before me whose lives intersected and spread, wandering through countries and continents, cities and plantations, immigrant ships and slave ships. It’s an American craving to know how ancestry has been assembled, and I’m not immune to it, but I have been roped into one too many family vacation diversions in graveyards and genealogical societies in backwoods Virginia to have held on to the wide eyed glow of the stories.

“Oh look,” I would say by the time I was 14, swatting sweat bees in front of yet another headstone, on the way to summer camp. “It’s my fifth cousin twice removed by marriage.” And then I would roll my eyes.

Luckily, my mother has a sense of humor about adolescent impatience. She eventually started dropping me off at summer camp and visiting distant cousins on her way back home. This worked better for both of us, since her interest in slave rebellions and my interest in the mall each made the other want to poke herself in the eye.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a party where guests were asked to bring a dish to share based on a family recipe. I realized that, in all my foodie curiosity, I hadn’t done much plumbing of Grandmom’s recipe books, so I e-mailed my mother and asked for some notes. She immediately sent me 6 recipes and asked if I wanted the Christmas cookies too. (Way to go, Mom.) The recipes came from family and from friends who might as well be.

She introduced the rutabaga apple casserole with, “I am also putting in a recipe you used to like a bit when you were little until you decided you didn’t like it anymore, ha.” A little light went off in my head when I saw it, as I’d completely forgotten about it. I updated it a little, made an excuse to use up some mascarpone in the fridge, and I added some caramelized onions – because if you can’t improve something with caramelized onions, it’s time to order takeout. As I pulled the ingredients together, old remembered smells came out and I was suddenly very young, in the cabin I grew up in with my little outpost of family, gathering for dinner. It was nice to be home again.

Rutabaga and Apple Casserole
serves 6-8 as a side dish

2 tablespoons butter
3 yellow onions, cut into 1/4″ slices
2 sprigs thyme
1/4 cup sherry

2 large rutabagas, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup mascarpone or cream cheese
1 tablespoon neutral oil

2 tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced (I like to use a mandoline)
handful brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat to 350F and grease a 2-quart casserole dish.

Caramelize onions: In a pan over high heat, melt butter. Just as the solids start to brown, add onions, stir to coat with butter, and turn the heat down to medium. Add a teaspoon or so of kosher salt, half a teaspoon of black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and very brown, about 20 minutes. Add thyme and sherry and let cook until liquid is almost gone. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

While onions are cooking, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add rutabaga. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and put in the food processor with butter, mascarpone or cream cheese, and oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Toss apple slices in a bowl with brown sugar and allspice. In a separate bowl combine flour, brown sugar, and butter. (This will be the topping.)

Spread half of the rutabaga puree in the bottom of the casserole dish. Apples go on top of that, then onions, then the second half of the rutabaga. Top with the flour mixture and bake for an hour. Let rest for 10 minutes before cutting.

This is best served with something green and sharp that will cut through all the richness. I steamed some kale and tossed it in a tangy vinaigrette, and it worked very well.

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