Cooking in season

As varieties of fall’s favorite fruit fill our market bins, one apple expert urges us to explore the diversity


APPLE TIPS

  • Let your taste buds be your guide. Over time, you'll pinpoint your favorites.
  • In recipes, use unpeeled apples for a boost in fiber and color.
  • The most common apple for eating fresh is the Red Delicious, which can go grainy when cooked. Other eat-fresh standouts: Fuji, Gala, Cameo and Honeycrisp.
  • For DIY apple juice, slow-steam 20 pounds of cored, cut apples in 4 inches of water for 1 to 2 hours (until pot is nearly full of juice). Strain and add sugar to taste.

Source: Amy Pennington's "Apples: From Harvest to Table"

A true apple lover knows a bite of fall’s favorite fruit is a complex thing. Apples are tart. Apples are sweet. They’re thick-skinned, or thinly coated, waxed and unwaxed, firm and mushy, resistant to heat or quick to surrender.

Organic gardener and food writer Amy Pennington, an apple lover partial to heirloom varieties, knows this is a fruit of nuance. To the untutored palate, an apple may be just an apple, but to Pennington, a New York native who runs the GoGo Green Garden business in Seattle, it is a globe of surprises.

She’s the author of the recently released cookbook “Apples: From Harvest to Table” (St. Martin’s Press, $21.99), which showcases the full range of recipe possibilities inspired by the diverse varieties of the apple.

And while the fruit’s many talents extend beyond the great American apple pie, adding flavor, texture and nutrients to cooked savory dishes, raw salads and juices, apple season’s grand entrance each year stirs our craving for baking spices and creations that turn our kitchens fragrant. The recipes you’ll find here are certain to do just that.

Why do we love the apple so?

“The apple is the first fruit that marks the change of season – it’s autumnal. It’s an important crop, and it has value and economy,” says Pennington, 39, who was happy to talk with us by phone last week as she walked to lunch in Seattle.

What was the last great apple you had?

I tried this really delicious new apple variety called Wynoochee two or three weeks ago at a farmers’ market. It was really crisp and kind of tart-sweet. It hit right in the middle. More compelling was that the skin was a lime-y green and then this rosy blush. Really beautiful. I like all the heirloom varieties, though sometimes they’re not easily available — you have to seek out the farms.

Let’s talk about apples do and don’ts — are there any rules about which apples not to use for baking or cooking?

Yes and no. Different apples will produce different results. In the book, there’s a recipe for a whole baked apple – for a recipe like that, where you want the shape to be there, you have to choose a firmer variety that will stay intact. If you choose a soft apple, it will explode into a pile of applesauce.

There are a lot of apple choices in the firm categories. Granny Smiths are great. In the case of the poached apple halves (see attached recipe), they will hold their shapes when you put them into the poaching liquid and won’t fall apart. For that recipe, (which has a caramel-like water) you don’t want to use a sweet apple, because you’ll have sweet on sweet.

Which is your favorite apple for apple pie?

I mix it up. Everyone knows the Granny Smith, but I’d encourage people to grab two other varieties as well. You’ll get a mix of textures and a mix of flavors. Texturally, you’ll have one firm, one that breaks down to a mush. In flavor, you’ll have sweet and tart.

You advise that we should let our taste buds guide with apples, does that mean taste is more important than texture when it comes to cooking with apples?

Taste will always be more important because it’s such a personal thing.

We are apple orchard-deprived in South Florida and, for the most part, we get the standard varieties of apples in our supermarket bins. Of those, which is the crown jewel?

I would say pink ladies because they’re good for cooking, great for eating fresh.

If you were a teacher and one of your students brought you a big, shiny apple, which variety would you prefer?

I would want that apple to be a Macoun. That's an heirloom. It's kind of knobby, not so nice-looking. They're tart-sweet, firm. I also love the Spitzenberg. They're big red apples, the kind that make you say, "Now, that's an apple!"

Recipes excerpted from the book “Apples: From Harvest to Table” by Amy Pennington (St. Martin’s Press).

APPLE ALMOND TART

Author Amy Pennington says you can use pistachios instead of almonds in this recipe. "Be sure to slice your apples thinly for this tart, and lay them in an organized circular pattern. The edges will darken and crisp, and the tart will look gorgeous when served whole and cut at the table." Suggested varieties: Choose apple-y apples, like Golden Delicious, Rome or Granny Smith.

Makes 1 tart; serves 6 to 8

For the tart dough:

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat pastry flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes

¼ cup ice water, plus more if needed

For the filling:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whole almonds, toasted, cooled and finely ground

2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

2 medium apples, cored and thinly sliced (about ¼ inch)

1 tablespoon demerara sugar

To make the tart dough: Combine all of the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse once or twice to combine. Add the butter cubes to the bowl. Pulse until the dough forms into large crumbles, being careful not to over-mix, about 30 pulses. Add the ice water to the bowl and turn the processor on, mixing until the dough is just combined and comes together in 2 or 3 large portions. This only takes about 8 to 10 seconds, so be mindful not to over-process. Turn the dough out onto the countertop and press into a flat round disk (about 6 inches wide). Work quickly and don't handle the dough too much. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours, or until you're ready to roll it out.

Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the dough into a 10-inch round, making sure to rotate and flip it over, rolling both sides. Fold it in half loosely and place it over a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, the crease of the dough running down the middle of the pan, and the edges overhanging slightly. Unfold the dough so it hangs over the edge of the tart pan. Press the dough gently into the corners of the pan, being careful not to stretch it thin. Fold under any overhanging crust, and press it into the walls of the tart pan. Run a rolling pin over the top of the pan, pressing down to trim any extra dough and make it flush with top edge of the pan. Use a fork to pierce the bottom of the tart shell, and freeze for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Take the tart shell from the freezer and line it with parchment paper. Fill the parchment paper with pie weights or beans, pressing them into the corners. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the pie weights and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Remove the shell from the oven and cool for at least 15 minutes, or until you’re ready to use it.

To prepare the filling: When you're ready to make the filling, be sure the oven in preheated to 350 degrees F. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy and white, about 5 minutes. Add the egg, egg yolk and vanilla, and mix well to combine. Add the ground almonds, flour and salt; mix together until well combined.

Spread the filling into the pre-baked tart shell. Press the apple slices into the almond filling, slightly overlapping them and working in a circle from the outside of the tart to the center. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar and bake until the apples are golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool before serving.

VANILLA-CARAMEL POACHED APPLE HALVES WITH MASCARPONE

"For entertaining, you can make these apples a day ahead and hold them in the fridge overnight with good results," says Pennington. Suggested varieties: Any apple that can hold up to the heat without breaking down is preferred here. Try Pink Lady, Golden Delicious or Braeburn.

Serves 6

2 ¼ cups sugar

5 ½ cups warm water

1 whole vanilla bean pod, split, seeds reserved

4 small apples

¼ cup mascarpone

In a large dry saucepan, add the sugar and shake, gently, so it forms an even layer along the bottom. Set the pan over medium-high heat and do not stir the sugar, but monitor it closely. It will begin to brown at the edges. Swirl the pan slightly to distribute the heat and hot caramel, making sure to keep the sugar level so it does not coat the sides of the saucepan. The caramel will turn dark brown and amber at the edges. Continue swirling gently until all of the sugar is dark amber, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour in the warm water and stir. Be careful, because the caramelized sugar will sputter and pop. Cook until the caramelized sugar has dissolved, add the vanilla bean pod, remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Peel the apples, leaving their stems intact. Cut them in half lengthwise, scoop out their cores with a small spoon, and immediately drop them into the syrup. When all of the apples have been added to the syrup, return the pan to medium-high heat. Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook the apples until they are just soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Check for doneness by piercing with a paring knife: A cooked apple will be easily pierced, but still offer slight resistance near the center. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, stir together the mascarpone and reserved vanilla seeds until combined. To serve, use a slotted spoon to remove each apple half from the syrup and place in a shallow bowl. Add a dollop of vanilla mascarpone to the hallowed center, pour a spoonful of the caramel poaching liquid into the bowl and serve.

APPLE CIDER DOUGHNUTS

“For a light or fluffy doughnut, make sure you don’t over-mix the batter, which will stimulate the gluten in the flour and create a tougher texture,” says Pennington.

Makes 36 small doughnuts

5 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

3 large eggs

½ cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups apple cider, boiled until reduced by half (1 cup total)

Vegetable oil, for frying

1 cup powdered sugar or 1 cup granulated sugar plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, for serving

In a medium bowl, add the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir to combine thoroughly and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well until incorporated, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl between each addition.

Once the eggs are blended fully, add half of the dry ingredients and mix until well combined, about 1 minute. Pour in the yogurt and vanilla and mix briefly, until just combined. Add the remainder of the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. These last 2 steps should take 1 minute total.

Add the reduced apple cider to the bowl and mix until just combined — there may be a few lumps. Cover the surface of the dough with a layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, 2 to 3 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a floured countertop and knead it briefly to even it out into a soft mound. The dough should be soft with a smooth surface; it won’t need much flour incorporated. Pat or roll the dough into a wide rectangular shape about 1 ½ inches thick. Using a knife, cut the dough into small 2-inch squares.

When you’re ready to fry the doughnuts, add about ½ inch of oil to a large sauté pan, and set the pan over medium heat. The oil is ready when it hits 375 degrees F, or a small piece of dough dropped in bubbles quickly and floats. Using a small spatula, drop the doughnuts into the hot oil and fry, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook on one side until golden brown, about 2 minutes, and turn over. Cook the other side until golden brown, another 2 minutes or so. When they’re brown, drain the doughnuts on several layers of paper towel or on a paper bag and cool slightly. Once they’re cool enough to handle, but still warm, either shake powdered sugar over them or toss in cinnamon-sugar.

Any extra dough can be shaped, cut and frozen for frying at a later date.

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