Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Holiday Quickie

Apples.  Can't live with ‘em.  Can't live without ‘em.

Well actually, you can.  But why should you when they add such a delightful crunch to everyday life?  Adults love ‘em.  Kids love ‘em.  Horses love ‘em.  And what’s not to like about horses and their tastes, except of course, being behind horses, which is an entirely different matter.

But, getting back, front and center, to apples, if you really want to enjoy them, the season is now.  In fact, Fall and Winter are their summer glory.  And that's not the least bit confusing at all.  Is it?

So, if you’ve ever considered taking an apple voyage of discovery, there's no better time than the present.  And why not travel in high season?  The flavor’s great and the rates are better.  But, first of all, we'll need to know where we're going, and to do that, we'll have to discover from where we've come.

So, in order to begin, let’s start at the beginning.  As long as there’s been recorded history, there have been apples.  And in fact, the Lady apple, a variety still grown today, was documented as far back as the 1st century C.E.  Now, that’s some pretty historic eating.

But apple documentation goes back even further than that.  The Persians considered the cultivation of apples an essential part of civilized life and that sensibility was transferred to the Greeks as their empire rose to prominence in the 3rd century B.C.E.  To them, apples became symbols of the Sun’s life-giving warmth and their trees became sacred to the Sun god, Apollo.

The Romans, ravenous adapters of everything, continued the sentiment, taking apple varieties and cultivation techniques westward into Europe as their empire expanded.  But with the descent into the dark ages, all might have been lost, had it not been preserved in the orcharding traditions of the Christian monastic orders.

But let's fast-forward to the late 15th century, when Europeans first set foot in the New World. 
If back then, you'd wanted to eat local, then you'd better like to pucker, because only sour crab apple trees were native to America.

So it seems that we owe a mouthful of gratitude to the settlers who brought with them not only their customs, but their European fruits.  For in earnest, they went about seedling apple orchards, meaning growing orchards from seeds, rather than by grafting. 

And as a result, hundreds of new apple varieties were created, many of which, we still enjoy today.  Apples are now grown in every state in the U.S., with Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia leading the pack.

But apples aren't only about slicing and eating.  If it's baking you’re needing, it's best to pick firm, crisp apples with a balance of sweet and tart flavors, and with flesh that won't break down in the oven as they cook.  For there's nothing worse, than making applesauce when you didn't want to make applesauce.

So, let's begin our baking apple tour with the green and pleasantly puckery Granny Smith.  Possibly the most popular of all apples for baking, it's crunchy tang is the perfect match for sticky, sweet toppings where Granny's sour power balances caramel’s super sweet.

Next up are the deep red Jonathans with their slightly spicy apple flavor.  Tart and tangy, they've been pie favorites for years.  Johnagolds are a blend of Jonathan and Golden Delicious apples, and are designed to combine the best of both in their crisp and tangy sweet taste.

Fuji apples (one of my favorites), were developed in Japan by crossing Red Delicious with Ralls Janet (an antique apple cultivated by Thomas Jefferson in 1793).  They’re juicy and sweet, with firm, red skin.

And rounding out the list, are firm Braeburns with their spicy, sweet flavor.  They’re great in oven cooked recipes, while crisp Gala apples have a natural sweetness that can require less sugar when baking.

And last but not least, are the juicy and slightly tart Cortlands, with their bright red skin and snowy, white flesh.  Terrific baking apples with just a touch of tartness, their flesh, when sliced, won't discolor quickly.

So now that our tour is completed, let the baking begin!  But, don't worry, I've made it easy.    For the secret is in the apples, and now you know just where to start.  It's the perfect harried holiday recipe, serving up big flavors for small efforts.  And what could be better than that?


Serves 4

4 apples (such as, Granny Smith or Fuji)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated)
¼ teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
⅔ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons candied ginger (finely chopped)
almonds (toasted and chopped)

Set rack to mid-oven and preheat to 425°F

Combine the sugars, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger and set aside.

Peel, core and  halve the apples, then arrange them, cut side down, in a large pie plate or gratin dish.  Sprinkle the sugar spice mixture evenly over the apples, then slide into the oven and bake for about 35 minutes, until apples are tender when pierced with a knife.

Remove from oven, then pour the heavy cream over the apples and sprinkle them with the candied ginger, before returning them to bake for another 25 – 30 minutes.

Remove, then allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving, sprinkled with the toasted almonds.

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