THEY COULDN’T LOOK MORE UNPREPOSSESSING. AND THEY COULDN’T BE EASIER.
AND THEY COULD NOT POSSIBLY BE MORE DELICIOUS, OR MORE PERFECT FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR.
MEET MY MOTHER’S BAKED APPLES.
AND, IF YOU HAVE SOMEONE AT YOUR THANKSGIVING TABLE WHO IS GLUTEN- OR GRAIN-FREE, OR AVOIDING ADDED SUGAR, OR VEGAN, BUT YOU STILL WANT THEM TO BE ABLE TO JOIN THE PARTY DESSERT-WISE… THEY WILL SWOON WITH DELIGHT OVER THESE.
(Option: Go jump to recipe, skipping story).
First frost still hasn’t came this year, and we’ve had a too-long, worrisomely-hot summer. But even though we are still having 90 degree days in mid-October, I can feel fall on the way; lower humidity, and a breeze, and the sky getting that deep particular autumnal blue… the heat is so much more bearable.
And when frost does come, we’ll be ready. We’ll dig up the elephant ears, move the begonia plants and the potted herbs indoors, carry the hanging baskets to the basement where he’s set up a grow-light.
Around the time of first frost, we often get a long, cold fall rain, which I find strangely soothing, and a relief after a too-hot summer. I love walking and getting out in cool weather, but that first hard cold rain is the kind of weather that makes me happy to stay inside, possibly lighting the first fire of the year. The kind that makes a person dig in the closet for that blue sweater.
On such a day, only my mother’s baked apples could add to the perfection.
These apples are one of the ways I mark the year’s turning.
This simplest of desserts is one I make at least every couple of weeks between October and February, always with a mental curtsey of thanks to my late mother, Charlotte, who left this world in 2013.
Basically, you spice the apples and bake them in cider or juice until they are falling apart and not very pretty. Then you remove them from the oven, drain off the cooking juices, and boil said juices down with a little additional cider to make a thick syrup. Then, when you serve the apples — I like them slightly warm — you pour this delectable apple reduction over them.
I have been eating these baked apples for as long as I can remember. Of course I ate them growing up. Then, I started making them for myself when I moved away from home. Still later, I served them, sometimes, in the fall breakfast baskets that went to guests at the inn I ran for eighteen years with my late husband, Ned.
That same husband, knowing my fondness for baked apples, somehow secretly made me a pan of them the first time we celebrated my birthday together, at a surprise party he threw me, held at a friend’s house, in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was turning 25, and he made sure there were 25 people present, 26 including me, so he could put a candle in each of the 26 baked apples.
I was 25. I’m about to be 69. I haven’t thought of those birthday apples in decades; remembered this only as I wrote this post. Sweet guy, was Ned.
And it is almost 21 years now, since he died. Almost eight since Charlotte died.
Time turns. And that turning is not just of a year but of a life and lives.
I made these baked apples for my mother periodically, after she stopped cooking much, then, at all. I made them for her quite often as she grew very old: she loved them at 95, 96, 97, 98.
I would probably enjoy these apples, then, if only for these dear associations.
But the fact is, I love them for a lot of reasons.
I love them practically — I love that they are easy. You can put a pan of baked apples together in under fifteen minutes, including coring ’em out (the only step that is the least time-consuming), and you’ll only dirty up only a knife and cutting board.
I love that they warm the house fragrantly as they bake, so much so that you can’t help but breathe in, deeply — and that, always, is soothing.
I love that they are agreeable. By which I mean, they are comfortable with baking alongside whatever else you have going on in the oven, happily cooking to perfection at any temperature between 250 and 400, as long as you keep a casual eye on them.
I love these apples sensually, too. I love that they are infinitely variable, given all the varieties of apples you could use, and given all the ways you can glaze them.
I love that as indulgent desserts go, they are quite good for you, and that while if you wish you can doll them up with heavy cream or whipped cream or whipped coconut cream or ice cream or custard sauce (dairy or coconut or cashew) , or serve them with gingerbread or chewy homemade ginger-molasses cookies, you really don’t need to.
Seriously, you don’t.
Because the last reason I love these apples is because they are so very delicious on their own, simple and unadorned.
CHARLOTTE’S BAKED APPLES
Though I never tire of my mother’s recipe, which is more a method than a recipe, I have rung many slight changes and variations on it over the years, while always sticking to the basics, as she taught to me. A list of some options follows the main recipe.
The size of apples you have on hand plus their variety, plus, as stated below in note, whatever else you may have in the oven, all affect how long it will take for the apples to reach perfect doneness. But if you follow these basic outlines, you can’t go wrong
I am giving this method for four large or five small-to-medium apples, the minimum it’s really worth messing with, which will fit neatly in an 8X8 baking dish. You can certainly scale up and bake more, and I advise you to do so.
The glaze — a simple reduction of the apple cider or juice in which the apples baked — is not strictly necessary, but it’s awfully good.
EQUIPMENT: a baking dish of Pyrex, pottery, enamel, or one covered in heavy-duty non-stick coating, with sides are 2-3 inches deep; not much shallower or higher. Do not use an aluminum baking dish. What size? You need one that will hold your apples comfortably, so they don’t squish into each other but have a bit of space around them. For the quantity of apples described here, an 8X8 will do.
oil, for greasing the baking dish
4 large or 5 small-to-medium apples, ideally cooking apples (see note below), preferably organic, well-washed
whole cloves, allowing 3 cloves per apple (12 total for 4 apples)
2 or 3 sticks of cinnamon, ideally the splintery flavorful Saigon cinnamon, broken into 4 pieces (but the harder type will do, if that’s what you have on hand)
1/4 of a lemon, deseeded, peel and all, cut into four pieces
4 teaspoons butter or Miyoko’s Creamery Cultured Vegan Butter
4 rounded teaspoons of brown sugar, coconut sugar, or maple sugar
about 2/3 cup apple cider or other flavorful liquid (see below)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
for making the glaze:
an additional 2 cups cider or juice (or other liquid; see below)
1. Preheat the oven, anywhere from 250 to 400 (depending on if you’re baking something else that is pickier about temperature at the same time). Oil the baking dish, and set it aside.
2. Core the apples, using a small, sharp paring knife. Start at the stem end, circling with the knife, working your way down in a cone-shape, scraping out the seeds and the tough seed fiber. Then flip and begin at the blossom end, repeating until you come to the middle. Then turn the knife around in the middle to scrape out any more seed-and-seed-case detritus and to make a nice, not-too-big tunnel right down the middle of the apple. Place each apple in the prepared baking dish.
3. Poke three cloves, pointed side down, equidistant from each other around the top of each apple, piercing the peel. Then jab in a stick of cinnamon into the top of the apple, leaving it standing upright (if you have the hard kind of cinnamon, just go head and stick the cinnamon in the hollow of each apple’s core). Push a piece of the lemon, with its rind, into the cored centers. Top the lemon with the brown sugar or other sweetener, and finish with the teaspoon of butter or vegan butter.
4. Combine the cider and vanilla, and pour this over the apples. Stick the apple-filled baking dish in the oven.
5. Check on the apples at 20 minutes to baste them. Check again at 35 minutes, and if you like, spoon a little more of the apple cider over them. The apples won’t be done yet (maybe, if you are baking a firm cooking apple at a lower temperature, nowhere close to done). But from here on out, check them every 15 minutes or so, basting with the apple juice. There are many variables here — the size and variety of the apples, the temperature you chose. If you are an inexperienced cook and feel uneasy about lack of guidance, then go ahead and use medium large apples, bake at 350, and allow for 45 to 55 minutes.
6. Test the apples for doneness, inserting the tip of a knife if necessary — you want them completely, meltingly tender heat on the inside and almost collapsed in on themselves, pleasantly shriveled on the outside. Serve, warm or chilled, with a little of the baking liquid spooned over each. Or, reserve the baking liquid to make the glaze, below.
7. GLAZE: transfer the baking liquid to a heavy-duty medium saute pan coated in non-stick covering, and add the additional cider or juice. Bring to a boil over medium high heat — it will bubble — and stay close at hand. You are trying to cook the juice down to a syrup about the consistency, when finished and cooled, of thin honey. Keep lifting the pan off the heat every few minutes and giving it a swirl to bring down the bubbles so you can see how reduced it’s getting. Cook the syrup down til it is about the thickness of maple syrup (it will get thicker as it cools; better to remove it to early than to let it burn). Divide the glaze over each apple.
The primary way to vary these apples is by changing the basting liquid, which becomes the glaze.
1. Spiked Baked Apples: Add a couple of tablespoons of bourbon to the cider in which you bake the apples. If you want to get fancy and show-offy, you can also flame a little additional heated bourbon over the finished apples, and serve, with the flames still a-flicker..
2. Pomegranate Baked Apples: Use unsweetened pomegranate juice instead of cider as basting liquid and glaze. These make a beautiful finished apple, ruby red, and delightful; sweet but piquant.Very Song of Solomon.
3. Berry-Poached Baked Apples: Use cider or pomegranate juice for the glaze, and the juice has cooked down but is still very hot, stir in a handful of fresh raw blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries. No need for additional cooking; the very hot glaze will cook (and sweeten) the berries just enough. Spoon the fruited glaze over the finished apples. (The photograph illustrating this post at the top shows apples baked this way in pomegranate juice, with blueberries).
4. Mulled Baked Apples: Substitute half the cider or pomegranate juice for red or white wine. if you like adding a tablespoon of agave or honey or maple syrup.
5. Double Vanilla Baked Apples: In addition to the vanilla extract in the glaze, cut up about a quarter of a vanilla bean pod. Add a bit of vanilla bean to the lemon in each apple’s core. Add the remaining vanilla bean, sliced, to the cider.
ABOUT COOKING APPLES, EATING APPLES & APPLE VARIETIES
The majority of apples grown are dual-purpose, meaning you can eat them out of hand or cook with them. Whatever variety you choose, taste one first; an old apple that has gone mushy-textured or is flavorless will not be improved by baking.
Some dual-purpose apples that, if freshly picked, make good baking apples are: Fujis, Galas, MacIntoshes, Macouns, and Jonagolds.
However, some apple varieties are especially well-suited for cooking, whether baked or in a pie. Why? Cooking apples are often more fully and interestingly flavored, often harder, often much more tart, this tartness mixing it up pleasantly with the sweet. Too, sometimes a cooking apple has a touch of spiciness (not hot-spicy, but cinnamon- or clove-spicy). There is also the matter of texture: cooking apples are capable of growing perfectly tender when cooked, but hold their shape a bit; in other words, they will not turn to mush. Some of my favorite cooking apples: Cortlands, Winesaps, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Northern Spies, Bromleys, and, if recently picked, Arkansas Blacks.
Steer clear of Granny Smiths, however. Although I see Granny Smiths cited as a cooking apple, they are really better as a tart, firm eating apple. Cooked, they never truly reach melting tenderness, no matter how long you bake them. You’ll end up with slices that not only hold their shape but have a texture that is unpleasantly grainy, not actually soft. So please, don’t try this with Granny Smiths, or you’ll miss the true glory of this recipe.
SHARING OVEN SPACE
Remember: your apples will be happy to share oven space with whatever else you have baking, happily cooking to perfection at any temperature between 250 and 400, as long as you keep a casual eye on them. Depending on the variety of apple and the oven temp you’ve chosen, this might be 40 to 90 minutes.
And you, too, may be made happy by this. For remember that you are saving fuel by doing this, and, if you are the kind of person who thinks about things like this, you will no doubt feel an extra jolt of at your wise conservation, planning, and frugality.
What might share the oven with your apples? Baking potatoes or big hunks of winter squash. A casserole dish of any kind: cassoulet, lasagna, enchiladas. Oven-baked polenta (digression: no one, and I repeat no one, should even consider making polenta stove-top… the oven-baked version is much superior, so much easier and tastier and never ever burns or sticks to the pot).
Though I have been a vegetarian for decades, I certainly remember my mother’s baked apples sharing cooking space with a roasting chicken, the cinnamon and cloves of the former mixing companionably with the sage and browning fat of the latter.
Thank you, Charlotte Zolotow, for teaching me how to comfort myself with apples.
This post is part of Crescent’s Deep Feast series, which explore food and how it connects us. Crescent is the James Beard-winning author of cookbooks, including Passionate Vegetarian, Bean by Bean, and The Cornbread Gospels.