My house right now is filled with the fragrance of roses — not from real blossoms, long gone from the garden, but from apples, piled in bowls on tables and countertops, wherever a hand might reach out for a snack. Macintosh, Cortlands, Macouns, Paula Reds, take your pick — it’s apple season in Maine.
But roses? Yes! Apples are members of the Rosaceae family (along with roses themselves, plus pears, quinces, plums, cherries and at least half a dozen other cherished fruits). Like their flowery cousins, fresh, ripe apples impart a characteristic, distinctively sweet, intensely rosy fragrance that permeates the air around them. Walk through an apple orchard at this time of year and you’ll see, or smell, what I mean — a dizzying aroma, confirmed by all the bees and wasps feeding drunkenly on fallen fruit.
Apples are with us year-round in supermarket produce bins, but many are from far afield — Chile, for instance, New Zealand or even China. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Chinese fresh-apple imports in a quid pro quo that permits U.S. apple growers to export to China.
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China is the largest producer of apples in the world, but given its reputation for lax regulation of toxins and other food-safety issues, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose Chinese apples. Maybe they’ll end up in one of the multitude of value-added commodity applications — apple juice (often used to sweeten other juices), apple baby food (often baby’s very first food), applesauce, apple-cider vinegar, apple jelly, apple-flavored breakfast foods, apple pastries.
Fresh, tart apples the best pick for baking
But fresh apples from local trees are something else. Last spring, I planted three heirloom apple trees in my front yard — a Gravenstein (beloved from my father’s long-gone orchard), a Cox’s Orange Pippin (a British heritage) and an Esopus Spitzenburg (said to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite at Monticello). These happily joined the Reine des Reinettes I put in two years earlier, following Julia Child’s dictum that it’s the only apple for a proper tarte Tatin. I haven’t yet had enough Reines to make the French tart, but I did harvest two beautiful red-and-yellow streaked Gravensteins — mighty tasty too.
It takes more than two apples to make a pie. But if you live in apple country, as I do, you may be fortunate, as I was, to score a basket of old-fashioned varieties, ones with so much more flavor, so much more crunch, so much more appeal than supermarket standards like Red Delicious and Granny Smiths. I’m thinking of heirlooms like Black Oxfords with their deep purple skin; russeted Kavanaghs; rosy red Starkeys; the earliest-of-all Yellow Transparents (sometimes ripe in late July); and the great cooking apples that I scored last week, Wolf Rivers — all these heirlooms are in scant supply but worth it whenever you find them.
Those Wolf Rivers were big, meaty apples with firm, tart flesh, so large that just four apples weighed the 2 pounds I needed for an apple crisp.
Pie is delicious, of course, especially made with a lardy crust. But if you’re in a hurry, or, as I am, fumble-fingered with pie dough, it’s much quicker and easier to turn out an apple crisp — 20 minutes to prep and an hour in the oven gives you a dessert or an after-school snack that will disappear before you know it.
Traditional American apple crisp (which you can make with other fruits as well — peaches or pears are terrific) has become surprisingly chic in Europe these days. In France it’s called un crumble — say that with a French accent and you’ll get the idea. It’s charming to me that, after years of dissing American food ideas, French culinary magazines have become insatiably enthusiastic for les crumbles, along with les muffins and les doughnuts.
My recipe is decidedly old-fashioned, but without a trace of a French accent. It derives from one in the original “New York Times Cook Book,” edited by the redoubtable Craig Claiborne way back in 1961, but it was first published in the paper in February 1959. I’ve changed the original, but not much, increasing the temperature and time, and adding a few cautions — for instance, the caveat that it really is worth seeking out good, firm cooking apples.
The original writer specified tangy Winesaps, another hard-to-find cooking apple. You might also look for Baldwins, Red Astrakhans, Rome Beauties or Northern Spies. But if you use an eating apple such as Red Delicious, you will have an overly sweet, tasteless mush. Whatever you choose, do taste the apples in their raw state, adjusting the amount of lemon juice accordingly.
Prep time: About 20 minutes
Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes to 1 hour, 20 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled (divided)
2 pounds cooking apples (see suggestions above)
2 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar, divided
1 pinch ground cloves
2 big pinches ground cinnamon
1 pinch sea salt
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1. Set the oven on 375 F.
2. Use a tablespoon of butter to liberally grease the bottom and sides of a 1 1/2 quart casserole or other type of deep oven dish, such as a souffle dish.
3. Taste the apples. If they are very tart, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to a deep bowl. Otherwise, use the full amount. Core the apples and slice in chunks right into the lemon juice. (I peeled half the apples and left the other half unpeeled for their color.) As you add the chunks, stir them into the lemon juice, which will keep them from darkening.
4. Mix 1/2 cup of sugar with the spices and salt, tossing with a fork to blend. Add to the apples and toss to distribute the sugar evenly. Turn the apples into the buttered oven dish.
5. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the flour, tossing with a fork to combine. Cut up the remaining chilled butter and add to the sugar and flour. Using your fingers, crush the butter into the mixture until it is crumbly. Add the walnuts, and, again using your fingers, combine thoroughly.
6. Sprinkle the sugar-flour mixture over the top of the apples, covering them thoroughly. Transfer to the oven and bake 45 to 60 minutes, or until the top is crisp and golden and the apple juices are slightly oozing through.
7. Remove and serve immediately, or set aside to serve later at room temperature. Like most apple dishes, this is better warm than chilled in the refrigerator.
8. Serve, if you wish, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Main photo: Apples ready to be picked. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins