Despite the myths that get bandied around about what was served at the first Thanksgiving, the only report we have, from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, says simply that the Wampanoag contributed five deer. The claim that there was turkey on that day is pure speculation. As for dessert, we might speculate on that, too. We can guess from the letters of settlers such as William Horton that they found ways to work with the “great store of fruits” they discovered (“Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers,” Alexander Young). Since the British have long had a love affair with the apple, they no doubt made use of the many species that grew wild here.
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American history meets Italian tradition
The proverbial turkey feast with all the trimmings persists, even in households like the one I grew up in, where Italian cooking prevailed every other day of the year. The immigrants weren’t newcomers to thanksgivings. To all peoples with peasant traditions, the autumn feast is a familiar ritual. You could call ours a fusion Thanksgiving. The bird was dressed with bread-and-pork sausage stuffing; the pureed sweet potatoes were baked under a buttery, sweet walnut crust; and fennel bubbled in a béchamel-and-parmigiano gratin. No Thanksgiving ever began without garlicky stuffed mushrooms and the perfunctory antipasto platter, and there was always pumpkin pie for dessert — made from fresh zucca, of course.
I added my own rituals when I began cooking for myself. In the spirit of the harvest the early settlers enjoyed, apples are always on the table in one form or other. This year, they will be stuffed with amaretti, the delicious almond cookies of Lombardy. The dish hearkens back to my life in Italy, where I learned to stuff peaches with crushed amaretti for baking — a summer recipe of the Piedmont. In the autumn, I must substitute apples, with no regrets.
Choosing the right apples
Apples have as much a practical as a symbolic meaning for me. It seems a pity not to include them when they are so fresh and juicy in their season, especially now that there are such magnificent apples in the farmers markets. Besides, what fruit is associated as much as the apple with fertility, the underlying invocation behind all harvest celebrations?
These baked apples offer an alternative for guests who don’t like pumpkin pie (there have been more than a few of them at my Thanksgiving table over the years). Topped with good vanilla ice cream or thick cream in the English fashion, they are unbeatable comfort food on Thanksgiving or at any other time of the apple season to follow roast turkey, ham or game of any kind.
Granted, they are best made with the proper variety for the purpose — and disappointing with those that are unsuitable. Proper baking apples will keep their shape and juiciness during cooking. Apples that are richly flavored and perfectly wonderful for eating may disintegrate in the oven and burst into a froth; some turn mealy and tasteless or just don’t soften during baking. I have experimented with numerous varieties and found the most success with Fujis, Romes, Braeburns, Macouns and Northern Spies that are neither too large nor too small. As for the amaretti, no purchased cookies beat Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno for flavor. You can buy them at any food specialty store nowadays. Alternatively, use another good-quality almond cookie or substitute dry almond biscotti.
One of the best things about these baked apples is that they taste better made a day or two ahead, so that the flesh of the fruit has time to absorb the flavors of the filling. Just reheat at 400 F for 10 to 12 minutes before serving.
Baked Apples With Amaretti Filling
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes
Total time: 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours
Yield: 6 individual portions
6 tablespoons white sugar, divided
6 ounces amaretti, crushed into coarse crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel, or substitute the zest of 1 orange
6 medium (8 to 9 ounces each) Fuji, Rome, Braeburn, Macoun or Northern Spies apples
Juice of half a lemon
4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
Vanilla ice cream or Devon cream for serving
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Select a shallow, flame-proof baking pan on which the apples will fit without crowding. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar across the bottom of the pan.
2. In a small bowl, combine the amaretti crumbs and candied orange rind or orange zest; set aside.
3. Prepare the apples (see step-by-step photos below). With a paring knife, trim off the hairy blossom end at the bottom of each apple. Preferably using a melon baller, core the apples, working from the stem down to carve out an ample stuffing cavity without puncturing the bottom. Brush the flesh inside and out with lemon juice as you work to prevent it from turning brown. With a paring knife, peel the skin off halfway down, leaving the skin on the bottom halves intact. Enlarge the opening at the top to show more stuffing, if you like. When all the apples are prepared, brush each with some of the melted butter and immediately roll the top of each apple in some of the remaining sugar to coat.
4. Transfer the apples to the baking pan. Spoon the filling into each cavity and scatter some on top. Sprinkle any remaining sugar over all, and dribble the remining butter on top of the filling.
5. Place the apples on the center rack of the oven. Bake until they are soft but not collapsed and the juices bubbly, 45 minutes to 1 hour (cooking time varies depending on the apple size and variety).
6. Remove the pan from the oven and turn on the broiler. Slide the apples about 2 inches under the broiler flame until the tops caramelize nicely, 1 to 2 minutes, watching them carefully to prevent burning.
7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or heavy cream.
Main photo: Baked apples with amaretti filling. Credit: © Nathan Hoyt