Every season has its joys. For me, spring and summer cannot be topped, although I could be in the minority here. It is hard to say goodbye to summer when I know what follows autumn. No matter how hard I try, I cannot convince Mother Nature to stay warm with lots of sunlight. To placate us, she paints our trees, gives us cold blue skies, fun holidays, football and soccer games, and ... apples.
Beloved apples. The apple is the world's most popular fruit. I'm not even making that up. Whoever researches these things — probably his job was recently shut down — had deemed the apple the homecoming queen of all fruits. And with good reason. It is compact food, fits in your hand, can go in your purse without a container, lasts a long time in your refrigerator, is best at room temperature, packing it in a lunch is no problem, and does not have to be peeled or warmed. It appears in literature, often standing in as a reference for something else, perhaps seduction or alliance. An apple practically begins the Bible, the symbol of the fall of man. It is readily featured in artwork, my favorite being “Son of Man” by Belgian artist Rene Magritte. This little fruit has really shaken up the world!
Here is a brief history of this celebrated and juicy treat.
The apple hails back from Asia, and as conquering, stealing and much exploring went on between Europe and Asia, new ideas and food were introduced. Later, colonists, those savvy settlers, brought apple seeds to the New World. We were just the place to bring them, too, with the perfect weather and wide-open spaces to grow countless varieties. Depending on what you read, China and the United States vie for the title of the largest producer of apples. (I have read different articles claiming either one to be the largest, so we really need that research guy to back to work and answer this question once and for all.)
While Johnny Appleseed had to wander around, planting his seed hither and yon, today apple trees are begun by grafts from other, older apple trees. So if you decide to buy some apple trees for your yard, you will not be getting a sapling begun by seeds. This lets you cut years off waiting for those tiny trees to grow from seeds. Yet don't be discouraged, as I was when my apple trees did not fruit year after year. It takes about four years for an apple tree to bear fruit, depending on how old the tree is when you buy it. This year was the first year I got fruit, and they were the best apples I have ever eaten. They were not hybrid apples, so the taste had not been worked out of them. This maiden year, I got only about 20 small, red apples, but I know next year I'll have more, especially if my honeybees have anything to say about it.
There are three sizes of trees you can buy: standard — which can get to 30 feet — dwarf and semi-dwarf. The recreational apple grower (yours truly) would certainly buy the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties for time's sake. And then I would have to have ladders, nets or cranes to get to them. Apple trees are cool, too, because you can shape the wood into espaliers, which are so beautiful, and still get fruit. Mine are shaped like men holding their many arms out, and is my fence. You can also cut the branches and use them on your grill to add an apple-wood smoked flavor to your meat.
Guess what else like apples? Deer and insects. Luckily, my apples are right up by my house so my big dogs scare the deer away. Sadly the dogs do not scare those dastardly insects, no matter how big they are! I just cut around the remains if there are any in the fruit, as my mom did. Serious orchards will be ruined by insects, hence the development of insecticide. For all those who say Europeans eat only organic fruit and we are the only country who hybrids or tries to control the bugs, most insecticide is developed in Germany.
I think the push for responsible use of insecticides is really happening. There is a reason major growers must use insecticide, but it has to be less toxic to the other, good insects such as the honeybees. This going to be a reality, thank goodness, due to public demand and much research. However, this is a topic for another person's column, and I don't like to get political. (My parents lived — my dad barely — through the Great Depression, when crops were devastated by insects and drought, they had friends who got polio or died from whopping cough, so I have a different view than a 20-year-old who has not heard life stories of these tragedies.)
I have done my research and do not get all worked up, insisting all food I buy be organic. If I can peel it, I don't care. All this being said, an organic apple tastes better to me and we do eat the skin, of course. But I cannot resist buying pounds and pounds of Honeycrisp, surely most not organic.
Here is a synopsis of the most popular varieties:
•Pink Lady: Modern apple with a pinkish thin skin and bright taste.
•Honeycrisp: 'Nuf said.
•McIntosh: A little mushy for cooking, in my opinion, but great for eating.
•Red Delicious: Discovered in Peru. Some websites say this is the most popular apple.
•Golden Delicious: A type of Delicious but does not keep well and must be refrigerated. The flavor has been hybrided out of it but it is good when homegrown.
•Fuji: Developed in Japan in 1958, it is a cross between a Red Delicious and a Ralls Janet. I have never even heard of a Ralls Janet, but I sure like Fuji apples, so thank you.
•Winesap: Although I really don't see a lot of Winesaps around here, it is a pretty and tasty with “veins” running through the fruit and a slight, winy aftertaste. It was developed in New Jersey in the 1700s. (It was also my dad's favorite, especially when topped with a slice of cheddar.)
People often ask me what kind of apples to use in pies and tarts. I decide the same way savory cooks use wine: If I like to eat it, I like to bake with it. Just remember, the sweeter the apple, the juicier it will break down, so you must plan for that. For example, baking with the divine Honeycrisp, you should add your sugars and spices, and then let it drain before adding it into your pies. The sugars will break down the apples a bit, making lots of juice. Also, add a bit of flour on top of your bottom crust before laying your apples in, and toss the drained apples with some flour as well. These three steps will help prevent the pie or tart from being a big runny mess. A little runny is good, a gushing river is not.
Following is a recipe for Tart Aux Pommes:
Tart Aux Pommes
2 1/2 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 to 1/3 cup very cold water
2 to 3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into large dice
3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into thin wedges
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla, if desired
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Cook these together until sugar melts.
Process salt and flour. Add butter and process until small crumbs. Slowly add enough water to form it into a ball. Take out and cut into half. Freeze half for later. Roll out and put into 10-inch tart pan, cutting off edges. Be sure to put it in pan generously as your crust will shrink a bit when cooking. Cover and chill while making filling. You can use a towel, as you will only be chilling for about 20 minutes.
Warm 2-3 tablespoons of butter in skillet with sides. Cook the diced apples with 1/2 cup sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and pinch of salt. Cook until tender. Meanwhile, cut up your wedges. Cool.
When cool, place the cooked apples in the chilled crust-lined tart pan. Reserve about 1/2 cup of them.
Lay the wedges around the edge of the tart pan, cut side down, very tightly. You should be able to just grab a half of apple and fan it out. Go all the way around.
Next, mound your reserved cup of diced apples in the center. Lay more sliced apples in the center, going the opposite direction. The cooked apples will help lift them to the right height.
If you have any remaining slices, put them in the very center.
Sprinkle the remaining sugar over apples, brush with glaze or apricot jelly cooked until runny, and dot the whole tart with butter. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. If the apples begin to brown too much, cover with foil.
Please watch the video with this column at News-Sentinel.com to see just how to do it!