Move Over, Pumpkin Spice! A Third Coast Ode to Apples
A is for apples. It all starts with the glossy, tempting green and red jewels that adorn an orchard this time of year. Crunchy, juicy, sweet or tart, they’re all ready for the picking. Whether or not they’ll keep doctors away, and whether or not they come up short for you in comparison to the succulence of summer strawberries, apples are an essential element to autumn’s aura. And while Illinois may be famous for its pumpkin production, and pumpkin spice the king of the season, we’ve got a glut of beautiful orchards to enjoy both north, south and inside city limits, and our own reasons to love this basic but noble fruit.
I don’t think I was big on apples as a young child, but things changed for me in the fourth grade, with our teacher, Mrs. Anderson. She was fun, loving and adored apples. Each fall soon after school started, she’d celebrate the fruit with an entire week of festivities. Apple week meant all kinds of treats throughout the school day, from crockpots of simmering cider to apple butter breakfasts and afternoon art projects featuring everything from McIntosh to Granny Smiths. Each fourth grader was also invited to contribute their own recipe to the apple cookbook that would be compiled and passed out at the end of the celebration, and there’d even be a few winners for “best recipe.” Much to my surprise and delight, when my friend Regina and I put our heads together and came up with the idea to microwave an apple and then sprinkle its now shriveled form with sugar and cinnamon, we also earned an award. Looking back, it was more likely due to our unassisted dreaming than actual culinary success, but I couldn’t have been prouder.
Later in life, I’d find that my love of all things tart and sour made me and Granny Smith a match made in heaven. If you’re going to find apples in my house, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be bright green and sassy. I still prefer their aggressive tendencies to even the luxury of a Honeycrisp, especially with a good spot of peanut butter for dipping. The only time I stray is to balance out my pies and applesauce, and then only halfway, as a Granny Smith is a must for any apple dish that crosses my kitchen counter. Recently, I’ve taken to making applesauce. Having once believed it to be a long and arduous process, I found only a year or two ago that it’s simple, takes almost no skill at all, allows for customization and is done in about half an hour. Since then, I’ve been dishing it up in our house with pork chops and sandwiches of all sorts.
If you want to whip up a batch, your first order of business is to acquire 5 lbs of apples. I tend to go with my old standby, granny smith, for 2 of those pounds and then adding something like a Gala or Jazz apple for the remainder. Peel them (and I implore you, use a paring knife, or if you must, a peeler/corer/slicer) and hack them into semi-even chunks. Juice a lemon over your fruit, throw in some brown sugar (about a 1/2 cup, packed) and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Then add a cup of apple juice or apple cider. Cook it over medium heat for 25 minutes. Then, all that’s left is tasting and adjusting as you prefer, and then throwing it in the food processor or taking a potato masher to it until it’s your desired consistency. It couldn’t be simpler.
In the spirit of Mrs. Anderson’s Apple Week, I decided to ask some of my fellow Third Coast crew to contribute their own apple related memories and recipes. Their stories and delicious dishes follow:
Angela Allyn –
In our family, the changing of the seasons is indicated by the changing of the roadside signs. Peaches Williams becomes Apples Williams as the Williams Orchard (9456 N 500E, La Porte Indiana) switches the hand painted signs lining the country roads in Harbor County, Michigan where we live part time.
Williams is down a long country road and in addition to featuring all kinds of varieties of apples as the season moves into winter, they have garden veggies, cider, squash, local honey and jams. Some weekends, there is pie! Next to the selling barn is a dog rescue, so you should be careful you don’t go home with more than you bargained for.
The apples never stick around in my house long enough for me to need recipes, though every year for Rosh Hashana (a holiday that begins with dipping apples in honey) my neighbor creates a gluten-free riff on apple crumble by slicing apples in a baking dish and sprinkling them with a butter laden mixture of nuts, almond flour, oats, cinnamon and honey and baking on 350 until the apples are soft. There are never any leftovers.
Antal Bokor –
I always grew up with a bowl of fresh fruit sitting in the kitchen, usually full to the brim with an assortment of fruits. If it was long between grocery trips, only the dregs of the fruit bowl would remain. Pears that never seem to ripen, brown bananas, and apples – mostly apples. It’s not that my family or I don’t like apples (I mean, they kept buying them) but they just weren’t sought after. As I got older, I would buy them out of instinct to fill my own fruit bowls, only to realize I was doing so out of some learned habit. I all but phased them out of my life, never being able to shake the image of apples as “leftover fruit.”
Despite my best efforts, though, apples still somehow accumulate in my fruit bowls. Now, instead of seeing them as leftovers, I turn those little bastards into pie. There are plenty of recipes for apple pie, but in my opinion the pie is only as good as its crust. So I’ll give you my favorite pie crust recipe and leave you to find your preferred filling. Butter is key to a good pie crust- don’t let others sell you on shortening, but be warned, pie crust can be tricky. Only use as much water as you need to bring it together, and don’t let failure discourage you. With a little practice, you can make your own apple pie. One more word of advice: Try your pie with a slice of melted cheese!
Sherry Zhong –
I had a college roommate who bought the leftover, misshapen, runty apples from the farmer’s market: 50 lbs of them. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but try eating five a day to recover fridge space and you’ll probably be seeing her for a dislocated jaw with all the chewing you have to do. In order to get rid of apples fast without just plain giving them away, we got really good at baking apple crisp and being known as the weirdos who brought apple crisps to every social gathering.
All you need is some sort of fat source (olive oil, coconut oil, or butter all lead to great smelling crisps) sugar, oats, flour and apples. A pinch of salt and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, even pumpkin spice) would make the crisp smell even better, but don’t worry too much about them if you don’t have them on hand. Apple crisp is something easy. Don’t overthink it, because worst case you cover the whole thing with vanilla ice cream, and that’s not a bad idea all in all.
Grab your apples, rinse, and cut out apple slices. Toss the cores; those seeds aren’t too tasty. Cut the apple slices into cubes and toss them with a tablespoon or two of spices now if you are using them. Put them in a casserole dish and into a 350 degree preheated over. Now you can make the crisp. Combine fat, sugar, flour and oats together in a bowl. I like a 1:1:1:1 ratio, and I also like the crisp part more than the baked apples, so I usually end up doing 2 cups butter, 2 cups brown sugar, 2 cups of whole grain flour and 2 cups of oats. Take out the apples and sprinkle/dump crisp mixture on top. Put it back in and bake til the crisp is golden brown (30-45 minutes).
Again, apple crisp is something easy,and it’s not meant to look good. It’s going to taste great, but if you’re going for aesthetic, the vanilla ice cream is key. This is a great recipe if you have too many apples and not enough jaw muscles, or some apples that are ugly/overripe.
Nancy Bishop –
Fall is apple season for me. I know you can buy apples all year long, but I love to buy them at the farmer’s market, which runs to the end of October. And I’m a city girl, so I’m not going out to the country to pick apples. You can buy many apple varieties, but I like Empire, Paula Red, Ginger Gold, Honey Crisp and Gala. In the winter, I buy apples in the supermarket and get very good ones like Pink Lady, Jazz, Fuji and Honey Crisp.
The best way to eat an apple is to share one with my little grandsons. They love apples, especially Honey Crisps and Fujis. I cut a big apple into quarters and core the quarters, then slice them thinly. They even like the skin, so I don’t peel them. For a special treat, I’ll spread a little peanut butter or almond butter on each slice. My own favorite way to eat an apple is to scoop up some yogurt with each slice- and it has to be plain, whole milk Greek yogurt. Not that nonfat stuff.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes: my mother’s apple cake. It’s kind of a coffee cake, without frosting, but it’s good for a brunch treat or dessert.
Muriel’s Apple Cake
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
2.5 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 cup peeled, diced apples
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars with a spoon. Add eggs and mix well. Stir baking soda into buttermilk, add to egg/sugar mixture. Add vanilla and stir well. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg; mix well. Add gradually to first mixture, stir well after each addition. Batter will be quite stiff.
Stir in apples and nuts. Spread into greased 13×9 pan or two greased 9-inch round cake pans.
Topping. Before baking, spread this mixture over batter: 1/3 cup sugar, 1 cup finely diced or crushed nuts, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp nutmeg.
Bake 40-45 minutes for 13×9 pan or 25-30 minutes for 9-inch cake rounds. Insert toothpick in center of cake to be sure it’s done. Cool on cake rack. Excellent warm or at room temperature.
That’s a wrap for our apple rhapsody, but if you’re looking for places to pick them, we’ve got a few suggestions below, both north and south of the city.
If you want, you can also check out this weekend’s Apple Fest in Lincoln Square!
Stade’s: This family farm in Mchenry County sells all manner of produce all spring, summer and fall as well as having some killer cider donuts. Check out their site for apple picking information and directions!
Apple Holler: Just over the border into Wisconsin lies this love letter to the apple. Featuring a full service restaurant as well as a bountiful orchard, it’s also very nearby some great sources of cheese for topping your pie.
Williams: As Angela mentioned, this is a charming Indiana farm just waiting for you to make a trek to. Set up a U-Pick and make it a day trip.
County Line Orchard: Also in Indiana, this farm features rides, apple picking, a great bakery and a variety of other produce to sample.
And once you’ve got your bushel full? Consider practicing for the Bucktown Apple Pie Fest, coming up October 15th.
We at Third Coast Review wish you a Happy Autumn!