In fall, my thoughts naturally turn to apples. Specifically, Gravensteins.
For many years Gravensteins were the hallmark of Sebastopol, Calif., the small town where I grew up about an hour north of San Francisco. Miles of apple trees and vineyards snugly fit side by side in a peaceful coexistence that juxtaposes the old and the new. When I was a kid there were more apples than grapes; we knew Sebastopol as the 'apple capital' rather than as an extension of wine country. Our back-to-school mornings were tinged with the scent of fermenting fruit and we tucked crisp apples into our lunch boxes.
Apples, particularly Gravensteins, were a backdrop to my childhood. I attended Gravenstein Elementary School and participated in the apple blossom parade each spring. In late summer I baked pies to enter in the Gravenstein Apple Fair where I ate apple crumbles piled high with whipped cream and munched on cinnamon-drizzled slices of the local crop as the afternoon waned. Apples and western Sonoma County seemed made for each other.
Things are slightly different now. Although the festivals are still going strong, most of the apple processing plants closed years ago and grape vines are slowly eradicating the ancient, gnarled trunks. But thanks to Slow Food USA – which in 2005 declared the Gravenstein apple a heritage food, thus giving it a much-needed bit of caché – my cherished 'Gravs' are experiencing something of a renaissance.
Why love Gravensteins? First and foremost they are a wonderful cooking apple. Crisp and tart and with a touch of honey, Gravensteins are especially good in sauce and cider or dried (in fact, Sebastopol Gravensteins were the source for apple sauce and dried apples for the U.S. troops in World War II).
Gravenstein's origins lie in 17th-century Denmark. In addition to Sebastopol, the fruit is grown from Nova Scotia to the Pacific Northwest. I like them in nearly everything, from a tarte tatin to a buttery, rich cake laden with apple slices.
The trees live lightly on the land, a boon in a perpetually drought-plagued state such as California. Their roots dig deep into the sandy, loamy soil and survive and thrive without irrigation. The coastal fog that typically blows in during the early evening and burns off in the morning sun also helps to create a perfect environment for the trees.
While I know change is as inevitable as the shift of the seasons, it breaks my heart a little to see the orchards being steadily replaced with vineyards. Gravenstein acreage has declined from 1,200 a decade ago to 763 in 2010. In an effort to sustain the remaining orchards, some growers have switched to growing their apples organically, which has helped. Regardless, the area remains an agricultural paradise.
When I was growing up we had in our backyard from roughly June through October: plums, nectarines, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, walnuts, almonds, apples and various vegetables during the summer months. Typical of oblivious children, I don't think my brother and I really appreciated — or even were aware of — how fortunate we were to be assigned the 'task' of picking blueberries, stuffing two berries into our mouths for every five we threw in a bowl.
But that is the true beauty of a fortunate childhood: to be so fully immersed in the moment you have no need to think of the next day or even the next few hours. It is enough simply to be with your dog panting quietly on the dry grass in the shade, listening to the crows call overhead, eating fruit.
My mom sometimes made strawberry jam from the garden strawberries and the kitchen smelled delicious, all hot and steamy from the big pots on the stove. As I got older, I used the blackberries in pies, or a tiny batch of jam once in awhile, or as the perfect garnish for the mini angel-food cakes I'd bake for my dad.
Every fall for many years Mom made applesauce. I loved applesauce days. I probably didn't help out more than to peer into the bubbling pot every so often and beg for a taste or two, but the process took at least an entire day. All the fruit came from our trees – though there were only a few they were prolific – and I still pilfer apples when I visit my parents' house in late summer. It was a bit of work, sure, but I loved eating that applesauce; when we had it with a weeknight dinner it elevated the meal into something special.
I try to carry on that tradition in my own kitchen, but I will confess that these days I mostly make small batches of sauce and save the apples for more involved dishes (think cakes, muffins, quick bread, even salads). I lace my pies with cinnamon and ginger — the apple's best friends — and infuse them with maple syrup and brown sugar. This never fails to up the ante. But what I'm really after is that sweet-tart, quintessential fall flavor – the end of summer captured in a fruit.
Of course, no apple is created alike, but in my recipes you may use any variety of your favorite cooking apple (though if pressed I may argue in favor of my beloved Gravs). 'Tis the season, after all.
Just Apples Applesauce
More a formula than an exact recipe, this is my favorite way to prepare applesauce – completely unadorned. However, I will occasionally stir in some additional flavorings after I've made it: a bit of butter, a teaspoon of cinnamon, some maple syrup or brown sugar. If your apples are on the tart side, you may find it to your taste to sweeten them up a little. But it's all up to you.
Makes 1 1/3 cups
1 pound apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
Splash of water
Place the apples in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the water and turn heat to high. When the apples and water are just boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and stir frequently. Cook apples until tender, adding more water if necessary, stirring and mashing with a wooden spoon against the side of the pot as they cook.
When apples are cooked through and very tender, remove from heat. Using the wooden spoon or a potato masher, mash the apples until they are fairly smooth (I prefer a lumpier sauce). If you like a smoother sauce, puree apples in a food processor or blender.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. Applesauce may be served cold or at room temperature.
Brown Sugar Tarte Tatin
I love to make a tarte tatin – a French upside down tart made with apples caramelized in butter and sugar – in the fall; it seems to perfectly suit the season. Serve slices of this dessert with dollops of softly whipped cream or, better yet, slightly warm and serve with vanilla ice cream.
Makes 1 10-inch tart
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
½ cup unsalted butter
1 brown cup sugar
4 pounds apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the crust, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter using your fingertips or a pastry blender until most of mixture resembles coarse meal. Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water evenly over mixture and gently stir with a fork until incorporated. Test mixture by gently squeezing a small handful. When it has proper texture it should hold together without crumbling apart. If necessary add enough remaining water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until incorporated.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a deep, heavy 12-inch skillet melt the butter and sugar, stirring occasionally, then boil for 1 minute.
Add apples and cook over moderate heat, turning fruit occasionally (be careful not to break the quarters) and gently stirring syrup, until the apples are glazed and the syrup begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Stir tin he lemon juice and simmer, turning apples and gently stirring frequently, until most of syrup is evaporated and apples are tender and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Arrange apples in a 10-inch (1 1/2-quart) glass pie plate
On a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll out dough into a 12-inch round and drape it over the apples. Tuck edge between apples and rim of dish and cut several steam vents in the pastry. Place the tart in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, or until juices are bubbling and crust is golden brown.
Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.
Invert a serving plate over the pie plate and invert tart onto serving plate.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
These hearty, wholesome muffins are lovely on crisp fall mornings with a bit of honey and a cup of tea or coffee. I use my homemade applesauce here, but of course you may use store bought if that is easier.
Makes 1 dozen muffins
3/4 cup non-dairy milk (or whole milk, if you prefer)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup applesauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground ginger
2 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
Oat crumble topping
3 tablespoons rolled oats
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin or line it with cupcake liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, vinegar, maple syrup, applesauce and oil until well combined.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and ginger. Mix in the chopped apples, tossing to coat the fruit lightly.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir gently until just combined. Fold in the nuts.
Distribute the batter evenly into the muffin tins and sprinkle each muffin with oats and brown sugar. Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.
Remove tin from oven and let muffins cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn the muffins out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Serve room temperature or slightly warm, with a bit of margarine, butter or coconut butter.
Apple And Butter Cake
Lush with butter and fragrant with apples, this simple. rich cake is perfect to serve as the finish to a late-September lunch party or simply with a cup of afternoon tea any time.
Makes 10 servings
4 large apples, peeled and cored
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
3 cups flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a tube pan or a springform cake pan.
Slice the apples. Put in a small bowl and sprinkle with the sugar and cinnamon.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar using an electric mixer on medium-high speed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well to combine.
In a medium bowl, sift together the dry ingredients and add to butter and sugar mixture.
Add the orange juice and vanilla, beating well to form a smooth batter.
Pour about a third of the batter into pan. Layer with one-half of the apples. Repeat for one more layer, finishing with the batter.
Place in oven and bake for about 1 1/2 hours until lightly browned and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a rack for 20 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.
Apple And Arugula Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
In this salad the sharp bite of arugula is balanced by crisp slices of apples and bound together by a lemony vinaigrette. Use apples that are slightly on the tarter side and make sure they are very firm and fresh.
Makes 4 servings
4 large apples, washed
3 cups arugula
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced (white parts only)
1 avocado, skin and pit removed and coarsely sliced
1/2 cup shelled sunflower seeds, optional
1 shallot, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Thinly slice apples and place in a large salad bowl. Add the arugula, radishes, scallions, avocado and sunflower seeds is using. Lightly toss to combine.
For the vinaigrette, combine the first four ingredients in a small bowl and let stand for 15 minutes. Then whisk in the oil and season with pepper to taste. Taste to correct the balance, adding more oil if needed.
Drizzle dressing over salad, gently tossing and turning to coat lightly.
About The Author
Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.