Saturday, January 25, 2014

Baked Apples

My mother doesn't like to cook very much.  It's not as if she isn't a good cook.  I have always thought that her pie crust could rival that of just about anyone...I still remember sampling the chef's demonstration Quiche Lorraine at the Cordon Bleu and being a bit disappointed since the one I had been eating all of my life—prepared by my mother—was better.  It is probably more likely that like so many wives and mothers of her generation, after twenty some years of preparing three meals a day for a large and often oblivious family, she just decided there were other things she would rather be doing.   

She still cooks occasionally...and I am always glad when she does.  Once, many years after she had sort of hung up her apron—and several years into my professional cooking career—she surprised me by making baked apples for a special birthday breakfast for me.  I had never had a baked apple.  (I'm not sure why she had never made them before.)  It was simple and delicious....made even better by the fact that it had been prepared with love, just for me. It was "Mom food" at its best...which is, I suspect, what most of us mean when we call something a "comfort food".   So, a few months ago, when I decided to offer a class this year called "Comfort Foods of Winter", baked apples were at the top of the recipe list. 

The recipe I'm sharing today isn't exactly the same as the one my mother makes (I don't think I make anything exactly the way someone else does)...but it's very close.  I have increased the sugar just a bit...and added some dried fruit.  But those are fairly negligible changes. 

The main thing I do differently is I score the skin of the apple in several places before I put it in the oven.  When an apple bakes, the flesh expands and puts pressure on the skin.  This inevitably leads to a "blow out" when the skin splits to relieve the pressure.  Scoring the skin allows the flesh and the skin of the apple to expand together, making for a much more attractive final result. 

The apple on the right was "scored", the apple on the left was not.

The other major change is that I remove the entire core, all the way down through the blossom end of the apple.  Most recipes direct you to leave the apple intact on the bottom so that the filling won't ooze out.   But I don't like to run into the hard blossom end while I'm eating my baked apple, so I remove it.  I plug up the resulting hole with bits of seed-free apple flesh that were removed with the core. 

Even with these two changes—which are mostly cosmetic—the baked apple itself is essentially the same as my mother's.  And same or not, for as long as I continue to cook, I know that every time I make a baked apple, it will remind me of a special breakfast...prepared just for my mother.   

Baked Apples

4 T. (1/4 c.) packed brown sugar
1/4 c. quick (not instant) oats
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. ground cloves (or nutmeg, if you prefer)
a pinch of salt
2 T. cold butter, plus 1 t. for "dotting"
1/4 c. finely chopped toasted nuts and/or dried fruit (optional—see notes)
zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 of an orange (optional)
4 large apples—something juicy and flavorful that will hold its shape and   flavor when a Jonathan, a Jonagold or a Braeburn
1/2 to 1 cup apple cider, apple juice or water

Place the first five ingredients in a small bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers until homogenous.  Cut the 2 T. of butter into four slices and add to the bowl.  Using your fingers, rub the butter in until the mixture is clumpy.  Toss in any nuts, dried fruit or zests that you are using.  Set the mixture aside while you prepare the apples.

Basic filling ingredients: oats, brown sugar, butter and spices.
Basic filling with added chopped pecans, currants and orange zest.

Butter an shallow baking dish that will hold the apples without 8- or 9-inch square baking dish works well.  Set aside.

Wash the apples.  Using an apple corer or a melon baller, core the apples.  If an apple will not sit level, cut a thin slice off the bottom to stabilize it.  If you like, use a vegetable peeler to peel away a strip of skin around the hole at the top of the apple—this isn't strictly necessary, but it is attractive.  Using a sharp paring knife, score the skin of each apple from top to bottom in four places—spacing the cuts an equal distance apart.  Finally, using some of the seed and skin free bits of apple that were removed with the cores, plug up the hole at the bottom of each apple.

Place the apples in the prepared dish.  Fill each apple with a quarter of the reserved filling, packing as necessary so as to use all of the filling.  

Cut the remaining teaspoon of butter into four pieces and place a piece on top of each apple. 

Add enough apple cider to the dish to come up to a depth of 1/4-inch. 

Cover loosely with foil and place in a 350° oven.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Uncover the dish and baste the apple with the liquid in the dish.  Continue to bake until the apples are very tender all the way through—another 15 to 30 minutes depending on the variety and size of the apples.  The apple will have puffed, the flesh may have begun to ooze in spots and the skin will be a bit wrinkled.  Let the apples cool briefly before serving.  They are best when they are warm, but they are good at room temperature too.  Serve with some of the syrupy juices from the pan spooned over.  They may be served with ice cream, whipped cream or custard sauce for dessert, but I like them best with plain yogurt for breakfast.

  • You may make as many or as few apples as you like.  The recipe multiplies and divides easily.  For one apple, use a pyrex custard cup to bake the apple.
  • The filling you use can be varied to suit your taste and your pantry.  A plain baked apple with just butter, brown sugar and oatmeal is delicious.  But you may add spices and zests as you please.  A tablespoon per apple of chopped toasted nuts, or dried fruits (or a combination) is a nice addition.  A variation I particularly like (using the quantities in the above recipe) is 2 T. chopped toasted pecans, 2 T. dried currants and the zest of half an orange.
Printable Recipe

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