Falling for apples: Time is right to dig into these sweet treats

Lisa Williams

Skillet Apple Cake
Lisa Williams Skillet Apple Cake

Growing up in the rural Deep South, I didn’t have the inherent fondness for apples which seems such a part of the Midwestern psyche. The big apple tree in our garden bore hard, mostly sour, fruit that never seemed to ripen. Mildewed from the humidity and pockmarked from insect bites, they weren’t very appetizing.

You might understand why I preferred peaches and figs, for these grew abundantly and were luscious.

The grocery stores carried mostly Red and Yellow Delicious apples. Their mealy texture was a disappointment behind the shiny exterior. Sometimes we could find the short-seasoned and perishable MacIntosh, which was my mother’s favorite, with its pure white flesh and true apple-y flavor.

At some point, Granny Smiths became available and I took to their beautiful green exterior and tart flavor. Granny Smiths and a jar of crunchy peanut butter were staples of my sophomore year in college, especially if I couldn’t get to the dining hall in time. But did I love apples? Not so much.

Fast-forward a couple decades and I’m living in Michigan’s fruit belt where you don’t have to go far to stumble into an apple orchard. It was an adventure to taste the diverse varieties and appreciate each one’s form and flavor. Tasting freshly pressed cider was a new experience, too.

One small orchard was tucked down a county road and, were it not for the handwritten sign, you’d think it was abandoned. In the weathered barn were four or five varieties for sale. The young woman running the place would toss me a few samples and I’d munch while she shared pedigrees and the relative merits of each variety. Fully satiated and educated, I would settle on one or two types and leave with a week’s worth. Next week, I’d try something else.

It was only natural that my baking would develop from those surroundings. Apple pie and tarte Tatin. Cake made with applesauce and cake studded with chunks of fruit. Apple cider as an ingredient as well as a tasty beverage on its own.

However assertive they may taste off the tree, apples mellow when cooked, becoming a companionable and versatile ingredient. Truly it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like an apple dessert.

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Because they are not at all fussy or messy, apple desserts tend to travel well, making them perfect for hostess gifts or to offer comfort during times of grief.

They’re good in the workplace, too. In a former job, I led a team of volunteers in a series of late-afternoon meetings. I baked several apple cakes that season to show appreciation for everyone’s time. Even now, making those recipes brings back happy memories.

Moving to Iowa, I was relieved to find beautiful and abundant apple orchards within a short drive, all offering a wide range of varieties. Apple season signals back to work, back to school and back to the kitchen.

Do I love apples now? Absolutely. And I love apple desserts. They’re comforting, unassuming, never intimidating and always sure to please — kind of like a baking BFF.

Fresh Apple Cake

This has become one of my favorite cool-season cakes. It bakes into an impressive size. I often substitute canned, pureed pumpkin for the applesauce, so feel free to give that a try.

1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

4 large eggs

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup applesauce (pumpkin puree works if you’re out of applesauce)

3 cups apples chopped into 1/2 inch chunks

2 cups chopped pecans (or walnuts)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10 inch 10- to 15-cup capacity tube pan or Bundt pan.

In a large bowl, beat together butter, oil, sugar, spices, salt and baking powder until light and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. (You can use an electric mixer for this or mix by hand using a whisk.)

Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until the batter looks fluffy. Scrape the bottom and sides of bowl.

Beat in half the flour, then half of the applesauce or pumpkin puree. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then beat in the remaining flour and applesauce or pumpkin puree.

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Fold in apples and nuts. Spoon batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove cake from oven, and let it set for 10 minutes. Then turn it onto a cooling rack. Once cooled, you can drizzle on an Apple Cider Glaze, but really the cake is wonderful on its own.

Source: Adapted from King Arthur

Skillet Apple Cake

Sliced apples are abundantly heaped atop a vanilla flavored butter cake. Because it’s served right from the pan, this cake travels well. The recipe calls for using a cast iron skillet, but this is a bit heavy to haul around. A regular cake pan is easier to carry.

Apples

4 or 5 large apples, cored and sliced (about 18 ounces prepared or 5 1/2 to 6 cups)

1/3 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons boiled cider (optional)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cake

1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup warm milk

1 large egg

6 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

coarse sparkling sugar to sprinkle on top, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 1/2-inch to 10 inch (2 inch deep) cast-iron skillet; or a 9-inch cake pan.

Combine the apples with brown sugar, boiled cider, spices and salt. Set aside.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

Mix the warm milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture, stirring to combine. Pour into the prepared skillet.

Spoon apple mixture onto batter. Try to distribute apples more toward the outside of the pan for the best appearance. Sprinkle with coarse sparkling sugar, if desired.

Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, until light brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove from oven, and cool for about 5 minutes. Loosen edges of the cake from the pan, and cool for another 20 minutes or so.

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Serve straight from the pan. Dust with powdered sugar if you like and add whipped cream or ice cream.

Source: King Arthur Flour

Boiled Cider

Boiled cider can be used as a condiment in place of jams or jellies, to flavor desserts, added to cocktails — use your imagination. You can reduce cider to a pourable syrup (a half gallon will yield about 12 ounces of syrup), or you can let it go even further until it’s a thick, sweetly tart molasses. (Apple molasses is amazing on hot buttered biscuits.) You’ll want to set aside about three hours to make this because it requires occasional stirring over very low heat. Because all stoves and cookware vary, err on the side of a lower temperature. Once burned, it’s ruined. Boiling cider is a pleasant task because the entire house takes on a sweet, apple aroma.

1/2 gallon best quality apple cider, no sugar added

In a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the cider to boil. Immediately reduce the heat to medium. Let the cider simmer at this temperature for two hours, stirring occasionally.

After two hours, the cider will be about one-third to one-fourth of its original volume. Turn the heat to medium-low. Keep reducing at this lower temperature, keeping an eye on it and stirring. When the cider is a thickened, pourable syrup, it’s done. Remove from the heat and cool for five minutes. Then pour into a sterilized glass jar. Store in the refrigerator.

To make cider molasses, keeping cooking on medium low until it’s very thick. You may only get 4 to 6 ounces, but it will be amazing. When it’s a consistency you like, remove from heat, and cool for five minutes. Then transfer to a sterilized glass jar. Store in the refrigerator.

Boiled Cider Glaze

This is a good way to use your newly made boiled cider.

2 1/2 tablespoons boiled cider

2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons milk, Half-and-Half, light cream, or heavy cream

2 cups powdered sugar

generous pinch of salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional

Note: Use enough liquid to produce a thick glaze, a bit thicker than molasses, but that you can barely pour.

Stir all of the ingredients together, starting with the lesser amount of milk or cream. Add additional sugar or liquid if needed to make the glaze the consistency of molasses.

Drizzle over cake. Serve.

Source: King Arthur

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