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The view from Ricker Hill Orchards, Turner, Maine (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The view from Ricker Hill Orchards, Turner, Maine (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

A GREAT USE for our fall bounty of New England apples is also among the easiest to make: applesauce. All it requires is a few minutes to wash and quarter some apples. You can use one variety or 20. If an apple is too tart or has lost a little of its firmness, toss it in: its flavor may blossom in applesauce.

Throw the apples in a big pot with 1-2 cups of liquid (water or fresh cider if you have it) to keep the apples from sticking to the bottom. On low to medium heat, cover and cook the apples until they are soft, stirring occasionally.

Either put the apples through a food mill or mash them with a fork. Add a little cinnamon or not. You are done.

It is that easy to make this naturally sweet treat. Applesauce can be enjoyed by itself or sprinkled with raisins, served over ice cream or pancakes, or stirred into oatmeal or yogurt. It freezes well and is a featured ingredient in many baked goods. Applesauce can be substituted for other liquids in recipes, from butter and shortening to water and eggs.

* * *

THIS FALL I find myself tasting many more apples than usual — and I normally taste a lot of apples. The reason for the increase is that I am working on A Field Guide To New England Apples, which will be published by Countryman Press next year. I am tasting and re-tasting dozens of apples to better describe them, fresh off the tree and a month or so into storage, and cooked, when possible.

My 2012 book America’s Apple features photographs by Bar Lois Weeks of 120 apples, and her photographs will illustrate the Field Guide’s detailed descriptions of 150 varieties currently grown and sold in New England. Add to this more than 100 rare heirlooms (including about 60 varieties preserved in an orchard at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts), and I will have eaten or sampled several hundred apples by the end of my research.

Applesauce-making (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Applesauce-making (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Recently I spent several nights making sauce with some of these rare apples, mixed in with  contemporary varieties in my refrigerator. I used classic standards like Cortland, contemporary varieties like Creston, Honeycrisp, Shamrock, and Spencer, heirlooms including Arkansas Black, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Gravenstein, and such rare apples as Crow’s Egg, Deacon Jones, and Peck’s Pleasant. The results made these batches of applesauce as delicious as they were unusual.

For the liquid, I used a jug of mulled cider left over from our booth at The Big E, which gave each batch a hint of cinnamon and other spices. I froze half of each batch and have been enjoying the rest on maple walnut ice cream or mixed with chopped dried apricots. It adds great flavor to this recipe for Apple Gingerbread, adapted from Cynthia and Jerome Rubin’s Apple Cookbook (1974, Emporium Publications).

The recipe is unusual in that the sauce is separate rather than mixed in with the batter. The nicely spiced gingerbread bakes in a bed of applesauce, which makes a nice topping when the cake is served.

The gingerbread is especially good served warm. The original recipe calls for whipped cream sprinkled with orange zest. I did not have either ingredient on hand but did not miss them, though it sounds delicious.

Apple Gingerbread

1/2 c butter

1/2 c warm water

1 c molasses

1-1/4 c whole wheat flour

1-1/4 c white flour

1 t baking soda

1 t ginger

1/2 t cinnamon

1/2 t salt

1/4 t cloves

1/4 t nutmeg

2-1/2 c applesauce

Preheat oven to 350°. Melt butter in large saucepan. Remove from heat, and add water and molasses. Sift together dry ingredients and add to liquid, beating until well blended.

Pour applesauce into an 8″ x 8″ pan. Spoon gingerbread over applesauce. Bake for about 35 minutes.

* * *

FOR MORE INFORMATION about New England apples, visit newenglandapples.org.

Special fresh cider blends on display at Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts, during 2011 CiderDays.

Special fresh cider blends on display at Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts, during 2011 CiderDays.

CROWDS AS DIVERSE and far-flung as the apples they came to admire swarmed on Franklin County in western Massachusetts last weekend like honeybees to nectar. The event was the weekend-long extravaganza known as CiderDays, now in its 19th year.

As always, there were a host of orchard tours, workshops on cider-making, apple growing, and baking with apples, at places like Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield, and Pine Hill Orchards and West County Cider, both in Colrain. There were tastings of cider, fresh and hard, produced by mainstream companies, counterculture entrepreneurs, and backyard enthusiasts. There was plenty of food, including an apple pancake breakfast in Greenfield and a harvest supper in Shelburne.

Cider-makers large and small debated the merits of Cortlands, Winter Bananas, and Tremlett’s Bitters as they sampled unfiltered, fresh and fermented apple juice at the orchards, in the Shelburne Buckland Community Center, or on the sidewalks where they met. They came from around the country, these localvores and gourmets, the apple militia; an agricultural army celebrating the harvest, but ready to do battle to preserve, protect, and promote the apple, bottling, sipping, and trading its juice like liquid gold.

Franklin County is wide and CiderDays inclusive. Getting to all of the events is challenging and provides a logistical challenge, as it takes more than one hour to drive the 40-plus miles from the easternmost venue in New Salem, home of New Salem Preserves, to the town of Hawley along the county’s western edge, where Headwater Cider is located.

Two participating orchards in Ashfield, Bear Swamp and Brook Farm, are nearby Headwater Cider. Sunday I made these three orchards my destination. The foothills of the Berkshires are beautiful but remote, and these out-of-the-way farms are much smaller than orchards like Clarkdale and Pine Hill, with niche products and modest aims.

The cider mill at Bear Swamp Orchard in Ashfield, Massachusetts, is solar-powered.

The cider mill at Bear Swamp Orchard in Ashfield, Massachusetts, is solar-powered.

Bear Swamp Orchard, for example, grows apples organically on just a few acres. They make fresh and hard cider in a solar-powered mill, and an array of other apple products (including an outstanding cider donut).

They also make and sell maple syrup and firewood, grow grain and vegetables, and pasture sheep to supplement their apple income. They had sold out of fresh apples long before CiderDays. I drank a cup of fresh cider with my donut, and it was very good, but it was too early in the day for me to sample their hard cider.

Brook Farm Orchard, Ashfield, Massachusetts

Brook Farm Orchard, Ashfield, Massachusetts

Brook Farm Orchard is even smaller than Bear Swamp, with just 100 trees on a gentle hillside, including 30 varieties of apples, plus peaches, plums, Asian pears, and filberts. They sell their fruit at a local farmer’s market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares from the farm.

Among the varieties they displayed Sunday were heirlooms like Baldwin and Winesap, and newer varieties like Keepsake and Fireside, both developed at the University of Minnesota, making them good choices for the cold winters and shorter growing season of this hill town.

Fireside (also known as Connell Red) was introduced in 1943. A pretty, round apple mostly red, it had a good, sweet flavor but a tough skin, and not much juice. Keepsake (1978), another mostly red apple, is crispy, juicy, and aromatic, with a nice tangy flavor. Its biggest claim to fame, though, is that it is a parent of Honeycrisp, the biggest apple to hit the market in the past 25 years. Like Fireside, Keepsake keeps well in storage, and its flavor is said to improve over time.

A windmill towers above the trees and barn at Headwater Cider in Hawley, Massachusetts.

A windmill towers above the trees and barn at Headwater Cider in Hawley, Massachusetts.

Headwater Cider Company is the largest of the three orchards, with about 20 acres of apples, all cultivated for their properties in hard cider. Owner Peter Mitchell bought the orchard in 2005 from Apex Orchards, which decided it could no longer run the satellite farm profitably, nearly 20 miles from its main orchard in Shelburne Falls. Mitchell inherited Cortland, Empire, and McIntosh trees, to which he has been slowly adding (he is now up to 34 varieties).

Like many growers, Mitchell tried another career before he settled on apples. Mitchell earned his bachelor’s degree from nearby University of Massachusetts, where he rowed crew for all four years (he remains an avid boater). He went on to earn a master’s degree in English before switching to producing hard cider made from his own apples.

All three orchards welcomed good crowds during CiderDays, and visitors to Headwater Cider were treated to samples of their “New England Dry” and Ashton Bend” hard ciders, and refreshments like the apple cake below. The ciders were nice blends — not too sweet yet retaining plenty of complex apple flavor. The cake was so good we asked for the recipe.

“This is a very apple-y cake,” says Gerda Swedowsky, who baked it. “I use a mix of Cortland and Empire apples. The Cortlands are good because they hold their shape when cooked and the Empires add a nice sweet tangy taste.”

Gerda has had the recipe for “many, many years,” she says. “It is from a cookbook put together by a friend of my mother who was a wonderful cook and had lots of friends that were wonderful cooks as well. I am so pleased to share it.”

Several weeks ago we published the award-winning recipe for Mrs. Cheney’s Nobby Apple Cake. Joan Dybvig’s version is similar, but there are differences besides the silent “k” in “knobby.” For one, Joan spreads a solid layer of walnut pieces on top of the cake rather than mixing it in the batter.

Joan’s recipe does not specify an amount of walnuts, but Gerda’s version Sunday had more than the 1/4 cup used by Mrs. Cheney, and the nuts were excellent, contrasting nicely in flavor and texture with the cooked apples.

Joan Dybvig’s Knobby Apple Cake

1/2 c brown sugar

1/4 c white sugar

¼ c butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

1/2 c whole wheat flour

1/2 c white flour

1 t vanilla extract

1/2 t each: baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg

3 c diced apples  (coarse — 3/4” pieces)

Walnuts

Preheat oven to 350°.

Cream the butter and sugars. Add egg and stir.

Add dry ingredients and vanilla and mix to make a stiff batter.

Add apples, and pour in a well-greased 8×8 pan.

“I cover the top with walnuts that I lightly press into the batter,” says Gerda, “and then I finish with some cinnamon and sugar.”

Bake for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

"Great New England Apple Pie" winner Lori Meiners of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, points to her pie as a spectator prepares to sample it after the judging.

“Great New England Apple Pie” winner Lori Meiners points to her pie as a spectator prepares to sample it after the judging.

While neither the maple leaf pie nor the dragonfly won awards, they were noteworthy for their beautiful presentation.

While neither the maple leaf pie nor the dragonfly won awards, they were noteworthy for their beautiful appearance.

JUDGING BEGAN earlier this year, late morning rather than early afternoon, and that meant a change in routine. Like a finely-tuned runner on marathon day, I had to carefully consider what to eat, and when, in advance of the competition, my fourth time serving as a judge at the annual “Great New England Apple Pie Contest.” The event was held Saturday, October 19, during the first day of Wachusett Mountain’s weekend-long AppleFest.

I needed just enough to blunt my appetite so that I would not be tempted to wolf down the first few entries. Caution is the word when you have to taste more than 40 pies in two hours; to continue the running metaphor, if you go out too fast at the beginning of the race, you will pay for it later on.

For the same reason, I needed to go light on breakfast. Too much food in my stomach and I might not make it through the day’s pies. I chose a small bowl of cereal about three hours before the judging began.

Now in its fourth year, the contest has grown in size, resulting in the earlier start. For the second year, Rick Leblanc of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources joined New England Apple Association Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks and me on the five-person panel of judges, with on-air radio personalities Chris Zito of WSRS and Ginny Sears of WTAG, both in Worcester.

One of the more unusual apple pies had a bacon latticework top.

One of the more unusual apple pies had a bacon latticework top. While neither the maple leaf pie nor the dragonfly won awards, they were noteworthy for their beautiful appearance.

THE RED-AND-WHITE checkered tables beneath a tent and a crisp October sky gave the event the informal atmosphere of a bake sale or church supper. But the long tables were laid out with impressive-looking apple pies of all descriptions, no two exactly the same.

Some pies had elaborately sculpted, crumb, or latticed crusts, some were arranged artfully in picnic baskets or surrounded by apples and foliage. Others came with no frills — just straightforward apple pie.

The pies are graded on presentation and appearance, but this is largely subjective, and in any event we judges agreed that the greater weight in our scores should go to flavor, crust, and texture. When it comes to looks, though, I am more partial to a beautiful, hand-crafted fluting around the pie’s edges than I am to a nice container, although both contribute to the pie’s sensory pleasure.

It is hard to make generalizations after sampling the efforts of 43 different bakers, mostly women. Almost any apple variety — or combination — can succeed in a well-made pie. Apple pies should be lightly spiced; I love nutmeg, but a little goes a long way. Less sugar usually means more apple flavor. A consistently flaky crust can take years of practice.

Cranberry Apple Pie

Cranberry Apple Pie

WE BEGAN with eight pies in the “Apple and Other” category, and there were some outstanding ones with cranberries and pecans. Last year’s winner in the “Apple Only” category, Patricia Kuhn Bonita of Winthrop, Massachusetts, entered a pie featuring apples with Asian pear, but the pear flavor did not come through.

Bonita, a veteran pie-maker and winner at other contests, took the feedback in stride, especially since her friend, Anita Mochi, also of Winthrop, won the category with her Apple Praline Pie.

Then it was on to nearly three dozen “Apple Only” pies. Pacing myself with just two bites of each and cleansing my palate with water in between, I was fine until the last six or seven. I was able to maintain my focus during the judging, but for the first time I looked forward to the end.

Every last bite was worth it, though. Lori Meiners of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, won first prize in the “Apple Only” category with her delicious rendition of New England’s favorite dessert. The final scores were close, and we had to resample two pies in order to decide between the second- and third-place winners.

It is inspirational to see the combined efforts of so many proud and imaginative bakers, and humbling to evaluate their delicious but perishable works of art. I hope I am invited back to try again next year.

Lori Meiners’ Apple Pie

For the crust (makes 2 pies):

4 c unsifted flour, spooned lightly into cup

1 T sugar

2 t coarse salt

1-3/4 c shortening

1 T cider vinegar

1 egg

1/2 c water

For the filling:

8 large New England Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut up

3/4 c white sugar

1/4 c brown sugar

1 t cinnamon

1/4 t ground nutmeg

2 T flour

2 T butter, cut into pieces

For the wash:

1 egg yolk

1 T sour cream

1 t water

1. Prepare the crust:

In a large bowl, use a fork to mix the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the shortening until mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, gently whisk together vinegar, egg, and water. Add egg mixture to flour mixture, and stir until just combined. Divide dough into four portions, quickly form into discs, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

2. Prepare the filling:

Peel, core, and slice the apples into a large, heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over apples until just covered, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain water and set aside. In a small bowl, mix together sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and flour, and set aside.

3. Assemble the pie:

Preheat oven to 350°. Roll out the dough: generously flour flat surface and both sides of the dough. Roll out to 1/4″ thick. Place in pie pan. Pour apples into pan. Add butter pieces, spread out on top of apples. Pour sugar mixture over apples. Roll out top crust and place over apples. Trim edges so there is about 1/2″ of dough hanging over edge of pan. Fold dough under and pinch to seal. Cut several slits in the top crust to vent steam while baking. In a small bowl, mix egg yolk, sour cream, and water, and paint over top crust.

4. Bake:

Place pie in preheated 350° oven for 35 to 40 minutes until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Anita Mochi’s Apple Praline Pie

Crust:

2-1/4 c flour

1/4 t salt

1/2 c shortening

7 T butter

5-7 T water

Apples:

2 Cortland

2 Honeycrisp

2 Jonagold

1 Granny Smith

Blend together:

3 T butter

1/4 c brown sugar

1/4 c sugar

1/2 t cinnamon

1/4 t nutmeg

1 t lemon juice

3-1/2 T flour

Praline topping:

In small saucepan, melt 1/4 c butter, 1/2 c brown sugar, 2 T cream. Bring to boil. Remover from heat and stir in 1/2 c pecans. Spread over pie shell and return to oven for five minutes.

The crowd had a chance to taste the entries while waiting for the winners to be announced.

The crowd had a chance to taste the entries while waiting for the winners to be announced.

Spencer apples on this tree at The Big Apple in Wrentham, Massachusetts, were good sized but had yet to have developed their full color when this photograph was taken in early September

Spencer apples on this tree at The Big Apple in Wrentham, Massachusetts, were good sized but had not yet developed their full color when this photograph was taken in early September.  Bar Lois Weeks

Spencer apple

Spencer apple

ONE OF THE NEWER and less heralded of the offspring of McIntosh is Spencer. Spencer is a cross of McIntosh and Golden Delicious, and it combines the Mac’s tartness, juiciness, and green skin with a rich overlay of red, with the conical shape and some of the sweetness of Golden Delicious. Spencer is crisp and juicy, with greenish-white flesh. Its sweet-tart flavor is excellent for fresh eating, and it is good for pie and sauce as well.

Perhaps Spencer is not better known because it does not store as well as some varieties. The flavor of some apples improves in storage; others are best eaten fresh. Spencer is an example of the latter. It will be good now through Thanksgiving, but does not retain its characteristic flavor over the winter.

Developed in 1926 at the British Columbia Experimental Station, Spencer was released commercially in 1959.

We used Spencers in this famous apple recipe from Maureen Cheney of Cheney Orchards in Brimfield, Massachusetts. The recipe won first prize in a National Apple Growers Association (now USApple) contest in the 1950s. The flavor and texture are outstanding.

After 90 years, Cheney Orchards closed in 2001, but Maureen’s son, David L. Cheney, has now reopened part of the orchard, working with the Grafton, Massachusetts-based Community Harvest Project. Under the program, volunteers plant and harvest apples to donate to the Worcester County Food Bank.

With a few minor modifications, here is Mrs. Cheney’s award-winning recipe.

Mrs. Cheney’s Nobby Apple Cake

1/4 c butter, softened

1 c sugar (raw cane sugar, if possible)

1 egg

½ c white whole wheat flour

½ c whole wheat flour

½ t baking powder

½ t baking soda

1 t cinnamon

½ t nutmeg

½ t salt

1 t vanilla

1/4 c chopped walnuts or pecans

3 medium-sized Spencer or other New England apples (about 3 cups)

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 8×8 baking pan.

Cut apples into 1/2-inch chunks.

In large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar, then beat in egg.

Sift together dry ingredients, and add to egg mixture with apples, nuts, and vanilla.

Baked for 45 minutes.

***

Looking for a good place to go apple-picking this weekend? Click here for a list of the region’s best orchards.

Creston, a new, late-season apple from Canada, at Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts

Creston, a new, late-season apple from Canada, at Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts

NEW APPLE varieties are continually being developed, some the old-fashioned way, as chance seedlings in the wild, and others in sophisticated apple breeding laboratories around the globe. Some of these apples are so new that they may be as hard to find as some heirlooms, and some will never achieve broad commercial success. But the best of these add greatly to the apple palate with new and interesting flavors, textures, and colors. Three new mid-season varieties with great promise are Cameo, CrimsonCrisp, and Topaz.

Cameo apple

Cameo apple

Cameo, or American Cameo, is one of the most widely planted of the new varieties. It came from a chance seedling in Washington state, and it was introduced commercially in 1998. Its parentage is unknown, but it was discovered near a Red Delicious orchard, with which it shares several characteristics. Cameo’s conical shape is similar to Red Delicious, and it is a sweet apple, too, with a pear-like finish. But Cameo is juicier and crisper than Red Delicious, and its coloring includes yellow or green striping on a red skin.

CrimsonCrisp apple

CrimsonCrisp apple

CrimsonCrisp, as its name implies, is a firm, reddish-purple apple. Its crispy yellow flesh has a sweet-tart flavor, making it good for both fresh-eating apple and cider. It is a scab-resistant variety, and it stores well for several months.

CrimsonCrisp was released in 2005, the 18th cultivar developed by the Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey (PRI) joint apple-breeding program. The first CrimsonCrisp seedling was developed from a cross of two other seedlings in 1971 at the Rutgers Fruit Research and Development Center in Cream Ridge, New Jersey. Its parentage includes Golden Delicious, Rome, Jonathan, and Melba.

Topaz is a disease-resistant variety from the Czech Republic that made its commercial debut in 1990. The Czech Republic apple industry, while modest, has been one of the most active countries in the world when it comes to developing new disease-resistant varieties, including the scab-resistant, sweet-tart Topaz, and its parents, Rubin and Vanda.

Topaz is a medium to large apple with a beautiful red blush overlaid on a yellow skin. Its cream-colored flesh is crisp, and its flavor is on the tart side, although it mellows some in storage. There is also a redder strain known as Crimson Topaz or Red Topaz.

Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, is one of many New England orchards with outstanding Cortland apple crops this fall.

Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, is one of many New England orchards with outstanding Cortland apple crops this fall.

THE INFLUENCE of McIntosh on the world’s apple supply extends well beyond the McIntosh itself. Its exceptional flavor, juiciness, and aroma have made McIntosh a favorite of apple breeding programs for more than 100 years, and Macs are parents of some of New England’s most celebrated varieties, especially Cortland, Empire, and Macoun.

Cortland apple

Cortland apple

Like McIntosh, Cortland has been a New England favorite for more than a century, and it excels in every use. A large, juicy apple with a sweet-tart flavor that is a little sweeter than a Mac, Cortlands are excellent for fresh eating. They are outstanding in pies for their flavor, size, and because they hold their shape well when baked. Their white flesh browns slowly after slicing, so Cortlands are excellent in salads, too.

Cortland is the product of a cross between McIntosh and Ben Davis, an heirloom apple from Virginia dating back to the early 1800s. Much of Cortland’s distinctive flavor comes from McIntosh, while its crisp texture, red skin with green striping, and large size are characteristic of Ben Davis. Cortlands can develop a slightly greasy look and feel in storage, another quality of Ben Davis. Cortlands were developed in 1898 at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York.

Empire apple

Empire apple

Empire is a cross between two of America’s most popular varieties: McIntosh and Red Delicious. Red Delicious, a chance seedling discovered in Iowa in 1880, provides Empire’s predominantly deep red color and sweetness, but McIntosh gives it a complexity and measure of tartness, as well as a green or yellow blush.

Empire’s juicy white flesh resembles a Mac, but it is firmer and does not bruise easily, like Red Delicious. Empire is great for fresh eating, but is a good cooking apple as well. Developed by R.D. Way at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1945, Empire was introduced commercially in 1966.

Macoun apple

Macoun apple

Macoun was also developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, by crossing McIntosh with Jersey Black, a variety from New Jersey also known as Black Apple, dating back to the early 1800s. The resulting apple is named for Canadian horticulturalist W.T. Macoun, and it was released in the 1920s.

Many consider Macoun to be the finest fresh-eating apple available, in large part due to its sweet-tart, McIntosh-like flavor and powerful fragrance. But Macoun has a firmer, crisper flesh than McIntosh, and a distinctive, spicy taste, with a hint of strawberry.

Macoun is red and green like McIntosh, and its darker, wine-red tones and irregular, boxy shape are attributes of Jersey Black. Macoun is good for cooking, too, but rarely gets that far, coveted as it is for fresh eating. Macoun is pronounced as if spelled “MacCowan,” although some people say “MacCoon.”

Other varieties that owe their existence to McIntosh include Brock (crossed with Golden Delicious, developed in Maine in 1933), Jonamac (crossed with Jonathan, New York, 1972), Milton (crossed with Yellow Transparent, New York, 1923), Spartan (crossed with Newtown Pippin, British Columbia, 1936), and Spencer (crossed with Red Delicious, British Columbia, 1959).

RubyMac is one of several newer strains of McIntosh, and it is distinguished by its deep red color and firm, light-green flesh.

***

FOR INFORMATION about where to find McIntosh and other New England apples, click here.

McIntosh apples waiting to be plucked at Douglas Orchards in West Shoreham, Vermont

McIntosh apples waiting to be plucked at Douglas Orchards in West Shoreham, Vermont

APPLES COME and apples go, but McIntosh is that rare variety whose popularity never fades. It took nearly 70 years after its discovery on a Canadian farm more than 200 years ago for McIntosh to make its commercial debut. But since 1870 the Mac has enjoyed a sustained run as one of our nation’s favorite apples, firmly entrenched in America’s top ten (the sixth most popular variety grown in the United States), and accounting for about two-thirds of the New England crop, where Macs grow exceptionally well.

A century ago McIntosh was competing with varieties like Baldwin, Northern Spy, and Rhode Island Greening for marketplace supremacy. Yet, while those varieties are still grown in a number of the region’s orchards, their popularity crested long ago, and they are now treasured as heirlooms rather than grown widely on a national scale.

Many varieties that were popular one hundred years ago were not so lucky, and are now rare or extinct. Three Massachusetts apples, for example, were not only regional favorites but cultivated across the country. Benoni (an early season apple from Dedham in the early 1800s, with crisp, juicy yellow flesh and red, or orange-yellow, striped red skin), Danvers Sweet (a variety from the 1700s included in the American Pomological Society’s first list of recommended varieties for its sweet flavor and storage qualities), and Mother (discovered in Worcester in 1848 and prized for its appearance and flavor), are now found in just a few places, or preserved in heritage orchards like the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

The reasons an apple variety can fade from view are many. It may be difficult to grow or susceptible to disease. Its fruit may be small or misshapen, or the trees may bear crops only every other year. The apple’s core may be too big, the skin too tough, or the flesh too dry. The apple may bruise easily, fall prematurely off the tree, or store and ship poorly — critical factors for commercial success. A variety may simply become unfashionable, its desirability influenced by such superficial factors as color or name.

In some instances, the qualities that made an apple variety exceptional where it was discovered simply do not translate well to other climates or soils. A great apple in southeastern Vermont may be bland when grown in northern Connecticut. Even the flavor of successful commercial varieties like McIntosh and Honeycrisp can vary slightly according to where it is grown, the time of year, and the particular weather conditions of a season.

McIntosh apple

McIntosh apple

YET McINTOSH is remarkably consistent in flavor and texture, and its attributes well known. In addition to its distinctive, sweet-tart flavor, McIntosh is one of the most aromatic apples. Its juicy flesh is crisp but not dense. Few apples bring as much pleasure as the distinctive crunch of a fresh McIntosh straight from the tree — and they are now ripe for picking in New England orchards, and available at farm stands and grocery stores.

But McIntosh are also great for cooking, and apple crisp is one of the many desserts in which McIntosh excel. We recently made apple crisp using the last of the early season varieties, plus a couple of Granny Smiths that were given to us at the beginning of the summer and that had languished in the refrigerator.

The crisp had good flavor, but it was dry, as the early season apples and Grannies were past their prime, lacking in juice. When this happens, the crisp can be salvaged by adding half a cup or more of liquid, ideally fresh cider, and cooked for 15 more minutes. Water will work if you do not have any cider, or in our case, an eight-ounce bottle of apple juice we had on hand. The result was very good.

Had we used McIntosh, though, there would have been no such problem. Its natural juiciness ensures that apple crisp made with McIntosh will never be dry or lacking in texture, and its rich flavor and fragrance are simply sublime.

We will feature apple crisp made with Macs (and maybe a few Cortlands) at the New England Apple Association booth in the Massachusetts Building at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) in West Springfield, Massachusetts, for 17 consecutive days beginning this Friday, September 13. Customers will have the option of topping off their warm crisp (or apple pie) with vanilla ice cream.

A brief shower Sunday left traces of rain on McIntosh apples at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts

A brief shower Sunday left traces of rain on McIntosh apples at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts

We will also be selling fresh apples at The Big E from a number of orchards, including Brookfield Orchards, Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Cold Spring Orchard, Nestrovich Fruit Farm, Pine Hill Orchard, Red Apple Farm, and Tougas Family Farm, plus single-serving apple pies, cider donuts from Atkins Farm, and fresh cider from Carlson Orchards, and have informational items like recipe cards and our 2014 New England Apples wall calendar.

The fair is a great place to sample and learn about apples, including many of the varieties that populate New England orchards today. We cannot guarantee that all of them will be flourishing a century from now, but it is a good bet that McIntosh is here to stay.

The apple crisp recipe we use comes from Lois Castell Browns, grandmother of Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks.

Apple Crisp

6 McIntosh or other New England apples

1 T lemon juice

1 t cinnamon

1/4 t nutmeg

1/2 t salt

Topping

3/4 c whole wheat flour

1/4 c old-fashioned oats

1/4 c brown sugar or maple syrup

5 T butter

Preheat oven to 350˚. Core and slice apples into a buttered 8” square pan. Sprinkle lemon juice and spices over the apples. Combine topping ingredients to cover the apples. Bake for 45 minutes or until apples have softened.

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For more information about New England orchards, what they grow, and where to find them, click here.

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