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The view from North Star Orchards, Madison, Maine, in mid-October. Like many New England orchards, North Star's farm store will remain open until Christmas. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The view from North Star Orchards, Madison, Maine, in mid-October. Like many New England orchards, North Star’s farm store will remain open until Christmas. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Scandinavian Apple Cake (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Scandinavian Apple Cake (Russell Steven Powell photo)

VERSATILE as apples are, I have not come across many recipes that combine them with the sweet spice cardamom. Though native to India, Guatemala is now the leading producer of cardamom, an unusual spice that is often featured in Scandinavian baked goods.

My fondness for cardamom dates back to childhood, when my mother made a braided Scandinavian coffee bread every Christmas flavored with this distinctive spice. She always made breads to give away in addition to the loaves inhaled by our family of six, to family, friends, even the postman and milkman some years.

The coffee bread was highly aromatic, moist, and chewy, and it came served with butter topped by a thin layer of almond extract-tinged icing decorated with candied cherries and finely chopped walnut pieces. But it was the cardamom that gave the bread its distinctive bite.

In making the recipe below I followed my mother’s method of peeling whole cardamom seeds from their whitish husks, and grinding them by hand with mortar and pestle to the consistency of coarse pepper. This worked to great effect in her bread — you could see little shards of cardamom bursting with intense cardamom flavor — and whole seeds kept in glass jars keep their flavor longer.

But the cardamom flavor in the cake I made was too mild using this technique, overshadowed by the pecans. I subsequently read that finely ground cardamom is the preferred consistency for most baked goods, infusing them with stronger cardamom flavor than the rougher mortar-and-pestle-crushed seeds.

This Scandinavian Apple Cake recipe was adapted from one given to my mother by Trish Leipold of Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire, years ago; my mother only recently passed it along to me.

I made a few mistakes in my first attempt, corrected here. Further chopping of the cubed apples will improve the cake’s texture and make it moister by releasing more of the apples’ juice. The apple’s skin, incidentally, included for nutritional purposes, adds flavor and color to the cake.

I used three McIntosh and two Golden Delicious apples. The cake is delicious, and definitely merits another try.

Scandinavian Apple Cake

1 c white flour

1 c whole wheat flour

2 t cinnamon

1 t baking powder

1 t baking soda

⅔ t ground allspice

¼ t ground cardamom

pinch of salt

 

5 medium-sized New England apples, cored and chopped

½ c sugar

1 c chopped pecans or walnuts

⅔ c butter, melted

2 eggs, slightly beaten

2 t vanilla

 

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 9”x13” baking dish.

In large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. Set aside.

In another large bowl, mix together apples, sugar, nuts, and butter. Using a food chopper or processor, make apple pieces about the size of peas. Stir in eggs and vanilla.

Add dry ingredients to apple mixture, stirring just until combined. Spread into prepared baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft and a toothpick inserted in the cake comes clean.

***

THIS SUNDAY, November 23, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. author Russell Steven Powell will sample apples, answer questions, and sign copies of his new book, Apples of New England, at Tags Hardware in the Porter Square Shopping Center, 29 White St., Cambridge, Massachusetts.

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellAPPLES OF NEW ENGLAND (Countryman Press, 2014), a history of apple growing in New England, includes photographs and descriptions of more than 200 apple varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region. Separate chapters feature the “fathers” of American wild apple, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thorea; the contemporary orchard of the early 21st century; and rare apples, many of them photographed from the preservation orchard at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

Powell is senior writer for the nonprofit New England Apple Association after serving as its executive director from 1998 to 2011. Photographer Bar Lois Weeks is the Association’s current executive director.

Available in bookstores everywhere.

'America's Apple' coverAMERICA’S APPLE, (Brook Hollow Press, 2012) Powell’s and Weeks’s first book, provides an in-depth look at how apples are grown, eaten, and marketed in America, with chapter on horticulture, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), heirloom apples, apples as food, apple drinks, food safety insects and disease, labor, current trends, and apple futures, with nearly 50 photographs from orchards around the country.

The hardcover version lists for $45.95 and includes a photographic index of 120 apple varieties cultivated in the United States. America’s Apple is also available in paperback, minus the photograph index, for $19.95, and as an ebook.

Available at numerous bookstores and orchards, and Silver Street MediaAmazon.comBarnes and Noble, and other online sources. For quantity discounts, email newenglandapples@verizon.net.

 

 

 

 

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The apple pie evaluators took their job seriously at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The apple pie evaluators took their job seriously at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

AFTER TWO MONTHS of intensive research, we are forced to admit failure — once again — in our perennial quest to definitively answer a question that has plagued civilization since the discovery of the cooking fire: what is the best pie apple?

Our failure was not due to a lack of effort, and we had the help of prodigious pie-makers from across the region. We began by baking, inhaling, and serving more than 2,000 five-inch, single-serving apple pies at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) for 17 days in September, and tasted not a few of them.

We talked pies with Kim Harrison, one of a team of volunteers that made the pies to raise funds for The Preservation Society in Granby, Massachusetts. We spoke with dozens of customers about the merits of one variety over another.

The Big E pies have a flaky top crust covering a filling of several varieties lightly spiced. Many people topped off their pie with vanilla ice cream, a few with thin slices of cheddar. The apples were supplied by five Massachusetts orchards: Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown, Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Nestrovich Fruit Farm in Granville, Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, and Red Apple Farm in Phillipston.

The apple pies at the Big E featured a mix of varieties. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The apple pies at the Big E featured a mix of varieties. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Most of the pies included McIntosh, a perennial contender for the gold standard since its discovery on an Ontario farm more than two centuries ago. (McIntosh was introduced  to New England in 1868 by Vermont’s Dr. Thomas H. Hoskins.)

Its flavor and aroma are so good that most people forgive McIntosh’s tendency to break down when baked, and add at least some to any varietal mix.

Akane, an early season apple developed in Japan in 1937 and introduced in the United States in 1970, was also noteworthy in this year’s pies for its lightly tangy flavor and texture.

In our informal survey of visitors, opinions about the best pie apple ran the gamut, from heirlooms like Baldwin (Wilmington, Massachusetts, 1740) to recent entries such as Pink Lady (Australia, 1989). Northern Spy (East Bloomfield, New York, in 1840, from seeds from Salisbury, Connecticut) has a particularly loyal fan base.

The closest we came to discovery, though, was the radiance of a woman purchasing 14 Gravenstein apples, an early season heirloom from Europe that dates back to at least the 1600s. The now hard-to-find Gravs were popular in New England until the bitterly cold winter of 1933-34, when many of the trees perished (along with more than one million Baldwin trees). It has never recovered as a commercial apple, but can still be found at some orchards.

Pie preferences are often passed down from generation to generation. The woman purchasing 14 Gravensteins put six in her bag at first, and as we talked she kept adding to her total until she got to 14. She planned to make two pies with them, just the way her mother did.

It was not the first time during our years at The Big E that the sight of Gravensteins has inspired such passion, and we suspect it will not be the last. I have not made a pie using just Gravenstein, but if it is as good baked as it is eaten fresh, the woman may be on to something. The apples were special, bursting with juice, with a lightly crisp, lemony tart flavor.

The flavor of nearly all of the varieties cited at The Big E, we noted, is more tart than sweet. That’s not to say that you can’t make a great pie using sweet apples, but a hint of tartness lends a pie complexity and zest.

Bakers pose with their entries prior to judging at the 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Bakers pose with their entries prior to judging at the 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

NEXT WE TRIED immersion, serving as judges in the 5th Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest October 18 at Wachusett Mountain’s annual AppleFest in Princeton, Massachusetts. We dutifully sampled 30 pies in less than two hours, using the two-bite method: an introduction to the pie, and a second impression. It is the only way to do justice to this many pies.

There were some incredible-looking pies — entries are judged on appearance and presentation as well as flavor and texture — in two categories, Apple Only and Apple And Other. Several had latticed or elaborately sculpted crusts, including the winner of Apple Only, Theresa Matthews of Gardner, Massachusetts.

Theresa Matthews' winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie is in the foreground. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Theresa Matthews’ winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie is in the foreground. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The judges, in addition to me, were Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association, for the third year; local businessman Burt Gendron, a veteran pie taster; Julia Grimaldi, representing the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources; and radio personalities Chris Zito of WSRS and Ginny Sears of WTAG, both in Worcester.

We did not know the varieties used in any pie, although we were able to identify McIntosh flavor and texture in some, and make good guesses about Cortland, an 1898 cross of McIntosh with Ben David, similar in flavor to McIntosh but larger and firmer.

Most of the entries were good to very good, with several reaching exalted status. The few low-scoring pies suffered more from lackluster crusts than poor apple flavor.

One pie pairing pears with apples tasted mostly of apples — finding a balance that allows the milder pear flavor to come through can be tricky. But apples and pears is a proven combination, well worth the effort to get it right.

Green grapes and apples, on the other hand, may go well together fresh in a fruit salad, but made an undistinguished pie filling. While there are many flavorful ways to serve apples with bacon or peanut butter, the pies that combined them did justice to neither apple nor “other.”

Other ingredients in Apple and Other were caramel, cranberries, cream cheese, raisins, walnuts, and Jack Daniels. They all worked well with this versatile fruit.

Apples in a number of pies had been sliced by a mandolin slicer, and generally this did not improve the pie’s texture. The thin, uniform slices often stick together in a stack, which can lead to uneven cooking and consistency.

Theresa Matthews used only Cortland apples in her winning Apple Only pie. Both contest winners in 2012 also used just Cortland. Could this make Cortland the undisputed champ?

Chef Gerri Griswold, rear right, looks on as people sample her pies at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Chef Gerri Griswold, rear right, looks on as people sample her pies at White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

FROM THERE we conducted another experiment, at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut. Chef Gerri Griswold baked a dozen pies for our October 25 apple talk and tasting event, two each using single varieties: Cortland; Empire, a 1945 offspring of McIntosh, crossed with Red Delicious, released in 1966; Gala (New Zealand, 1934, 1970), Honeycrisp (Minnesota, 1961, released in 1991), Macoun, a 1909 cross of McIntosh with Jersey Black in New York, released in 1923); and McIntosh.

Gerri scrupulously followed the Joy of Cooking apple pie recipe for all 12 of her creations, using the same prepared Pillsbury crust. We sampled each pie several times, as did the 20 or so people of all ages in attendance. A sheet of paper nearby for our scores and comments went mostly untouched, as most people were content to savor the experience.

There was plenty of excellent pie, but no clear-cut winner. Cortland had the most support in an informal poll, but the Empire, Macoun, and McIntosh pies all had champions. The McIntosh pie had surprisingly firm texture, soft but not mushy, and holding together.

Gerri had tried a similar experiment during our first appearance at White Memorial two years ago, baking four pies using single varieties. On that day, Mutsu, a large yellow apple discovered in Japan in 1930 (also known as Crispin), was the favorite pie apple.

The pies made with the sweet Gala and Honeycrisp apples did not fare as well as the others. For most of us, they were a little too sweet and their flavor lacked character. Gerri acknowledged that were it not for the taste test she would have reduced the sugar in the pies made with these varieties.

WE CONTINUED our study this past Sunday, November 2, during Franklin County CiderDays. Sue Chadwick, who grows a wide range of rare heirloom apples at her Second Chance Farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts, kindly donated a pie for our research, one of just three left from the 20 she baked to sell at the event the day before.

Sue uses a mix of apples in her pies, and the varieties could be different every time. Even if she could tell exactly what went into each pie, it would be hard for most people to find the apples to replicate it. The pie she gave us had rich apple flavor, as good or better than any made with a single variety.

Having made such little progress, we are going back to view Andrea Darrow’s three-part video series about apple pie-making, below. Andrea, of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vermont, bakes hundreds of apple pies every fall, peeling every apple by hand. She uses several varieties, including Cortland and McIntosh, and piles them high.

Theresa Matthews with all that was left of her winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie after the judging. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Theresa Matthews with all that was left of her winning 2014 Great New England Apple Pie Contest pie after the judging. The Apple Rose Tarts on top were long gone. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

THERESA MATTHEWS has been working on her apple pies since she was a teenager. “My Mum was the reason behind that. She never measured for her pie crusts and I could never, ever get it right.”

Theresa’s preference for Cortland goes back at least a generation. “I’ve tried other apples, but I always go back to Cortland. I got that from my Mum as well.”

She did get it right. Here is the recipe for Theresa Matthews’ first-place pie.

Mum’s Apple Pie

Crust

3 c all purpose flour

1 t sea salt

1 T granulated sugar

1-½ sticks unsalted butter (cold)

⅓ c shortening (cold)

½ c ice cold water

one egg white

In a food processor bowl place flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening. Cover and pulse until blended about the size of peas. While running the processor, pour cold water in a steady stream until pastry ball forms. Divide into two balls, chilling for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out one crust on lightly floured parchment paper 1” larger than pie tin. Carefully transfer pastry to pie tin, and try not to stretch to avoid shrinking. Take egg white and brush onto entire bottom crust and refrigerate for 15 minutes or until filling is set.

Filling

6 thinly sliced Cortland apples

½ c unsalted butter

3 T all purpose flour

¼ c water

½ c granulated sugar

½ c packed light brown sugar

1½ t cinnamon

½ t nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a smooth paste. Add in water, sugars, and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature to a simmer. In a large mixing bowl place sliced apples. Pour sauce over apple slices and mix carefully to keep apple slices whole.

Carefully spoon coated apple slices into bottom crust, mounding slightly. Take care not to pour too much liquid to run out, reserving 2 T sauce. Brush bottom crust edge with egg whites and cover mounded apples with top crust, trim and press to seal. Cut slits for steam to release during cooking and brush glaze onto top of pie.

Cut pie dough scraps into the shapes of leaves and arrange them on the pie where the rose tarts will be placed. Brush glaze over leaves. Save remaining pie dough for Apple Rose Tarts (recipe below).

Place in preheated oven and lay a sheet of aluminum foil over pie to prevent burning. Bake 60-75 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cool. Serve as is or with ice cream. Makes one 9” pie.

Apple Rose Tarts

Preheat oven to 350°.

Inspiration from diy-enthusiasts.com/food-fun/easy-apple-desserts-apple-roses/

2 Cortland apples sliced thinly

3 c water with 1 c sugar dissolved to make a simple syrup

1 T lemon juice (to help prevent browning)

Cinnamon sugar

Pie crust dough (left over from Mum’s Apple Pie, above)

Add apple slices to a pan of sweet syrup, making sure to cover all apples. Cook over medium-low heat until apples are pliable.

Roll out remaining pie dough in a rectangle about 8 to 10 inches wide and 10-12 inches long. Cut 8-10 one-inch wide strips along dough’s length.

Dry off 6 apple slices on a paper towel before arranging on a strip of pie dough. Lay out Overlap slices on strips so when rolled they will form the apple rose petals. Take care to leave about 1/2” of dough to seal the tart once rolled. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar before rolling up tart into a rose. (Photo references available on aforementioned website)

Place tarts on parchment paper about 2 inches apart and bake for 25 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Once tarts are cool, remove from parchment and using toothpicks insert into place on baked and cooled apple pie.

*          *          *

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellAPPLES OF NEW ENGLAND (Countryman Press, 2014), a history of apple growing in New England, includes photographs and descriptions of more than 200 apple varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region. Separate chapters feature the “fathers” of American wild apple, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thorea; the contemporary orchard of the early 21st century; and rare apples, many of them photographed from the preservation orchard at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

Author Russell Steven Powell is senior writer for the nonprofit New England Apple Association after serving as its executive director from 1998 to 2011. Photographer Bar Lois Weeks is the Association’s current executive director.

Available in bookstores everywhere.

'America's Apple' coverAMERICA’S APPLE, (Brook Hollow Press, 2012) Powell’s and Weeks’s first book, provides an in-depth look at how apples are grown, eaten, and marketed in America, with chapter on horticulture, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), heirloom apples, apples as food, apple drinks, food safety insects and disease, labor, current trends, and apple futures, with nearly 50 photographs from orchards around the country.

The hardcover version lists for $45.95 and includes a photographic index of 120 apple varieties cultivated in the United States. America’s Apple is also available in paperback, minus the photograph index, for $19.95, and as an ebook.

Available at numerous bookstores and orchards, and Silver Street MediaAmazon.comBarnes and Noble, and other online sources. For quantity discounts, email newenglandapples@verizon.net.

*          *          *

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McIntosh apple ripening at Pine Hill Orchard in Colrain, Massachusetts (photo by Russell Steven Powell)

The McIntosh are plentiful but still a few weeks away at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts, but PaulaRed and Ginger Gold are already being harvested (Russell Steven Powell photo)

WHEN IT COMES TO APPLES, New England truly is a melting pot. In addition to the dozens of varieties discovered in the region, apples from across the country and around the world have flourished in New England’s climate and soils. We’ll be looking at the origins of some of New England’s best-known apples over the next several weeks.

There are only a handful of active apple-breeding programs left in the United States, at Cornell University in New York, the University of Minnesota, Washington State University, and a joint program of the University of Illinois, Purdue University in Indiana, and Rutgers University in New Jersey, known by the acronym PRI.

The PRI consortium has produced a number of cultivars that are grown in New England: early season apples Vista Bella (discovered in 1956; released commercially in 1974), Mollie’s Delicious (1948; 1966), and Pristine (1975; 1994), the mid-season CrimsonCrisp (1971; 2005), and the late-season GoldRush (1973; 1993).

Two other early season apples developed by PRI are Jersey Mac and Williams’ Pride.

Jersey Mac apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jersey Mac apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jersey Mac is a medium-sized, round apple with green and light-red patches on a dark-red skin. Beneath an occasionally tough peel, its tender, white flesh has a mild flavor that is more sweet than tart, with hints of strawberry. It can be used for both cooking and fresh eating. Its season is relatively short, as it does not store well. One grower calls Jersey Mac “a good choice for McIntosh lovers who are getting impatient waiting for the Macs to ripen.”

Despite its name and resemblance, though, Jersey Mac’s complex parentage does not include McIntosh. It is a cross between Melba, Wealthy, Rome, and Starr, an obscure, yellow-green apple from the 1920s known for its tart, juicy flesh. Jersey Mac was developed in 1956 at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick, and released commercially in 1971.

Williams' Pride apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Williams’ Pride apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Like Pristine, Williams’ Pride is an outstanding newer entry into the early season market, discovered in 1975 and released in 1988. It is a medium-to-large apple, slightly conical in shape with maroon-red color. Its crisp, juicy flesh is cream-colored, and it has a spicy, nicely balanced, sweet-tart flavor. It is an all-purpose apple especially good for fresh eating.

Like Jersey Mac, Williams’ Pride has complex parentage that includes Melba, Jonathan, Mollie’s Delicious, and Rome. It was named for Edwin B. Williams, long-time head of the disease-resistant apple-breeding program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Two late-season apples from PRI are Enterprise and Suncrisp.

Enterprise apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Enterprise apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Enterprise is a round, medium-to-large apple, deep-red in color with prominent white lenticels. Its spicy flavor is more tart than sweet, and it is considered best for cooking. Its flesh, crisp at harvest, softens some in storage, and its somewhat tough skin develops a waxy coating, but it keeps exceptionally well.

Discovered in 1978 and released in 1990, its parentage includes Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Rome Beauty. Another variety credited to Edwin B. Williams, Enterprise was developed for disease resistance at Purdue. It is immune to apple scab and highly resistant to fire blight and cedar apple rust.

Suncrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Suncrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Suncrisp is a late-season apple that continues to develop its flavor long after harvest. A large apple, it has orange-red striping over a yellow skin. Its cream-colored flesh is crisp and juicy. More tart than sweet when picked, it becomes sweeter and develops a complex, spicy flavor in storage, where it can keep for up to six months. It is especially good for cooking.

Suncrisp was developed in the 1990s by Dr. Frederick Hough at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick from Gold Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Cortland parents. The Suncrisp name is trademarked by Rutgers University.

*          *          *

WITH THE FRESH HARVEST upon us, here is a simple, straightforward, and delicious way to get those apple juices flowing. Adapted from From A Monastery Kitchen by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette.

Apple Crumble

4 medium-sized New England apples, sliced

½ c flour

½ c whole wheat flour

⅓ c sugar

1 t baking powder

¼ t salt

½ t nutmeg

2 eggs

1 t cinnamon

3 T butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375°. Arrange apple slices in 9” round cake pan. Combine remaining ingredients except cinnamon and butter, and spread mixture loosely over apples. Stir cinnamon into butter and drizzle on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes until apples are done.

*          *          *

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellApples of New England: A User’s Guide (The Countryman Press) is now out! A new book by Russell Steven Powell, it features color photographs and descriptions of more than 200 apple varieties grown, sold, or discovered in New England, plus a history of apple growing in the region spanning nearly four centuries. Photographs are by Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association.

In addition to extensive research, Powell interviewed senior and retired growers and leading industry figures from all six New England states, and obtained samples of many rare varieties at the preservation orchard maintained by the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

A chapter on John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), for the first time links him with another Massachusetts native, Henry David Thoreau, as the fathers of American wild apples, Chapman for planting them, Thoreau with his pen.

Apples of New England is intended for use by all apple lovers, whether they are visiting the orchard, farm stand, grocery store, an abandoned field or a back yard — or in the kitchen. The descriptions include detailed information on each apple’s flavor and texture, ripening season, and best uses, as well as age, parentage, place of origin, and unusual histories.

Powell has worked for the nonprofit New England Apple Association since 1996, and served 13 years as executive director from 1998 to 2011. He is now its senior writer. He is the author of America’s Apple (Brook Hollow Press, 2012), a book about apple growing in the United States.

America’s Apple is now available in paperback for $19.95. Visit Silver Street Media or Amazon.com to order online, or look for it at your favorite orchard or bookstore.

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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.

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"Great New England Apple Pie" winner Lori Meiners points to her pie as a spectator prepares to sample it after the judging. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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

While neither the maple leaf pie nor the dragonfly won awards, they were noteworthy for their beautiful presentation. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

While neither the maple leaf pie nor the dragonfly won awards, they were noteworthy for their beautiful presentation. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

 2013 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

2013 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

One of the more unusual apple pies had a bacon latticework top. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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, from the 2013 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Cranberry Apple Pie, from the 2013 Great New England Apple Pie Contest. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The crowd had a chance to taste the entries while waiting for the winners to be announced. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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McIntosh apples waiting to be plucked at Douglas Orchards in West Shoreham, Vermont. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

McIntosh apples waiting to be plucked at Douglas Orchards in West Shoreham, Vermont. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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 (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

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. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

A brief shower Sunday left traces of rain on McIntosh apples at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

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.

***

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

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Steere Orchard, Greenville, Rhode Island (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Steere Orchard, Greenville, Rhode Island (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Pristine apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Pristine apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

MOLLIE’S DELICIOUS and Pristine, two of the best early season apples, are relatively new varieties, both developed at Rutgers University in New Jersey (Rutgers has one of the few remaining apple breeding programs in the United States, part of a cooperative with Purdue University and the University of Illinois).

Pristine has a lemon-yellow skin with a pink blush. A crisp, juicy apple, it has a sweet-tart flavor with hints of citrus. Pristine is unusually crisp for an early apple, and stores well compared to many early varieties.

Pristine was developed from a numbered, unnamed seedling planted in 1975, crossed with Camuzat, a little-known apple from Spain. Pristine was introduced commercially in 1994.

Mollie's Delicious apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Mollie’s Delicious apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Mollie’s Delicious is a crisp, sweet, juicy apple with coarse, greenish or cream-colored flesh. It is large, ribbed, and conical in shape, with red coloring over a yellow skin. Mollies must be handled with care, as they tend to bruise easily, but they can be stored for several months.

Mollie’s Delicious was developed in 1948 at the Rutgers University Agricultural Experiment Station. It is a cross of two crosses: Golden Delicious and Edgewood, and Red Gravenstein and Close. Mollie’s Delicious was introduced in 1966 and named after an admirer of the apple, Mollie Whatley.

***

THE FOLLOWING RECIPE for Chunky Apple Bars was adapted from Healthy To The Core, a new book of “all-natural, low sugar/no sugar apple recipes for kids,” by Lee Jackson.

“Fruit has the unique ability to sweeten without the unnaturally sugary sweet taste that characterizes many desserts,” writes Jackson. “If other sweetening needs to be added, this is done through natural sweeteners that are less refined than table sugar such as unrefined organic cane sugar, honey, or maple syrup. There are no artificial sweeteners used in the cookbook.”

We did not have unrefined cane sugar on hand, so substituted regular white sugar. But the quantity — just 2 tablespoons — was unusually low, and combined with the tablespoon of honey in the filling was plenty to augment the apples’ natural sweetness.

The oatmeal, cinnamon, and apple flavor was good but the bars were best eaten with a fork, as they did not hold together. In fairness, we substituted half whole wheat flour, while Jackson’s recipe called for all white flour. For the recipe below, we reduced the whole wheat flour by 1/2 cup. When we make the bars again, we might also add one or two more tablespoons of oil or butter.

Chunky Apple Bars

Filling

4 c apples, cored and coarsely chopped (about 2 large apples)

1/4 c water

1 T honey

1 t cinnamon

Crust

3/4 c butter, softened

2 T cane sugar

2 c oatmeal (regular or quick cooking)

1-1/2 c white flour

1/2 c whole wheat flour

1 t baking powder

1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 9×13 pan.

To make filling, combine apples, water, honey, and cinnamon in medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes, until apples are slightly soft. Remove from heat.

For crust, in large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add oatmeal, flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Mix well.

Reserve 2 cups for topping. Press remaining oat mixture in bottom of prepared pan, and bake for 12 minutes.

Spread cooked apple filling over baked crust. Sprinkle reserved oat mixture over top.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until top is nicely browned. Cool. Cut into bars.

***

2015 New England Apples wall calendar

2015 New England Apples wall calendar

THE 2015 NEW ENGLAND APPLES wall calendar is now available for order. The 12”x12”, four-color calendar features photographs by Russell Steven Powell and Bar Lois Weeks from orchards throughout the six-state region, plus photos and descriptions of a dozen apple varieties.

The calendar price of $12.95 includes shipping. To order, send a check to New England Apples, PO Box 41, Hatfield, MA 01038, or email info@newenglandapples.org.

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