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Alan Tangren: Let’s talk apples

Dear Alan: The cool mornings lately make me think of making apple pie. What do you think is the best pie apple?

Alan: Despite records of over 7,000 named varieties, and a history of cultivation over thousands of years, for many people apples have become more of a generic commodity than a fruit sought after for subtle variations.

But every one of those 7,000 varieties was named by a grower or plant breeder and selected for its flavor, texture, tartness, cooking qualities, color and ripening time. Currently there are at least 100 varieties produced in commercial quantities around the U.S., and many more grow on small farms and in backyard orchards.



To make sense of all these varieties, apples are often identified as dessert, cooking or cider types. But your own tasting experience and preferences are the best guides in choosing an apple for a specific use.

For salads, a crisp apple that isn’t too sweet is a good choice. I like Granny Smith, Newtown Pippin and Sierra Beauty. To cook for applesauce try Gravenstein, McIntosh or Jonathan. When I want a cooking apple that will hold its shape and texture, I look for ripe Golden Delicious with yellow skin, not green.




And finally for pies, Winesap, Jonagold (a hybrid of, guess what, Jonathan and Golden Delicious) Granny Smith and, once again, Golden Delicious, are my favorites. I also find that a pie made with two varieties is usually better than just one.

Early apples like Gravenstein and Pink Pearl do not keep well in storage and should be used as soon as they are harvested, starting in late July and early August. When apple season really gets going in September and October, you should be able to find apples for all uses and tastes.

One of the most flavorful apples you can find is Black Arkansas, which happens to be grown by my cousins, the Bierwagens on their farm in Chicago Park. I love the dark, nearly black skin, and the aromatic, winey aroma of the firm flesh.

Black Arkansas ripens around late October and into November. And even after that they need a few weeks in cold storage to lose the hard and starchy character they have when first picked.

Most apples keep well in storage, but as the season dwindles, so do the choices. When buying apples at any time of the year, choose fruits that are firm, and heavy for their size. Their skin should be bright and have good color for their type. Avoid any that have bruises or punctures in the skin. To keep small quantities at home, put them in the refrigerator.

One of my favorite easy apple dessert recipes comes from Patricia Wells, an American who lives in France and writes about food. She got this from an apple grower who sells at a farmer’s market in Paris. It’s more of a crustless pie than a cake.

If you like tart desserts you can use McIntosh, Gala or Gravenstein. For a sweeter result, try Golden Delicious or Jonagold.

The Apple Lady’s Apple Cake

Serves 8 – 10

½ cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon baking powder

Pinch of fine salt

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

1/3 cup whole milk

2 pounds apples, peeled, quartered, cored and sliced thin

For the topping:

1/3 cup sugar

1 large egg, lightly beaten

3 Tablespoons melted unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400°F. and butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Measure the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Stir with a dry whisk to blend thoroughly.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the eggs, vanilla, oil and milk. Mix with a wooden spoon or flexible spatula. Add the apples and mix to coat evenly with the batter

Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan. Place in the middle level of the oven and bake until golden and somewhat firm.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping. Combine the sugar, egg and melted butter in a small bowl. Stir to blend and set aside.

Remove the cake from the oven and pour the topping mixture over the cake. Smooth with a spatula if needed. Return the cake to the oven and continue baking until the top is deep golden brown and very firm, about 10 minutes.

Let cool for 10 minutes before removing the sides of the pan. Serve at room temperature with whipped cream or ice cream.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.


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