Archive for the ‘apples’ Category

Discovering Chris (likes cake)

Apple Skillet Cake

Apple Skillet Cake

It was nice to get out of my apartment after being holed up waiting for Hurricane Sandy to have her way with us. I had a standing invitation to visit an elderly friend who just re-did his apartment and was having a few friends in so he could show it off.

Like so many New Yorkers Chris has lived in the same place for many years, and his views and location are—shall we say—extraordinary. The downside is that it is a sixth-floor walk up. It’s a climb. But Chris, having long ago retired (he was in the shipping business) never leaves his perch.

My goodness. For an elderly gent he’s the life of the party. He spent the entire time standing on his new coffee table.

Naturally I couldn’t show up empty handed. The question was: what shall I bring to a housewarming…or to be more accurate, a “redecoration-warming”?

It’s Fall. Every fall, this young(!) man’s fancy turns to apples.

That’s not entirely accurate. I should say my fancy turns to apple cake. A nice piece of apple cake just hits the spot for me on a chilly fall day. Hey, you can’t just eat chocolate all the time. (What the heck am I saying? Of course you can…)

I’ll admit that there are only so many ways to make apple cake. My ideal would be a cake that is not too sweet, not too heavy, that would have apples just tinted with a sting of cinnamon, and cooked through. Too many apple cakes end up with dull, undercooked apples. Don’t let this happen to you!

My standby trick for the latter problem is to cook—sauté—the apples first. Some people may object to this, after all, it is an extra step, and yet another pan to be washed, dried and put away. But I’m afraid I must insist.

Photobombing Chris

We couldn’t get him off the coffee table…

I kept thinking of all the big puffy apple pancakes I have made or been served over the years. You may have seen these referred to as “Dutch Babies” or “Dutch Apple Pancakes”. Kin to popovers, they owe their appeal to the high amount of eggs in the recipe that make the pancake puff so dramatically in the oven. The eggs, in turn, give the pancake a richness and heartiness that can be very satisfying.

Nice…but it’s not cake. And I want cake.

I do love my All-Clad skillets, and what better place to cook apples than there? While I’m at it, why not bake the cake in an nice shiny skillet and bring the whole thing as a gift to ol’ Chris?

I started off with three large apples cored, and thickly sliced. (I used a couple of Braeburns and a Cortland. I don’t think the variety matters all that much in this recipe.)

In the large skillet I slowly melted butter and sugar until I had a rough approximation of a light caramel sauce. Then I added the sliced apples and let the whole thing bubble until a lot of the liquid cooked away.

After removing from the heat, I made a very simple bowl and spoon cake batter (no mixer!). I poured it over the apples and spread it in an even layer. It seemed like there may not be enough batter to cover everything, but since the recipe calls for a healthy dose of baking powder, I knew that the heat of the oven would give it enough of a “whoosh” to cover everything.

I have to admit that I was experimenting: taking a little bit from this recipe and a little bit from that—not always a smart thing to do when baking. When you’re cooking on top of the stove you can taste as you go and adjust the seasonings as needed. Baking is a little like pottery: sometimes you really just don’t know what you’ll get until the timer beeps and you open the oven door.

In this case you get what seems like an unassuming cake in a pan…straight from the oven it almost looks like baked polenta. But then you turn it over and serve it apple-side-up, dusted with some confectioner’s sugar, and you have a gentle, homey snack, dessert, or even breakfast that would not have been out of place in a colonial tavern.

I could tell that Chris was thrilled, although he wouldn’t let on, being the stone-faced hombre he is. His apartment is beautiful, but as I wandered around I questioned whether he’d actually ever use the shiny, new skillet that the cake came in.

He doesn’t have much of a kitchen.


Click here for the recipe for Apple Skillet Cake

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All the best turkeys are wearing it

Cranberry Sauce (in a few minutes)

Cranberry Sauce (in a few minutes)

I forgot how fragrant cranberries are. I opened the bag in the picture above and was struck by a sweet but refreshing smell. It is a sweetness that belies reality, for the irony is that you can’t eat cranberries out of the bag unless you enjoy being convulsed into a teeth-grinding wince. Nature made them very tart.

But there they sit, every Thanksgiving, front and center, playing Ringo Starr to the turkey’s John Lennon. I, for one, have other things on my mind whilst gnawing on my drumstick, but folks’ expectations being what they are, you simply can’t serve turkey without cranberry sauce. It simply isn’t done (he sniffed haughtily.)

I’m not sure how many people bother to make their own cranberry sauce for the holiday, but if you’re just buying any ol’ pre-made cranberry sauce, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to be creative and to bring some individuality to your Thanksgiving table. Have I made the sale yet? No? Then, let me add that cranberry sauce is simple to make and you can—and should—make it a day or two ahead. (Sold!)

Here’s a related story with a tragic ending. (Have that box of Kleenex close at hand.) I have a friend who comes from a large family. Their default Thanksgiving dinner is a collaborative effort where people are assigned a portion of the meal to prepare.

A couple of years ago my friend was assigned cranberry sauce and decided to be creative. He carefully researched recipes, and asked advice from his friends who have logged kitchen time. The resulting recipe was a simple whole berry sauce sweetened with orange juice and perfumed with orange zest. His family’s reaction? Grab that Kleenex: they hated it. To be fair, they were used to the jelly-from-a-can sauce, and found my friend’s creation a bit overpowering.

So I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll get creative, but I will also include directions to make something close to jelly-from-a-can sauce, but with a touch of complexity. (No ridges from the can though, sorry. Someone’s bound to miss those. Tough noogies.)

The Ocean Spray cranberries I bought have a basic recipe printed on the back of the bag; that will be my launching pad. Hint: this is a bit subversive, for you will shortly be receiving a lesson in basic jam-making. Don’t worry, there will not a final exam.

My first addition to the bag recipe will be a cup of chopped apple. The apple is a big ally here because it adds sugar to counter the cranberries’ tartness, and pectin which will help the cooked berries jell a bit. (No one likes runny cranberry sauce.) Dice the apple into fairly small chunks, but don’t worry about technique because the apple will cook down and disappear.

Addition number two is the seeds from half of a vanilla bean. Vanilla extract really won’t work here; we’re going for that custardy-floral note that only the seeds can lend the sauce. The apple gives the sauce body, but the vanilla with its round tones gives body to the flavor of the sauce.

Addition numbers three and four are a tribute to my friend’s attempt at cranberry sauce for his family meal: orange zest, and a tablespoon of frozen concentrated orange juice. These will give the sauce the citrusy zing that counteracts the hammered-down gaminess of the average turkey.

Now if you want to get really silly here, we can add two cloves and or a half stick of cinnamon. Be stingy with these ingredients; we just want a note or two, not the whole concerto. Keep your audience in mind.

Speaking of audience: if your turkey dinner will be an adults only affair, consider adding a thimbleful (let’s say a tablespoon) of brandy or calvados. The alcohol will (mostly) cook off, and you be left with some rather earthy, smoky tones that will work well with your Turkey’s lean roasted flavors—not to mention the sage that is likely in the stuffing.

This year I’ll be adding about a half cup of chopped walnuts just before I remove the berries from the heat. The walnuts will absorb some of the sweetness of the sugars while adding their own meaty, crunchy character.

If you’ve got your heart set on adding some of these flavors but remain a fan of the jelly-in-a can, then omit the orange zest and juice, cook the berries as directed, then strain the whole thing through a sieve before allowing it to cool and set.

If you really miss the ridges from the can you can always pour your home-made jelly into a clean can and let it set there.

Honestly who’s gonna do that?


Here’s the basic cranberry sauce recipe. I recommend reducing the sugar to no more than one half cup if you’re using the apple and orange juice.

Ocean Spray Whole Berry Recipe – Makes 1 cup

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 x 12 oz bag of cranberries

Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add cranberries and return to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour sauce into a bowl, cover and cool completely at room temperature. Refrigerate until serving time.


1 cup chopped apple

Seeds from one half a vanilla bean

Zest of one half an orange

1 tbsp frozen concentrated orange juice

1 or 2 cloves

Half stick of cinnamon

1 tbsp brandy or calvados

½ cup chopped walnuts (add just before removing from heat.)


Keep these other Thanksgiving recipes in mind:

Parker House Rolls

Anadama Bread

Baked Indian Pudding

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie


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Did you turn your Tweets back one hour?

If you’re reading this you may already be late

Breakfast on the run...

Breakfast on the run...

The brisk fall morning sight of children on their way to school makes me happy. No, it is not the prospect of learning or expanding one’s horizons that cheers me; it is the bald fact that I do not have to go to school anymore. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t love it either.

Nah. Scratch that. I hated school.

I feel guilty admitting it, for I have a great respect for education. I’d probably be a better—or at least more attentive– student now than I was when I was a kid. I have a friend, a woman of “a certain age” who just got her Master’s Degree. She confided the same thing to me, including the fact that she was now a better student. My unscientific conclusion has always been that you can break school kids into the same basic categories as adults:

Category 1: the workaholic. My high school was loaded with them, including one annoying, “straight A” soul who would refuse to look at her tests as they were handed back with the big red grade on top. When the bell rang she would frantically exit to the hall, then perform ritual leaps of joy in celebration of her A+, like it was a big, freakin’ surprise. It’s several hundred years later and, yes, I’m still bitter and annoyed. (She now works for the I.R.S.)

Category 2: the rest of us. The “…For Dummies” series of instructional guides always manage to catch our eye. I don’t want to say that I was a bad student, but I recently flunked a vision test. Honestly, I can’t study a menu without breaking into flop sweat. (Ohhhh, I‘ve got a million of ‘em…)

I know that there are many of you out there who feel at home in this category.

The interesting thing is that being in one category as a kid doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up in the same category as an adult. The workplace is littered with formerly indifferent students who now consistently take the later train home because they have “… just a little bit more to do.” I wish I’d been a better student, but as an adult part of me rejoices that I will never be labeled a workaholic. There’s so much other stuff to do…

Like you, I had a ten mile commute to school through forty inches of snow in one hundred degree heat. Uphill. Both ways. I would forestall my departure by eating a healthy breakfast. Our cook would have my pancakes, eggs, and bacon ready just the way I liked them, and I would…okay clearly I’ve gone off the rails here. I wrote the word “forestall” and everything went blurry.

The truth is I have only vague memories of eating breakfast when I was a kid. I know I did, but beyond the concept of a bowl of cereal the specifics are hazy. Wheaties? Cheerios? Cap’n Crunch? I’m really not sure. There may have been an experiment with instant Cream of Wheat, but that was short lived. We had a breakfast nook, but I think we used it to eat dinner and to watch my Dad’s 8mm home movies. Harrumph: a whole section of my life haphazardly executed.

Now I am much more deliberate about my breakfast choices. Will I get hungry too soon before lunch? Will it make me fat(ter)? Can I work and eat it at the same time? I look around and watch what others are eating for breakfast and notice with a great amount of apprehension that folks seem to be looking for one vital element in their breakfast: a kick start. Lordy, when did Coca Cola become the breakfast of champions?

No kick start for yours truly; if I wanted that I’d pay someone to slap me across the face a few times. (Don’t even try it.) Slow and steady is more my style. It works for me and I find that most mornings I am fully awake by 1 PM.

Still, I find my busy schedule sometimes doesn’t allow me to linger over breakfast. The question is: short of gruel-like instant oatmeal, what is a supercharged healthy breakfast that I can eat on the run? A chum swears by toast with a swipe or two of peanut butter. I need a bit more entertainment than that in the morning. I have devised my “best in show” breakfast on the run.

I almost resent the health benefits of oatmeal; Quaker oatmeal is practically advertised as an alternative to Lipitor. But I can put my crankiness aside long enough to include it as part of my breakfast. Thumbing through my beloved old copy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne I found a recipe for “Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.” Oatmeal bread has always been a favorite of mine. Usually only mildly sweet, yet slightly dense, this recipe has a delicate crumb and a toasty crust.

Yes, I understand that the thought of baking bread gives most people pause. But if you are in possession of a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer bread making requires very little work and very little expertise. Yes the entire process takes several hours from bag of flour to loaf of bread, but most of that time you can do other things.

I also substituted almond butter for the peanut butter my chum uses. This was a choice dictated only by taste, and I also topped the almond butter with slices of green apple. The combination is almost pastry-like, but you can feel smug in the knowledge that the entire affair is very healthy. You can use any kind of apple you prefer, but I use green apple in the morning on the advice of a friend who is a singer. Green apples have an astringent quality that can help clear your throat of impurities.

That’s good news as a clear throat can help me maintain my phlegmatic demeanor through the rest of the day.


Click here for the recipe for Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.


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The Joys of Applesauce

Making applesauce

Making applesauce

My odd sense of humor has reared its ugly head: “The Joys of Applesauce.” For some reason this has me laughing hysterically. It’s like a chapter from some now obscure 1950’s home ec handbook. The subject of applesauce came up the other day when I started having cravings for Apple Turnovers.

I’m not sure how or why these cravings come over me. This time it could be that my internal calendar and the one on the wall both agree that it is September. It could be that I was minding my own business the other day and stumbled upon the little greenmarket that happens every week across from Lincoln Center. Now that I walk through these greenmarkets more often, I’ve really started to notice the cyclical nature of the offerings. Like some whimsical botanical fashion show, breezy cottons (i.e., tomatoes) have moved off to the marginal tables, while woolens (i.e., apples) have taken center stage.

It may be those very apples that implanted in my mind a craving for hot apple turnovers, straight from the oven. I can practically smell them as I type this sentence. I happened to mention those cravings to a friend who reminisced that his Mom used to serve them hot, straight from the oven, courtesy of Pepperidge Farm.

As much as I crow about baking from scratch, I have to admit that I used to love those too. It’s been years since I had them, but the memories are still as warm as the spicy apples inside the flaky crust. While I’m not crazy about some of the ingredients they use, Pepperidge Farm has one big advantage over my making them from scratch: theirs turn out okay, mine #fail (as the kids write on the Twitter these days.)

Yes, I still struggle with pastry dough. I could blame it on many external factors: my kitchen is too small, my kitchen is too hot, my dog ate my homework, but I think the truth is I just need some practice. I just don’t have a feel for it yet, and in baking and cooking you cannot underestimate having a feel for certain things. I’ve watched any number of folks on TV rolling out seamless, smooth, gigantic sheets of pastry dough that never stick. My pastry dough practices the unholy trinity of crack, crumble, and stick. (Sounds like a bad law firm.)

I suspect that I am too skimpy with the amount of water I add, but specifics aside, my failed Apple Turnovers served as a reminder that I should never get too confident in the kitchen, as there’s always a recipe waiting to take me down a peg.

That’s not to say that I didn’t make Apple Turnovers. I did. There’s a joke that should go here about being able to do something with one hand tied behind my back, I’m just not sure what the joke is, other than the sight gag of seeing my Turnovers. (Gag being the operative word here.)

Yes, the dandy thing about baking is that you can eat your mistakes, and the Turnovers remain in my refrigerator daring me to do so. Sadly though, my feelings towards these failed Turnovers are like a page out of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Only one page though, as these Turnovers will never grow to be swans. (Gee, I hope they can’t read.) (Actually they weren’t bad cold the next day)

It’s not all bad news though. Unlike baking pie, when you make Turnovers you usually get the best results if you cook the fruit first. In this case it meant that I needed to make applesauce. In my mind, I somehow think of applesauce as some slow-simmered, long cooking concoction. In reality I worked for a few minutes, the apples simmered for a few minutes, and the result was an ad-libbed, layered, refreshing alternative to the applesauce you buy in jars.

Because the original purpose was to fill the Turnovers, I cut the peeled apples into rather large chunks—no baby food smoothness here. I was using four Rhode Island Greening apples, a tart, green apple, so I peeled them. If you use red apples there can be some value in leaving the skin on and letting it tint the sauce.

I also added a couple of teaspoons of sugar, the juice and zest of a lemon, a teaspoon of frozen concentrated orange juice, ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and the seeds scraped from a whole vanilla bean. It all bubbled and squeaked for eight or nine minutes.

After my pastry dough crumbled into dust, I was left with a pot of this applesauce. Rather than feeling cheated, I felt rewarded by this: the glass was half full, thank you. This chunky apple sauce makes a great quick dessert shortcut. Serve it warm over some vanilla ice cream, or topped with some buttered, sugared, breadcrumbs then baked in a small crock. (Cue the ice cream again.)

These, of course, are only some of the joys of applesauce.

Up next: “An Ode to Tapioca.”


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After dinner tweet anyone?

The Apples, The TV, and Me

Apple Pan Dowdy with

This past weekend I was the recipient of a large bag of apples. This was a gift from a friend who had ventured “upstate”, a term many Manhattan-ites use to describe anything outside of the five boroughs.

The generosity of the gift aside — and who wouldn’t appreciate a bag of orchard-fresh apples– I was left a little bit like the kid in the proverbial candy store. I ate one and saved a few more for the same purpose, but then realized that I needed to kick inspiration into high gear to figure out what to do with the rest.

While I was sitting (okay, lying) on my sofa munching on the apples, I started channel surfing and came upon four females who, for varying reasons led me down the path to my apple solution.

The first was a filly named Zenyatta. I’m not using a diminutive term for women here: Zenyatta really is a filly, a six year old race horse that, up until this past weekend, has raced undefeated. While much of the news coverage of this beautiful animal showed her lapping up a bowl of Guinness Stout, there was also footage of her being fed an apple by one of the reporters. I happened to see the latter just as I was eating the first of my apples. Something about the purity of the scene touched me. There she was, an unassuming female champ in a man’s sport, enjoying some of the basic “finer things in life:” a good, sweet, crunchy apple. A pint of stout. If a horse could kick back and say, “ahhhhh” I’m sure she would have.

Next I came upon a baker named Rachel Allen whose UK-produced program is aired here on the Cooking Network. There’s something serene and peaceful about watching the glamorous yet earthy Ms. Allen baking and teaching. With her soothing, soft-as-linen Irish accent, she coaxes baking peace from a chaotic class of lucky amateurs. Anything seems possible in her kitchen. You can keep 3-D TV; I’ll take “Rachel Allen Bakes!” in Smell-O-Vision HD, please.

This past weekend she made a reliably perfect apple Tart Tatin. It seemed like providence to witness her effortless Tatin as I sat munching my gift o’apples knowing that my large bag o’ apples was waiting.

And yet…as much as I love Tart Tatin, and as much as I think it is an easy way to make a really great, dramatic dessert, I always feel that there is something missing: spice. The star of Tart Tatin is caramel, gooey, sticky, and even a bit crunchy, but the cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger Americans crave in apple pie-style desserts are missing.

By this time my legs were up on the sofa, and I was in full Saturday couch potato mode. This made me the perfect sucker for repeats of “Two Fat Ladies.” While the two self-described fat ladies, the standards-singing, chain-smoking Jennifer Paterson (who departed for a more heavenly kitchen some years ago), and the über-serious Clarissa Dickson-Wright, would seem like the perfect fodder for a Saturday Night Live sketch, I found myself strangely drawn to their aesthetic. There’s something substantial about their cooking. Surprisingly, in spite of how they billed themselves their brand of cookery is never an exercise in gluttony; rather, there is something worldly, yet straightforward about what they serve in their formidable crockery. Food as a sort of truth. Clearly these were two women who’d been around the block—and who had found all the good meals along the way.

So, from my prone perch, considering my bag of apples, I thought that my mission had become clear: bring the delicacy of Rachel Allen’s Tart Tatin and the starchy, straightforward, authenticity of two fat ladies to my kitchen. Oh, and Zenyatta’s appreciation of simple pleasures. And use up the apples.

“Easy, peasy” to quote the late Ms. Paterson.

The weather has cooled off in my neck of the woods. After almost hitting eighty degrees a couple of weeks ago, we’re getting down into the thirties some nights. My mind is already on Thanksgiving. Last Thanksgiving I wrote about a classic, old dessert, “Baked Indian Pudding.” While I never make any claims that “Baked Indian Pudding” will have a renaissance, I like the basic flavors this somewhat austere dessert holds: cornmeal, maple, and molasses. It’s kind of a Plymouth Rock trifecta. Surely I can reference the flavors in a dessert that is a bit more accessible?

One of my favorite hot desserts is Apple Pan Dowdy. Named for its plain –dowdy—appearance, it belongs to the same family as crisp, cobbler, buckle, and brown betty. The Pan Dowdy version is baked in a shallow baking dish with a biscuit crust. This is my candidate for the Indian pudding treatment.

The obvious place to start was with my favorite part: the crust. Normally I would have used a Pâte Sucrè – a sweetened pie crust—on top of the apples. But by fiddling around (a bit of cornmeal here, a dash of molasses there…) I was able to bring the dark notes of Indian pudding to the brightness of baked apples.

The result is a hot dessert perfect for a cold night, or at least to counter the scoop of ice cream you will invariably plop on top.

The pilgrims never had it so good.


Click here for the recipe for Apple Pan Dowdy with “Baked Indian Pudding” Crust.


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Law & Order: After School Special

Apple Snack Cake

after school snack 101: my major

I was summoned for jury duty last week. I no sooner arrived at the courthouse when a few tumbles of my name in a little metal drum and a few generic questions resulted in my being seated on a jury.

If I could just have that kind of luck with lottery tickets.

At the beginning I’m sure my fellow jurors and I shared the same thought: “Golly, this is just like “Law & Order.” Actually, that’s not true. It’s much easier to be seated as a member of a real jury than it is to be cast on “Law & Order.” But it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on you: that man in the robe is a real judge, those are real police, and they are carrying real guns. However, those are minor realities when it dawns on you that the impact your verdict could have on the direction of a young person’s life could be profound. This weighed heavily on us.

I won’t bore you with the details of the case except that it was for a minor felony. Unlike “12 Angry Men“, our deliberations were a model of civility and compromise, and our verdict was one that I’m sure brought us all peace of mind. We were a fairly diverse group, albeit with some similarities that were the reasons the prosecutor and defense attorney chose us. A jury in the midst of deliberations is a great study in group dynamics.

The latter is no idle thought. I have recently been conversing with a friend who, at mid-life, has returned to school for a Masters degree in Social Work. Her specialty at the moment? Group dynamics.

I always consider the fact that I do not have to return to school in the fall one of the great rewards of adulthood. But that’s me. I certainly understand the desire and / or need of returning to school, but it always makes me think of when I was a kid and had to dive into a cold lake: I’d pinch my nose and close my eyes and gird myself for the inevitable shock of the chill.

Adults who return to school, and who, like my friend continue to work full time, have their hands full. Time was, students heading off to college would be given dictionaries or typewriters as gifts. Obviously computers have made those obsolete. Actually, wouldn’t a better gift for adults returning to school be a nice roasted chicken with sides? That’s one or two less meals they’ll have to worry about. Kids have a slightly easier time of it, although you do hear a lot about how kids are oversubscribed with after-school activities these days.

When I was a kid, I would return home from school (a twelve mile walk through three foot deep snow in ninety degree weather) with my mind focused on my afternoon snack. This is where I realize how much times have changed since I was a kid. What I considered a snack back then would now seem downright skimpy: a few graham crackers, or maybe a few Ritz Crackers with peanut butter (“everything sits good on a Ritz…”). Every now and then a bowl of cereal would find its way onto the snack menu. Let me clarify: my snack was not all of the above. It was one of the above. And the cereal was likely Rice Crispies or Corn Flakes; my Mother was suspicious of Cap’n Crunch. Was she concerned about my sugar intake? Hardly. Her concern was more that I would not “…ruin my appetite for dinner.”

I’m not going to tell you that we were much more active than kids are now: the TV and I had a rather intimate relationship. But I can tell you that our eating habits were different. Were our expectations lower?

Inspired by this, I decided to make some minor magic: a little cake that kids and adults could snack on that wouldn’t break the caloric bank. Not (by any stretch of the imagination) diet food, but an appealing, tempting snack that was actually fairly healthy. The type of thing we used to call “wholesome” before that became uncool. A Marie Osmond cake in a Paris Hilton world.

It’s fall. What better starting point than apples?

Apple Cake is a fairly standard dessert in New England, certainly also in diners everywhere. I realized that as popular as Apple Pie is, many people find making the crust daunting. Apple Cake solves that problem. The downside is that unless quite a bit of sugar has been added, baking sliced apples in cake batter always tends to blunt the sweetness of even the tangiest of apples. I solved this by stealing a page from the Apple Pancake playbook: I cooked the apples separately, and then added them to the already cooled cake. In the cake, canola oil takes the place of butter, and low fat Greek yogurt adds a little lightweight richness. Actually, the cake is so good that it will pair with anything, and would be a great light alternative to biscuits for a twist on Strawberry Shortcake. I topped the cake with a bit of yogurt I’d sweetened with confectioners’ sugar—totally unnecessary, but a nice little bonus.

Since the cake is assembled in just a few simple steps, parents and kids will have a fun time making this cake together.

That’s my kind of homework.


Click here for the recipe for After School Apple Snack Cake.


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Sticky Halloween

Caramel Apples

But did you really need those fillings?

Have you noticed that when it comes to Halloween we very happily stick to tradition? Once a Milky Way lover always a Milky Way lover, eh? You’ll get no complaint from me on this: fill my “Trick or Treat” bag with Hershey’s Miniatures and I’m happy as a clam — and very likely riding the subway next to someone dressed like one.

One of my Halloween traditions is Jack O’Lantern cookies, a tradition that got rolling when I realized my pumpkin carving skills lacked verve.

While it would be fun to regale you with stories of my Halloweens gone by, of bucolic adventures in pumpkin patches, and of coming back home to warm spiced cider after a chilly carouse collecting candy while wearing some brilliantly frightening costume that my Mother made from an old slipcover and a Quaker Oats box, the truth was a bit more…ordinary. I dressed as Yogi Bear in a costume we bought at Woolworth’s. This elaborate costume consisted of a hard plastic mask and a cape made from some scratchy material. Hey, what did I know? I thought it was great. I loved Yogi: he self-identified as being smarter than the average bear. (Everything I know about hubris I learned from Hannah-Barbera.)

Costumes aside, I’ve been trying to think of another holiday where store-bought stuff generally trumps anything you could make at home. Are you going to tell me that you can make candy corn better than the pros? I guess there’s also Easter, the other candy-fixated holiday. I could produce a heckuva Marshmallow Peep if I had to, but I know the real thing is better.

I claim one major and very personal loophole to all of this, at least where Halloween is concerned. I can’t abide store-bought Caramel Apples. Like Tuna Fish Salad, these are something that I must make at home. There are a couple of reasons why: the first is simply that I like a certain kind of apple, and if I am putting my poor, innocent fillings at risk, I like a nice cool, crunchy apple waiting for me on the other side of the caramel. No amount of Caramel can compensate for a mealy sub-par apple. (Apple snob!)

The second is that I can tell when an apple has not been not freshly dipped. The ones you buy in the store have been allowed to sit too long, and the apple sometimes has begun to seep into the caramel, and the caramel may have started to melt a bit. An iffy proposition at best. (Caramel snob!)

There is good news: as recipes go Caramel Apples are as easy as it gets: Insert stick into apple. Melt a bag of Kraft Caramels. Dip apples. (Done.)

For willpower-challenged folk (me), the hardest part is unwrapping the caramels. Physically easy, yes, but try unwrapping the entire bag without popping a few in your mouth.  The second hardest part is finding the caramels. I remember a time when bags of Kraft Caramels were everywhere and usually displayed with the rest of the Halloween candy. Lately I find I have to hunt around the supermarket; I can’t find them in the drugstore, my Halloween candy pusher of choice. Ah, the lowly caramel. If Snickers are the George Clooney of Halloween candy, caramels must be Bob Denver.

One hint you may find useful: room temperature apples dip better than chilled apples; the caramel sticks to warm apples in a very smooth, even coat. If you use chilled apples you’ll cause the caramel to firm up too soon. (It does look a little spooky though.) In the picture above, the apple on the left was chilled. The others were room temperature and have the desired smooth, glossy look.

When you’re a kid it seems like you can eat Halloween candy without a worry in the world. While my love of caramel apples has not diminished, every time I take a bite I can’t help but think that I am potentially helping my dentist pay for a really nice beach house. With that in mind, allow me to present Caramel Apples v2.0 (rated M for Mature teeth.)

Let’s start with the presentation: since warm caramel sticks to your teeth less than cold, why not serve Caramel Apples hors d’oeuvre style, sliced, tooth-picked, and accompanied by a small pot of barely warm melted caramels for dipping. (Omit the toothpicks and this is mighty kid friendly too.) I would plop a whole dipped apple in the middle of the tray – mostly for the sake of drama.

And keep in mind that the smooth sweetness of caramel makes it a great delivery system for all manner of flavors. A touch of orange liqueur will give an old friend a citrusy twist, a hint of amaretto will add the merest Italian accent, and a wee dram of Bailey’s Irish liqueur will cause someone to steal the platter, apples and all.

For folks who will miss the crunch of the hardened caramel, might I suggest offering some crushed, sea-salted almonds to sprinkle on the dipped apple slices? (That would be enough to make ­­me steal the entire tray.)

Apologies to my dentist: the beach house will have to wait another year.


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Sandra Lee or Boyardee?

Apple Ravioli

Apple Ravioli (cheddar optional)

Too much information: I just read that fall begins on Wednesday, September 22 at 11:09 pm. As a baker I admire such exactitude, but I’m sure we will all be forgiven for not counting down the seconds á la New Year’s Eve. Besides, the passage from summer to fall is (in my opinion) a more psychic one than the passage from old year to new. And yes, as I have written ad infinitum, for me, it all comes back to food.

A large maple tree monopolizes the view from my living room. In the summertime its leaves are a perfect — yes — forest green. In a matter of days the leaves will abandon their summer mufti in favor of more ceremonial attire, a final blushing smile before surrendering to the winter chill. The leaves will leave and the color of the daylight in my living room will reflect their absence. Maybe I am influenced by these changes around me, but whatever the reason, when the weather begins to cool I am drawn to a different palette of flavors.

Enough of my waxy poetry. I’ll just paraphrase Ed Norton, by saying, “Hellooo Fall!”  Out with the barbecue and watermelon, in with the roast beef and apple pie. That’s not bad news: I love the fall.

Wheeling my cart around Whole Foods the other day I spotted local apples for sale. It is still early enough that I was suspicious of their vintage; have these apples been stored since last year? (A common practice.) I was not at a greenmarket, so there was no one reliable to ask. What would have been the point?  I was in the mood for something warm, apple-y, and cinnamon-y, so I cautiously bought a few. What the heck: if ya can’t eat ‘em, cook ‘em, right?

A few aisles later, I found I had somehow landed firmly on the side of cooking the apples. At first I thought of applesauce which is really easy, and when made at home really superior to the kind you buy in a jar. But the beauty–and danger–of planning a meal while still in the market is that inspiration is often just a shelf away. (Danger – temptation—usually takes the form of chocolate for me. Ah, but my lack of will power is not why you called…)

In this case the first bit of inspiration was the market’s sale on extra sharp Farmhouse cheddar cheese. I’m not sure if this is a New England “thing”, but alongside ice cream and whipped cream on the list of acceptable choices for apple pie topping we always had cheddar cheese. You heard right: cheddar cheese on apple pie. Before you dismiss this remember all of the wine and cheese you’ve had over the years. It’s the same basic dynamic. I believe the technical term is “yummy”.

Pie was not on the agenda; I was looking for something a bit lighter and less labor intense. Walking past the frozen foods I noticed frozen blintzes. I paused momentarily to consider making apple blintzes, but I just made crepes—the basis for blintzes—last week. And what would I write here? “Dear Reader: please re-read last week’s posting and add apples.”

Then from somewhere—who knows where inspiration comes from (oh, please!)—came the idea for apple ravioli. Sounds complicated, you say? Don’t worry: I’m not Martha Stewart, so I won’t be making pasta from scratch.

There’s an old trick, one you may have seen on TV, and that I used to see chefs use when making “house-made” ravioli. Wonton skins: the easiest ready-to-use, pre-made pasta on the market. Not perfect, but just right for my use.

Hustling into the kitchen, I peeled and diced the apples, then sautéed them with a bit of cinnamon, sugar, and just the slightest whiff of clove, and set them aside to cool. I grated the cheddar, and combined it with the cooled cooked apples. To mellow the mixture, round out the flavor, and bind everything together into a proper filling, I added a dab or two of cream cheese and cottage cheese. (Perhaps I still had blintzes on my mind?)

Assembling the ravioli was as easy as brushing the wonton skins with water, dropping a generous teaspoon-full of filling on top and sealing another skin on top. I used a fluted biscuit cutter to cut them into rounds – but that’s entirely optional.

To cook them, you have a choice: boil or pan fry. While pan frying isn’t quite as healthy as boiling, the trade off for frying them results in a toasty, crunchy treat with a gooey, cheesy filling. Then I sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar which makes them sweet and adds yet another layer of crunch. (What is it with me and crunch?) They are deceptively addictive. While a caramel sauce would be nice, or perhaps a blob of vanilla ice cream, none of that is necessary. They are great on their own.

Did I mention they are also portion-controlled?


Click here for the recipe for Apple Cheddar Ravioli.


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