Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a safe, happy, and healthy New Year's Eve. It's been absurdly cold in New York the last few days and the forecast for the remainder of the week is not optimistic.
Reading through Clotilde Dusoulier's The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes From My Parisian Kitchen recently, I was reminded of something I used to make quite a bit on cold winter evenings in high school -- baked apples. At the time, we were living in Oak Park, Illinois, a pretty little village on the Western side of Chicago. It's a sweet little place in its own right but also, most notably, the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and home to a few Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Anyway, Chicago, as you know, has bitterly cold -- but beautiful -- winters. On chilly weeknights, I would bake a single apple enhanced by nothing more than a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg until the heat from the oven and the smells of warm, roasted apple flesh and toasted spices filled our entire apartment. Years later, nothing is as evocative of that time as the burnished gold of a baked yellow apple.
This is an embellished version of the original with a rustic date, walnut, and orange filling and an ingenious apple cider and sea salt caramel sauce. The recipe for the caramel sauce is adapted from Dusoulier's book, which presents traditional French cuisine (think clafoutis, canelés, bouillabaisse, choux pastry, leeks vinaigrette, farci poitevin) through vegetarian, and often vegan, dishes. The results are, in some instances, downright innovative. Dusoulier also includes tips on seasonal market shopping for fruits and vegetables -- I mean, really, the easiest way to win me over. (By the way, you can read her blog here).
I was impressed by her creativity in crafting a vegan, gluten-free caramel sauce -- not an easy feat -- with apple cider, as well as her use of almond butter at the very end to replace the real butter called for in traditional recipes. The final product is a creamy, sweet-and-sour caramel meant to be used without restraint.
The original recipe insists on the use of granulated white sugar -- unrefined sugar has impurities that prevent proper caramelization, according to Dusoulier. Far be it from me to argue with a more experienced/talented cookbook author but I found that for my limited purposes here, alternative sugars are fine. Also, I’ve strayed from the original recipe in terms of technique -- mainly because I’m lazy. Rather than caramelize the sugar on its own and heat up the cider separately, I short-circuit all that by increasing the amount of sugar and heating the two ingredients together to create an apple cider simple syrup of sorts. If the prospect of making caramel without a candy thermometer seems insane to you, it probably is, but basically, if you’ve made simple syrup in the past, this is only a slightly more complex version. One important note, though: the recipe moves fairly quickly so have your mise en place laid out before you begin.
And, by the way, the French name for unpeeled baked apples like this? According to Dusoulier: pommes en chemise or apples with their shirts on. I did not know that. Here's to starting 2014 on a personal development note.
Baked Apples w/Date-Orange-Walnut Filling (v/gf)
Inspired by The French Market Cookbook
4 medium organic apples, any variety (I like Golden Delicious or Crispin)
4-5 organic Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup raw walnuts, chopped
2 tbsp almond flour/meal
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
zest of 1/2 orange
1/2 cup apple cider (or water)
Apple Cider & Sea Salt Caramel, to serve (recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Wash and core each apple. You can use an apple corer, if you have one, or, for a more rustic look, you can literally cut the core out with a thin paring knife. If you choose the latter method, keep the opening fairly narrow.
Toss the dates, walnuts, almond flour, spices, zest, and a pinch of sea salt in a small bowl. Make sure the almond flour is evenly distributed.
Place the apples in a baking dish and stuff the cores with the filling, packing it in tightly. Pour apple cider or water into the bottom of the dish and cover with foil. Bake covered for about 25 to 30 minutes. Uncover the apples and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes until the apples are fully cooked through and the skin looks wrinkled. You can baste the apples with the juices every 20 minutes or so. (The skin may burst or split but that's OK). Test for doneness by inserting a paring knife into the side of an apple.
Allow the apples to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve plain or drizzled with Apple Cider & Sea Salt Caramel Sauce (recipe below).
Note: The cider/water is necessary so that the apples do not stick to the pan and/or burn -- don't leave it out. I prefer a dry filling because the apples will release juices as they bake. I don't add any sweetener or sugar to the filling because the apples caramelize in the oven and are ultimately topped with a sweet sauce. Also, weirdly, the almond flour has a subtle sweetness.
Apple Cider & Sea Salt Caramel Sauce (v/gf)
Adapted from the The French Market Cookbook
Makes 1 cup
1 cup apple cider
1/2 cup unrefined brown sugar (or coconut sugar)
1 tbsp & 1 tsp corn starch
2 tbsp raw almond butter (or real butter)
1/2 tsp sea salt
In a small saucepan, heat the cider and sugar together over medium-low heat. You can gently swirl the mixture from time to time but do not stir. It will take about 5 minutes or so for the sugar to fully melt. Once the sugar melts, it will start to simmer and thicken slightly. Allow the cider syrup to simmer away for a minute or two.
In a small bowl, whisk together a few spoonfuls of the hot cider with the corn starch until fully dissolved and no clumps remain. Add the corn starch slurry to the saucepan and continue whisking the mixture until it starts to thicken and bubble. This should take no more than a minute. As soon as it reaches a sort of jelly consistency, move the pan off the heat and whisk in the sea salt and almond butter (or real butter). Use immediately or store in the fridge for a few days.
Note: The corn starch amount is not just me being ridiculously fastidious -- that is the exact amount you need for the proper consistency. You can replace the apple cider with other juices. Almond milk makes a great substitute for the apple cider but it will yield a creamier, sweeter caramel.