Baked Apples with Apple Cider and Sea Salt Caramel

by Maja Lukic


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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. 

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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.

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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

Serves 4

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

sea salt

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.  


Gluten-Free Pumpkin Chocolate Buckwheat Muffins

by Maja Lukic


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It was only a matter of time before I got swept into the pumpkin spice madness of the season. Today, I am sharing a pumpkin muffin that would be a respectable addition to any holiday brunch or breakfast table. 

I have to confess that it took me a very long time to fully appreciate pumpkin puree and pumpkin-flavored treats. To be fair, up until a few years ago, my only associations with pumpkin were: a) the completely unnecessary Starbucks infusion of dairy, sugar, and artificial flavors known as the Pumpkin Spice Latte; and b) the trays of sugary, cracked pumpkin pies that regularly appeared at my local grocery stores around November 1 every year.

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But with age comes, I don't know, wisdom or at least something approximating wisdom. Having been exposed to some delicious pumpkin treats recently, I am now devoted to the sweet gourd. I do think that pumpkin benefits from a little chocolate (as do all things) so I often pair the two together. 

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And, so, this muffin -- the happy marriage of pumpkin, spices, walnuts, dark chocolate, and citrus makes for a perfect fall pastry. The walnuts lend a crunch, the chocolate chunks melt into rich, bittersweet ribbons throughout the batter, the spices are warm but not overwhelming, and it's all perfectly balanced with bright citrus notes. (The orange comes through nicely -- please don't leave it out). 

Do not let the long ingredient list put you off --  you probably have most of the ingredients at home and once you gather the various components, it moves fairly quickly. Also, you can substitute the individual spices with a few teaspoons of your favorite pumpkin pie spice mix. 

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As for texture, this will not yield a very crunchy muffin top, unfortunately. The crumb is soft and incredibly moist. I have a strong aversion to dry or overdone baked goods so I err on the side of underbaking everything. If you prefer a drier or more "done" pastry, simply extend the baking time by a few minutes.  

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Gluten-Free Pumpkin Chocolate Buckwheat Muffins

Adapted from Gluten-Free Apple Banana Nut Muffins

Makes 12 

1 1/4 cup almond flour

1/4 cup buckwheat flour (not buckwheat groats) 

1 tsp baking soda

3 eggs

1 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie mix/filling) 

1/2 cup organic maple syrup

1/8 cup unrefined coconut oil

1 orange (juice and zest)

1 tbsp raw apple cider vinegar

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp ground ginger

1/8 tsp ground allspice

pinch of ground clove

pinch of ground white pepper

1 cup raw walnuts, chopped

1/2 cup dark chocolate chunks  

1 tbsp chia seeds

a pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a standard-sized muffin pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond flour, buckwheat flour, baking soda, and a pinch of salt. (Whisking means you don't have to sift the flours!).

In a separate bowl, combine the liquid ingredients: canned pumpkin, coconut oil, maple syrup, three beaten eggs, the juice and zest of an orange, vanilla, and apple cider vinegar. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, a pinch of ground clove, and a pinch of ground white pepper. (If you're using whole peppercorns, two to three grinds of the pepper mill should do it.). 

Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the liquid batter, taking care not to overmix. 

Stir in the walnuts, chocolate chunks, and 1 tablespoon of chia seeds. Allow the batter to rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes or so.  

Spoon the mixture evenly into the lined muffin pan, filling each liner to the top (they will not rise much).

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown.

The muffins will stay fresh wrapped in plastic on the counter for a few days. For long-term storage, wrap the muffins individually and store in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Notes: Both the almond flour and the buckwheat flour should be stored in the fridge or freezer. Instead of the individual spices, you can substitute 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of your favorite pumpkin pie spice mix. For a less sweet muffin, decrease the chocolate chunks to 1/3 cup. It's a fairly soft, wet batter but if it seems too wet, add in some more almond flour. Conversely, if the batter seems too dry, add in a little bit of almond milk. Extend the baking time for a drier, crunchier muffin.