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In Search of the
Perfect Baked Apple

By Melissa Clark

My grandmother Ella had the right idea when it came to baked apples. She made them on Friday afternoons before the Jewish Sabbath, filling the centers with red jam and roasting them along with the chicken or brisket. Come dessert, she arranged the apples on a platter, pouring on top the sugary sauce studded with raisins and nuts from the pan. Then she set the platter on her white lace tablecloth next to the strudel or rugelach or chocolate cake and watched as we devoured the pastries and left the fruit.

That was precisely the point. Grandma, a rotund lady whose sideboard was filled with sugar buttons, jelly rings and kosher chocolate-covered cherries, understood the meaning of dessert. And apples, even filled with jam, did not fit that definition.

Instead, the apples were served the next day in what she and I considered their proper incarnation: breakfast, cold from the fridge and bathed in cream. Sometimes they appeared at dinner on Saturday as an appetizer. And in the era of fruit-filled gelatin molds, baked apples made a salad, too.

My family was not the only one with this apple attitude. Jeffrey Bank, an owner of Artie's Delicatessen on the Upper West Side, remembers his Grandma Bea serving baked apples cooked without any sugar.

"They weren't really dessert," he said. "They were a diet dessert. You used to see them on the menu of Jewish delis all the time, the diet baked apple. We make ours with a little Sweet'N Low. That's what your classic New York deli customer wants: They order their diet baked apple and their Cel-Ray soda after their pastrami."

In the long history of baked apples (which, one would assume, dates back as far as fire and apples), plain cooked fruit without a sweetener was not always considered the food of abstinence. Stuffed with sausage or mincemeat, as was popular in the 18th century, apples could be decadently savory.

If you start with an intense, spicy apple, baking concentrates the flavor and adds a caramel nuance to the juice. In the "Original Boston Cooking School Cookbook" (1896 edition), Fannie Farmer directs her readers to bake naked apples in autumn, when the fruit is at its best. In late winter, after the apples have been stored for several months, she advised a thick dusting of powdered ginger, mace and sugar along with some rose water.

Dorothy Hartley gives this advice for roast apples, prepared without sugar, in her seminal "Food in England" (1954, Macdonald): "When the cores are left in, the pips give a pleasant aroma to the fruit, so well-flavored apples should be roasted whole. Later in the year the core may be withdrawn with a scoop."

Should you not be in possession of one, an apple scoop, she wrote, is the shank bone of a sheep, cut at a slant and filed smooth.

These plain roasted apples were meant to be served as an accompaniment to roasted meat or fowl, not as a confection. For dessert, I have seen baked apples embellished with jam, dried fruit, nuts, mashed bananas, vanilla beans, spices, molasses, maple syrup, pineapple juice, apple cider, meringue, marshmallows and Coca-Cola. This last ingredient was the secret of the Grand Street Dairy restaurant in Manhattan. The cola reduced in the oven, melding with the apple juice to become a rich syrup. Regulars ate the apple with a dollop of sour cream for, not after, lunch.

I would have given up on the baked-apple-as-dessert idea had I not, in a fit of nostalgia, decided to try out a few recipes to see if I could find one that truly satisfied a sweet tooth. All the recipes I tried were good enough for breakfast. But even when the juice that surrounded the apples was compellingly thick and condensed, the apple flesh itself tended to be watery, granular and lean and nowhere as good as apple pie.

It wasn't until I realized that tarte Tatin is, in fact, baked apples on a pastry crust that I began to recognize the baked apple's candied, caramelized potential. So why couldn't regular baked apples achieve this glorious, glazed state of being? Surely it does not depend on the crust.

In fact, the problem is the way the apples are prepared before baking. In a tarte Tatin, the apples are always peeled, and then either sliced or at least halved. Traditionally, baked apples are left whole and only partially peeled, which keeps them from melting into a formless mush. But the skin also prevents them from absorbing enough syrup. The solution? Piercing the unpeeled apple flesh with a knife, which lets in more syrup, and basting often with the pan juices.

Now, I like to bake my apples in maple syrup, wine and brown sugar, flavored with fresh ginger and whole spices. This produces apples that are tender, suffused with syrup and highly aromatic. Served with a brandied custard sauce, it is a recipe indulgent enough to call dessert. I am sure even my grandmother would agree.

Recipe: Spiced Baked Apples With Maple Caramel Sauce
Recipe: Brandied Custard

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