At the bottom of our garden is an ancient cooking apple tree. It is gnarled and the apples are all shapes and sizes, but there are lots of them. They never store very well as they go rotten very quickly, sometimes while hanging on the tree, but they cook beautifully, providing a tasty filling to some favourite dishes.
The energetic property of apple is cornucopia, an abundance of good things. Our apple tree seems to radiate this property providing us with beautiful pink blossom in springtime followed by the swelling of green apples through the next three months.
I usually start making windfall provisions in August, often leaving the last of the apples for the rooks by the middle of October. This year, autumn has been so mild, I am still picking up windfalls and preparing them while I sit on our patio without the need for coat or even cardigan!
It struck me today that apples bear a secret many people never experience. I must have been in my forties before I saw my first one. If you always core your apples lengthways, you will never see it, but if you cut an apple in half, there it lies – a perfect star. The beauty and simplicity of the star makes you appreciate the sanctity of something so common, something we take for granted.
There are many folklore associations with cutting apple peel in one long thread and then throwing it behind you to discover the name of your one true love. I’ve never done this, mainly because I can’t peel an apple without the thread breaking and I don’t really need anyone or thing to tell me the name of my true love, since we’ve gone to sleep and woken in each other’s arms for the past thirty-three years.
Many of you reading this post will be experienced cooks, but some of you might welcome an opportunity to revisit some simple recipes involving apples.
Peel, core and slice a quantity of cooking apples into a saucepan. Shake a reasonable amount of sugar over the apples. Take the saucepan to a cold water tap. Quickly turn on and turn off the tap. This is the amount of water you need to cook the apple. Put the lid on the saucepan and heat the apples slowly, stirring occasionally to ensure they don’t burn. When all the apples have cooked down into a mush (this is how you can tell they’re cooking and not eating apples, the latter don’t lose their shape), turn off the heat and pour the applesauce into a receptacle to cool.
Eat on its own with cream and a biscuit, add to morning cereals or an addition to roast pork. For something a little different, flavour the apples while cooking with cinnamon or a “pumpkin spice” combination (cinnamon, freshly ground nutmeg and powdered cloves) or grated peel and juice of a lemon. Add to natural yoghurt and enjoy.
Since this is the season to remember our beloved dead, I will tell a very short story associated with apple sauce. During my gap year between school and university I lived with my cousin, Mary and her husband, Norman, in the village of Wainfleet, Ontario for three months. Mary would serve our main meal – supper – around 6pm each evening. At 8pm, Norman, who was then in his 80s, would get up from his chair in the sitting room and make his way slowly into the kitchen.
“I’ll just get myself a little lunch,” he would say, his eyes twinkling. Opening the refrigerator, he would reach inside and pull out the large Kilner jar of apple sauce and pour himself a small dish which he would eat with relish at the kitchen table.
“Are you at that apple sauce again?” Mary would call from the other room.
“I’m just having a little lunch.”
“You don’t need any lunch,” Mary would scold as she cleared away his dish and washed it up for him. Norm would just sit with the biggest grin all over his face.
They were a devoted couple and I was so pleased I returned to Canada in September 1976 to celebrate their ruby wedding as he died the following year. Mary was nearly twenty years younger than him and she died three years ago.
Apple and mincemeat pie
Everyone has their own favourite apple pie. This is one my mother used to make which is a little different. Roll out a large circle of short crust pastry twice the diameter of your pie dish. Place the pastry into the dish so the dish in the centre of the circle and spread this smaller inside circle with mincemeat. Fill the remainder of the dish with sliced apples. If you want a very sweet filling you can sprinkle the apples with sugar, but if your mincemeat layer is thick enough, there is no need. The apples cut the sweetness of the mincemeat.
Fold the pastry carefully over the top of the pie so that it forms the crust. If you don’t have enough pastry you can leave a small hole in the centre. Brush the pastry with milk to produce a glaze. Cook in a fairly hot oven (around 200 degrees C) for twenty minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.
Fill the bottom of your pie dish half full with sliced apples (or any fruit. If you are using frozen fruit, defrost first) and sprinkle with sugar. Make enough crumble topping in a mixing bowl depending on the size of your dish using a basis of 4oz flour to 2 ozs margarine and 2 tblsps of sugar. Mix the flour and margarine together using fingertips and thumbs until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. When you think you’ve finished, tap the mixing bowl on one side to bring up any unincorporated lumps of margarine. Add the sugar and fold in with a metal spoon. Sprinkle the crumble topping over the apples. Shake the pie dish gently with both hands to make sure it is evenly distributed. Place in a medium oven and cook for twenty minutes or so until lightly brown.
You can add spices to the apples – cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg or a combination or grate the rind of a lemon and/or pour the juice of a lemon over the apple slices. Add blackberries to the apple if you want to reduce the amount of sugar, but it might be wise to puree the blackberries first if you are going to serve the crumble to older adults, because the pips invariably get stuck in their teeth!
Eve’s pudding (Apple sponge)
Slice 1lb of cooking apples into a greased ovenproof dish and sprinkle 3oz of Demerara sugar and grated lemon rind over them. Add 1 tblsp water. Cream 3 oz margarine with 3 oz granulated sugar together in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Add one beaten egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in 5 oz of self-raising flour with a metal spoon to give a dropping consistency and spread the mixture over the apples. If you have a large ovenproof dish you may need to double the quantities of sponge topping. Bake in the oven at 180degrees C for 40-45 minutes until the apples are tender and the sponge mixture cooked.
Apple soul cakes
Cream together 8oz of sugar and 8oz margarine in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Add four eggs, one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition. Add one tsp powdered cinnamon and half a grated nutmeg together with wafer thin slices from two cooking apples which have been peeled and cored. Mix these into the mixture with a metal spoon. Fold in 8 oz of self-raising flour, adding a little milk if necessary, until the mixture reaches a dropping consistency. Using a dessertspoon, spoon the mixture into small paper cake cases (fairy cake size). This should make at least two dozen small cakes. If you want to use muffin cases, place two tablespoonfuls of mixture into each case, making around a dozen muffins. Cook in a medium oven at 180 degrees C for 15-20 minutes until you cannot hear the cooked cakes “singing” when you hold them to your ear.
Gather an amount of small windfall apples. Wash them well and cut into quarters without peeling or coring in your largest saucepan. Cover with water and cook with the lid on until the fruit is completely mushy. (Usually if you are only using apples, you would only need to simmer for 1½ hours, but since I had added quince and rosehips to my apples, I simmered for two hours until the quinces had changed colour from yellow to pink). Strain through a jelly bag or butter muslin tied to something high and leave to drip for several hours or overnight. Discard the contents of the jelly bag (preferably onto your compost heap!) and measure the amount of liquid extract.
Wash the saucepan and return the liquid to the pan with 1lb of sugar for every pint (20 fl oz) of liquid. Heat gently until the sugar has all dissolved, stirring continuously. Bring the jelly to a rolling boil for ten minutes and then test for a setting point. (I usually pour a couple of tablespoons of liquid onto a pyrex saucer and place in the freezer for five –ten minutes. When cold, if a skin forms when you run your finger very slowly through the jelly it is ready.) If setting point isn’t reached after ten minutes, continue to boil and test every five minutes until a setting point is reached. Pour into heated sterilized jars, cover and label.
Apples are such a versatile fruit but we should never forget to be grateful for their abundance.