Our autumn has finally arrived, the wind crisp and biting, the soil saturated with the rains that only a few days ago seemed interminable, but most of all the colors exploding in burnt orange and red, awakening the senses one last time before the lull and white of winter. Boston, where I have lived for almost three decades, is the quintessential autumn city. For the next few weeks, every street and every tree on it is a minor miracle-in-the-making. And to top it off, this is the big foliage weekend here in New England, and my city is as welcoming of strangers and tourists as it is deliberately apart from the crowds that have descended on it from all four corners of the world. By this afternoon, many will have headed out of the city, west to the Berkshires perhaps, or to Connecticut or Rhode Island. And by the third week of October, the unfolding miracle will drive us all mad with its fire and rustle. And as nature’s grand display of color reaches its climax, it will, as surely as all beautiful things do, last for a few days and then disappear.
If Boston is the autumn city for the ages, then certainly the apple, that modest, unassuming thing, is the fruit of choice at this time of the year–there, ready for the taking at fruit stands and farmers’ markets; there, in all its supple hues of red. The apple which gets so little respect for all that she is capable of producing—from the myth of original sin, to the poetry of the nations, to silly little songs and limericks and sayings; from butter squash soup, to apple crisp, to apple sauce, to apple pie, and tuna salad.
But my favorite is baked apples, the mother of all desserts. Serve it after an autumn meal, and you’ll bring the house down with finger-licking praise and requests of seconds. Keep it in the refrigerator overnight, and the children will have a happy surprise in the morning. (I have left half a dozen baked apples on the kitchen counter only to find them all gone by the morning; the gods must have descended !) Cold or heated, simply presented or with great fanfare, baked apples are one of the most delicious, dramatic offerings under the sun. And they are beautiful to look at, their round bottoms sitting in a lake of thick sauce, and their interiors filled with nuts and currants that ooze out and slide on the fruit’s curves.
I am told that my baked apples are the absolute best. It’s true, they are very good. I have honed them to near-perfection although every once in a while, I slip and turn out a pretty mediocre version, but most of the time, I live up to my reputation, as do the apples themselves.
I learned making baked apples from my mother who was not much of a cook but had a knack for producing dishes which looked at tasted as though they had taken up a lot of time, energy and talent. My mother had learned it when she lived in London for a year in the early 1950s. Her version was pretty prosaic. Over the years, I have added things to it to make it a beautiful, sexy conclusion to a special evening.
The apples: The secret, as always, is good basic ingredients. So, make sure your apples are healthy, with a dark red peel and round and a little plump rather than the more elongated kind. Wash. Peel circularly, but make sure you have a nice band of peel to hold the apple together when it cooks. Push fork into three or four places in the apple. Make a tunnel in the center of the apple and get rid of the seeds. Make sure you don’t dig to the bottom of the apple.
The filling: Mix crushed walnuts, brown or white sugar, currants (or raisins; currants are less sweet), cinnamon. Cloves are optional; they give the mixture a stronger taste. Make sure the walnuts are not cut too small or pulverized.
The syrup: Mix some sugar and water and bring to boil. You want enough to cover the bottom of your baking dish, .5 inch or so; allow for some evaporation and thickening of the mixture. Add some sort of liquor if you want, a few teaspoons. I tried amaretto last time and it was great. Stuff the apples with the filling; press so you get a tight fit. Put a small piece of butter on each apple. Put the apples in a baking dish whose sides are a bit high.
Oven should be on 375 or so. Place the apples in the middle of the oven, add the syrup and cook. Check from time to time; with a spoon wet the apples with the syrup. Cook until the apples feel soft when you insert a fork or when you touch them with your fingers. Make sure you do not overcook. The flesh should be well contained within the peel circle. After they are baked, you can sprinkle grated orange peel for color and more drama.
Serve warm or cold, alone (as I do) or with vanilla ice cream (from the world-renowned Rancatore’s, of course, in Belmont, MA.—which has the mother of all vanilla ice creams. No kidding, nothing like it on this side of the pond.)