Pink Lady. McIntosh. SweeTango. Ambrosia. Honeycrisp.
This is just part of the apple aisle at my local Publix, but I was impressed. There are an estimated 7,500 apple varieties around the world, so a dozen or so apples at my grocery store is a small fraction, of course, but I’d forgotten how many varieties I could easily get my hands on this season. I’ve been working on a story about baked apple desserts for the Tampa Bay Times (special Thanksgiving issue of Taste comes out this Sunday and I’ve got the cover story!) so I was really happy to find so many varieties to try.
I talked to Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook and lifestyle editor at Yankee Magazine, for the story, and she said a lot of the new apple varieties are good all-purpose apples. They work well for baking, cooking, or eating raw. The standard that breeders are trying to reach is really high, she told me, and these newer apple varieties feature a lot of sweetness, acidity, and firm, lush fruit. And then she said my favorite thing I’ve ever heard about apples…
“They’re like the California cabernets of the apple world,” she said. Big, explosive flavor. Juicy.
Her favorite varieties for baking are Jazz and Pink Lady apples, which hold on to their rosy color when baked. In her book on apples, Traverso organizes them into four categories based on firmness and acidity — the qualities that will affect recipes most.
Firm tart and firm sweet apples, such as Granny Smith and Honeycrisp, can cook for a long time and are great for pies and crisps. Jonagold apples, she says, make an amazing pie. Tender tart and tender sweet apples, such as McIntosh and Fuji, work well for baked recipes that don’t cook as long, including cookies, cakes, and pancakes.
Super helpful, right? I’m committing those categories to memory and keeping those guidelines in mind whether I’m slicing up apples for dessert or dinner.
Some of my favorite apple desserts are the easiest. These baked apples come together quickly and don’t take much planning ahead, and yet you’re rewarded with a grand flavor that belies the effort put in. Don’t hesitate to make them any time a craving hits.
I tried a few versions recently, and ended up with my favorite way to serve up baked apples. I make sure to core the apples generously and slice off the tops to make more room for the crumbly filling. My version includes sesame seeds because it makes the crisp cookie-like and irresistible. A splash of rosewater goes into the baking dish with the apple cider for added fragrance, and it also intensifies the flavor of the apples. I’ll share some more apple recipes soon from this feature, but the baked apple had to be first because it’s the cover girl for the special Thanksgiving issue of Taste!
I like these best the same day but apples will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for another day. Reheat gently in a microwave or oven the next morning and serve with a big splash of heavy cream for breakfast. Or ice cream. You do you.
4 large firm apples (Granny Smith, Honeycrisp or Jonagold apples are great here)
½ cup flour
½ cup rolled oats (do not use instant oats)
½ cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
4 tablespoons cold butter, diced
pinch of kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, split down the middle
1 cup apple cider or unfiltered apple juice
vanilla ice cream, for serving
Heat oven to 350°F.
Remove core from apples, being careful not to cut all the way through the bottom of the apple. Slice off top ½-inch of apple and widen cavity in the center of the apple to make room for filling. You want it to be about 1 ½ inches wide. Slice off a sliver of apple at bottom, if needed, so that apples sit tight.
Add flour, oats, sugar, cinnamon, sesame seeds, butter, and salt in a bowl. Use knife to scrape vanilla bean pod and add seeds to the other ingredients. Mix with fingertips to combine ingredients until mixture comes together and is crumbly. Fill apples with oat mixture. Any extra filling can be baked on a small baking sheet alongside the apples (for less baking time) for extra crisp topping.
In an 8- by 8-inch baking dish, position the apples. Pour apple cider around the apples. Add a splash of rosewater for extra fragrance. This also brings out more flavors in the apple. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake for 20 minutes (covering them makes them tender) and then remove foil. Bake about another 20 minutes uncovered, until apples have softened and oat mixture has cooked through and is crisp on top. The apples are done when the skin is wrinkly and easily pierced with a knife. Transfer apples to plate and top each with a scoop of ice cream just before serving. The reduced cider in the baking dish can be poured over apples as a sauce.