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Miriam's Garden: Time is ripe for tasty apple pies, tarts and more

Right now in my garden, we're preparing for cooler weather. Most of the tomato plants have been pulled up, and the green tomatoes stored in the kitchen. There's a perky little row of lettuce and French Breakfast radishes, new beets, turnips and chard. They're shrouded with row cover right now, to keep them from frost, and prolong the season just a bit.

Apples are falling all around us -- in the garden, in the fields and along the lane, where trees are lighting up scarlet and orange. Years ago, before we lived here, people used to make hard cider and applejack (apple moonshine) in these vivid, rocky hills. Probably the reason we have so many wild apple trees. My husband, David, can take you into the woods to see the remnants of a short chimney, once part of a still. An old-timer told him they used to cook down apples for applejack over the stone fireplace in the living room of our log cabin.

Our wild and crazy apple trees are pretty old. The apples they bear are unidentifiable. To us anyway. We refer to them as the russety yellow ones and the light green ones, or that tree down the way with the huge red sweet ones. The trees don't get sprayed or pruned, so the apples tend to be a little scabby, with parts that you need to cut out, but some have remarkable flavor.

Our elkhound, Lark, loves apples. She has particular criteria for her apple choices, and we think she likes them slightly rotten and fermented (dog applejack). We have to limit her apple noshing so she doesn't get any chubbier. Her sister, our much-missed elkhound, Windy, used to stand on her hind legs to try to reach the apples that dangled from a branch into the yard, where the dogs ran about. Lark is lazier. She waits for them to fall or for me to let her in the garden, where there are trees.

There are other ways to get apples, rather than waiting for them to fall or asking your husband to get a bamboo pole and hit the russety yellow ones out of the tree. You can go to the farmers market.

That's what we did the other day, in Washington, Pa. It was late afternoon, lovely and sunny. A perfect day for apple picking.

The stand with the largest variety was Wagers of Apple Crest Orchards. There I bought some blushing yellow apples called Blushy, a basket of firm, flavorful Northern Spies and some sweet-crisp Golden Delicious. Across the way at Simmons Farm stand, I got some Jonagolds. Some were redder in color -- because they got more sun, a worker explained. Lastly, from another vendor, I purchased a small basket of Idareds. While tasty, apples are smaller this year, due to the drought, and I find the skins are a bit thicker.

Later I spoke to Bob Simmons of Simmons Farm to find out how the season went. "The yield was off about 10 percent," he said, "with a little cold damage in early spring. It was a hot and dry summer, but we irrigate so the crop was half-decent."

I caught Audrey Wagers, owner, with her husband, of Wagers Apple Crest Orchards, as she was parking at the WalMart. She couldn't be sure what they would have available this week, due to the changing conditions.

"We're about six weeks ahead because of the weather, so we're sort of mixed up ourselves," she said with a laugh. "But we go out in the orchard, cut an apple open and check to see if the seeds have darkened."

Shiny as a well-polished apple is "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" by Amy Traverso. It tells you everything you'd ever want to know about apples, with creative, delicious recipes. In the front are apple "portraits" with tasting notes for both rare and widely available types, along with the best uses for each apple. This should explain the variety of apples I bought in Washington. Traverso often mixes apples with different characteristics -- firm tart and firm sweet -- to get the best results.

In the book, along with visits to orchards and history, there are recipes for the expected, such as pies and tarts, cakes and applesauce. For the savory, such as Apple, Cheddar and Caramelized Onion Pastry Puffs and Braised Brisket with Apples and Hard Cider. The curious (but I must try): Quick Bread-and-Butter Apple Pickles. And the sublime: Green Apple Sauvignon Blanc Sorbet.

It's enough to make an apple lover out of everybody.

The Washington Main Street Farmers Market runs every Thursday through October. It's held in the municipal lot, 139 S. Main St., from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Visit Simmons Farms to buy apples or pick them yourself. They expect to have Red and Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Idared and Fuji apples. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. at 170 Simmons Road, McMurray; 724-941-1490.

Wagers of Apple Crest Orchards doesn't have U-pick, but you can visit their farm market. They expect the Winesaps will be over, but they'll have Rome, Fuji and Braeburn apples and a limited amount of Granny Smiths. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily at 682 East National Pike (Route 40), Washington; 724-222-2151.

Simple Apple Nut Cake

PG tested

An easy cake that's moist and tender. I used Golden Delicious apples. You could also use Jonagold, Ginger Gold or Pink Lady.

  • 3 large firm-sweet apples (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter 8-inch square or round metal cake pan.

In medium bowl, stir apples with sugar; let sit until sugar dissolves, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in large bowl, whisk flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Stir in apples with their juices. Stir in egg and oil until mixed. Stir in nuts. The author writes: "At this point, the mixture will not look promising -- as if there's not enough batter to coat the apple cubes. Don't worry -- the recipe really does work."

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until nicely browned and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool on rack 20 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" by Amy Traverso (Norton, 2011, $29.95)

Skillet Apple Pie

PG tested

Delicious. If after rolling the crust, it seems soft, slide a baking sheet underneath it and slip it into the freezer for a few minutes.

For the crust:
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 9 tablespoons (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) cold butter, cut into small cubes
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water (I used about 5 tablespoons)
  • Milk, for brushing over crust
For the filling:
  • 1/4 cup fresh apple cider
  • 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large firm-tart apples (Idared, Northern Spy, Gold Rush, Granny Smith, Stayman Winesap), or about 2 pounds, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
  • 5 large firm-sweet apples (Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Grimes Golden, Honeycrisp, Jonagold), or about 2 1/2 pounds, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges

Crust: In medium bowl, whisk flour, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and salt. Sprinkle butter on top; work in with fingers until mixture looks like cornmeal with some pea-sized bits. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons ice-water; stir in with fork until dough begins to come together. If needed, add more ice-water. Knead on lightly floured surface 3 times. Gather into ball, press into disk, wrap in plastic wrap. Chill at least 30 minutes.

Filling: Preheat oven to 450 degrees with rack in lowest position. Set out 10-inch (across the top), heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, with sides at least 2 1/4 inches high.

In small bowl, whisk cider, brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon and lemon juice. Put chosen skillet over medium-high heat; add butter and melt. Add apples (pan will be very full) and cook, stirring only occasionally, until apples begin to soften and brown a bit. Remove from heat.

Put dough in center of large sheet parchment or waxed paper. Cover with another sheet parchment. Roll out, working from center, to an 11-inch circle. Peel off top sheet; invert dough over apples. (My dough stuck some and became soft, but in the end, it didn't matter). Tuck dough around fruit. Make four 3-inch slashes to let steam escape. Brush crust with milk; sprinkle with remaining granulated sugar.

Bake 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees; continue baking until juices are bubbling and crust is deep golden brown, about 30 more minutes. Let cool on rack 20 minutes. Serve warm from the pan.

Makes about 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" by Amy Traverso (Norton, 2011, $29.95)

Apple-Raisin Pandowdy

PG tested

Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy
Makes your eyes light up
And your stomach say "Howdy."

This song -- lyrics by Sammy Gallop, music by Guy Woods -- was sung by Ella Fitzgerald, by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, but most popularly by Dinah Shore. As this old-fashioned dessert bakes, and you're humming the song, you cut the crust into pieces and push it back down into the filling. It's delicious. I used a mix of Idared, Northern Spy and Jonagold apples. It calls for a 10-inch deep-dish pie plate. Mine was 9 inches across the bottom and 10 inches across the top, with a wide edge.

  • 6 medium to large apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch wedges (6 cups)
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup raisins or currants
  • 2 tablespoons molasses (when I make this again, I'll use only 1 tablespoon)
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Butter Pie Dough (see below)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Set out 10-inch deep-dish pie dish.

In large bowl, mix apples, 1 cup sugar, raisins, molasses, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Toss with lemon juice. Put in pie plate; dot with butter.

On lightly floured surface, roll dough to 12-inch round. Place over apples, letting excess hang over sides. Fold 1 inch of dough back, then flute this thick border onto edge of pie pan. Place pie on baking sheet.

Bake 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees; bake until crust is lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Using wide metal spatula or small, sharp knife, cut pastry into 1-inch squares, being sure not to cut all the way to the edges of crust. With large spoon, press pastry squares into apples, using spoon to gather up juices and baste pastry. Mix remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon; sprinkle over top. Bake until topping is golden brown and apples are tender, 20 to 30 minutes more.

Cool on rack 10 minutes. Serve warm, spooned into bowls.

Makes 8 servings.

Butter Pie Dough

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine table salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons ice-water, or as needed

Mix flour, sugar and salt in medium bowl. Using pastry blender or fingers, cut in butter until mixture is crumbly, with a few coarse, pea-sized pieces of butter. Sprinkle in water; mix with fork, adding just enough water until mixture is moistened and begins to clump together. Gather dough into flat disk. Use right away or cover and chill.

-- Adapted from "The Baker's Dozen Cookbook" (Morrow, 2001, $40)

Roast Apples with Cinnamon Cream

PG tested

This cozy dessert is from Darina Allen's "The Forgotten Skills of Cooking," a wonderful book I often use. I had the pleasure of meeting her on the White House Kitchen Garden tour.

My husband, David, has been happy during the apple-dessert testing days. This was a favorite, but he loves all desserts. David's mother, Rose Lesako, often made baked apples, and always served them with Bird's Custard, as she is English. I think he enjoyed the Cinnamon Cream almost as much. Well, maybe he still wanted the custard.

  • 4 large cooking apples (I used Idared and Northern Spy)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar (recipe called for superfine; I used regular)
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup heavy or whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I used less, to taste)
  • Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set out a glass or ceramic baking dish large enough to hold the apples.

Core apples. (I scooped out cores with a melon baller, leaving a little at the bottom.) With vegetable peeler, remove a strip of peel around equator of apple. In small bowl, with spoon, beat butter, sugar and lemon zest. Stir in raisins. Spoon into apples. Put in baking dish. Pour in 1/4 cup water.

Roast, uncovered, 45 to 60 minutes, depending on size. The author writes: "The apples should be beginning to burst -- this is vital, so hold your nerve -- they should look fat and squishy." Also, try poking them with a skewer to see if they're tender in the center.

Whip cream to soft peaks; add cinnamon to taste. Serve the apples straight from the oven with the cinnamon cream and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best-- Over 700 Recipes Show You Why" by Darina Allen (Kyle, 2009, $40)

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com.