Local festivals celebrate the apple, America's favorite fruit

It's time to pay homage to the Mighty Apple, and no, we're not talking about the computer giant's new iOS 7 software update.

It's the fruit we love, and how.

Fall in Western Pennsylvania arrives ripe with apples. From festivals to specialized cooking classes and special recipes to pie-making contests like the one I helped judge over the weekend at Castle Shannon's Fall Festival, the fruit is all we think about once the temperature starts to cool.

Then again, who can blame us? Apples are among the most cultivated tree fruit in the U.S., and Pennsylvania -- the fourth largest apple producer in the country, growing approximately 11 million bushels or a whopping 440 million pounds each year -- boasts hundreds of different varieties. An apple a day? More like an apple a minute, if you're going to sample everything that's out there.

We're happy to point you in the right direction, with a roundup of some local apple festivals and other celebrations taking place this weekend and next. Because we know you'll come home with a pound or two of your favorite cruncher, we're also including a few recipes that will put the fruit to good use, as well as info on a cooking class that will provide you with four more delectable apple dishes.

The king of apple fests locally is Washington County's Hickory Apple Festival, which kicks off this Saturday, Oct. 5, at 7 a.m. with an all-you-can-eat pancake, sausage and egg breakfast ($7.50) in the firehall dining room. Not that early a riser? No worries -- it runs until 1 p.m. (on Sunday, too) and there also will be a large variety of other home-cooked foods throughout the day, such as chicken roasted on an open fire, fresh-baked bread and roast pork and kielbasa sandwiches. Apple goodies will include dumplings, caramel apples, pie and apple butter.

This is the 30th year for the fest held at the Mt. Pleasant Township Firehall grounds on Route 50 (106 Main Street, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day), and once again, it promises to be a pretty good time for both young and old. Children's activities include apple-bobbing- and apple pie-eating contests, a petting zoo and hay rides. There also will demonstrations by local crafters, who will show the crowd rug-making, basket-weaving, quilting, wool-spinning and broom-making. Live entertainment includes the Mon Valley Cloggers folk dancing group and the Pittsburgh country band The Stickers.

If the weather's lovely, anywhere from between 30,000 and 40,000 apple lovers are expected to attend the festival, which has free admission and worry-free parking; a shuttle will carry you from a free off-site lot directly to the firehall grounds. For a complete schedule, go to hickoryapplefest.com or call 724-356- 3378.

Crafts also paint a large part of the picture at The Delmont Apple 'n Arts at Shields Farm, Westmoreland County. In all, more than 100 crafters and 30 local and professional food vendors will gather for the two-day festival celebrating all things apple, held on Oct. 5 and 6 on land that has been farmed since the 1700s and owned by the Shields family since 1834.

One of the marquee events is the on-site pressing of fresh cider from an antique cider press (from 1907) provided by the Fort Allen Antique Farm Equipment Association, a nonprofit dedicated to the restoration and preservation of antique farm machines. The group also will demonstrate antique farm equipment and hold a tractor raffle.

For the kids, there's a Baby Apple Cheeks Contest (ages 3 months to 4 years; pre-registration is required) along with a petting zoo, pony and train rides, and balloon bounce. The festival also boasts an Apple Bake contest on Sunday, Oct. 6, and live entertainment both days.

Info: delmontapplenarts.com or 724-325-8867. Parking costs $5, with proceeds benefitting the festival and community.

If you're looking to combine a festival with a longer drive to see the fall colors, the Franklin Applefest in downtown Franklin, Venango County, is a sure bet. Celebrating its 31st year, the festival runs from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6, and promises more than 300 arts and crafts vendors, in addition to an antique and classic car show and a "beer and wine war" where you can sample local brews and wines and then vote for a winner ($25).

Actually, there's so many activities over the course of the three-day event that it's hard to list them all. But there's something for everyone, with live entertainment, cider-press demos, duck races, walking tours to see Tiffany windows and architecture, and even a 5K race at 10 a.m. on Sat., Oct. 5. (You can register at the YMCA at West Park and Otter streets.)

There also will be tons of food, and not just at booths or the farmers market on 12th Street that will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. St. John's Episcopal Church on Buffalo Street will hold a Harvest Lunch each day from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ($9), and there's also a Homemade Chicken and Noodle dinner on Saturday at United Brethren Church on Atlantic Ave. ($8). If you plan on participating in Saturday's apple-pie-baking contest, know that pies must be delivered in disposable pans to Pink Champagne Cupcakery, 1252 Liberty St., between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Parking is available in paid municipal lots, with a free shuttle from lots at 1st St. and 13th St. More info: franklinapplefest.com or 1-814-432-5823.

Busy this weekend? The Annual Fall Harvest Festival and Craft Show at Apple Castle in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, is Oct. 12 (applecastle.com), and once again will feature wagon rides, crafters, live music and kids' crafts and activities. And of course there will be apples -- lots of 'em, in the form of fresh cider, doughnuts and bag-your-own fruit. You'll also be able to pick up pumpkins, cornstalks and gourds for Halloween and Thanksgiving decorating. Triple B Farm (triplebfarms.com) pairs its love of apples with pumpkins by holding Pittsburgh's Finest Family Pumpkin and Apple Festival, every weekend through Oct. 31.

Or maybe you just feel like lunch.

Smithfield United Church of Christ will hold its Apple Festival from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 3, on Strawberry Way, the narrow (and busy) pedestrian walkway that dates to 1784 and serves as a connector between the Cultural District and businesses on Smith and Grant streets. In addition to a homemade lunch, the event will offer apple pie (plain or a la mode), apple dumplings and apple crisp. If the weather doesn't cooperate, the festival will move inside into the church's social hall.

Also on a smaller scaler, the Auxiliary of Mon-Vale Health Resources will hold its annual Apple/Fall Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4, in the Anthony M. Lombardi Education Conference Center at the Central Plaza at Monongahela Valley Hospital. Along with chili, hot dogs and pizza, this festival will feature apple dumplings and a variety of baked goods. Proceeds benefit the hospital's patients and visitors. For more information, contact the gift shop at 724-258-1167.

And if you'd rather make your own apple creations? Crate in Scott is offering a hands-on "Cooking with Friends" class devoted to apples from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 7. Among the four dishes Chef David Bulman of Verde Mexican Kitchen will teach are apple compote crostini and apple sorbet with apple-infused caramel. Cost is $70. Register at cratecook.com or call 412-341-5700

Apple Ravioli with Sage Butter

PG tested

These ravioli are meant to be oversized, and easy to fill, so cut them into fairly big circles with a cookie cutter or upside-down water glass. If you can't find robiola or taleggio cheese (tangy, semi-soft Italian cheeses), substitute fontina or gouda or, like I did, goat cheese.

For pesto

  • 1 cup fresh shelled fava beans (I used canned)

  • 1/2 cup shelled pistachios

  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts

  • About 30 large fresh basil leaves

  • Olive oil

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For dough

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or "0" (pizza) flour

  • 4 large eggs

  • Olive oil

  • 1 large egg white

For filling

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 3 Granny Smith or other tart apples, peeled and diced

  • 5 to 7 fresh sage leaves

  • 1 pound robiola or taleggio cheese, diced

  • Honey

Prepare pesto: Boil fresh beans in salted water until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain, peel and pat dry. If using canned beans, rinse well and pat dry. In a small food processor or mortar and pestle, grind the beans, pistachios and pine nuts until very smooth. Add basil and then, while processing, slowly stream in 1/4 cup oil, grinding until creamy, adding more if dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Make dough: Put flour in a large bowl or on a work surface and make a well in the center. Beat the whole eggs and 1 teaspoon oil into the well with a fork. Gradually incorporate the flour until a dough forms. Knead the dough until it is very smooth, at least 5 minutes. Form it into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Make filling: In a saute pan, melt butter over high heat. Add apples and sage and cook until the apples are just tender, but still a bit firm. Let them cool to room temperature.

Assemble: Using a quarter of the dough at a time so it doesn't dry out and keeping the rest covered, roll the dough into 1/8-inch-thick sheets either with a rolling pin or pasta machine. Using a cookie or ravioli cutter, cut to 4-inch circles. Beat the egg white in a bowl to use for sealing the ravioli.

Put 1 tablespoon of the apple mixture onto a dough circle, then top with 1 tablespoon of the cheese and a tiny drizzle of honey. Moisten the edges of the dough with the egg white, top with another dough circle, and press the edges firmly to seal. Repeat until all the dough and filing are used.

Bring 1 or 2 wide, flat pans of salted water to a gentle boil and cook the ravioli until they are tender, about 5 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon to serving plates. Serve topped with pesto.

Serves 4.

-- "Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Oct. 1, 2013, $35)

Apple Pancake

PG tested

This easy breakfast dish goes right from the stovetop to the tabletop. You're supposed to flip it, but I served it right-side up. It also makes a quick dessert.

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • 3 eggs, room temperature, beaten

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 cup self-rising flour or all-purpose flour

  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  • 7 tablespoons butter

2 tart cooking apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in center.

In a small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon; set aside. In a large bowl, combine eggs, milk, salt and flour and vanilla extract. Beat until batter is very smooth (it will be thin but creamy). In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat, melt butter, tilting pan to cover sides. Add apples and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon mixture. Stir and let cook for 5 to 7 minutes to slightly cook the apple slices; remove from heat. Pour prepared batter over apples in skillet.

Place skillet in preheated oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until pancake is puffed above the sides of pan and lightly browned (it may puff irregularly in the center).

Remove pancake from skillet by flipping it upside down into a serving platter (apples and cinnamon will be on top). Cut into wedges and serve immediately. Once out of oven, the pancake will begin to "deflate."

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- "Cast-Iron Cooking with Sisters on the Fly" by Irene Rawlings (Andrews McMeel, April 2013, $19.99)

Ginger Apple Tort

PG tested

This gingerbread-like tort is so delicious, I made it twice in 3 days. And burned the roof of my mouth eating it hot out of the oven, before it was sufficiently cooled -- you will too, it looks and smells that good.

At my daughters' insistence, I doubled the amount of apple filling the second time around.

  • 3 large apples (Honeycrisp and Fuji)

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter plus 2 tablespoons for pan

  • 4 tablespoons turbinado sugar, divided

  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)

  • 3/4 cups brown sugar

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest

  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

  • 1 tablespoon molasses

  • 3 tablespoons dark rum (I omitted)

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1/4 cup milk

  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

  • 10 walnut halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. If you are concerned about your springform pan leaking, wrap the bottom with aluminum foil. Core and peel apples, and cut into thin slices. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in saucepan and cook until it is lightly browned. Stir in apple slices until all slices are covered with browned butter. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar over apples, and continue to saute, stirring occasionally, till apples are softened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger (if using). Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar till fluffy. Beat in 2 eggs. Beat in lemon zest, ginger, molasses, rum, and vanilla extract. (The mixture will look curdled. It's OK.) Stir in the flour mixture a little at a time, stirring after each addition so the batter is thick and smooth. Fold in the milk and yogurt till batter is smooth and thoroughly combined. Scrape half the batter into the prepared springform pan. Cover with apple slices, and spread the other half of the batter over the apples. Smooth top with spatula. Place walnut halves on the top of the cake, and sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar over the top of the cake.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake may pull away slightly from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack. Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it completely from the sides of the pan. Open the ring and remove it. If you want to remove the cake from the base of the springform pan, wait until it has cooled completely, then slide a long thin spatula between the cake and the base. Use a large spatula to then move it to a serving plate. Serve as is or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a blob of barely sweetened softly whipped cream.

Makes 1 tart.

-- Food52.com

Dorothy Simon's Award-Winning Apple Pie

This homestyle pie won top honors at Castle Shannon's first-ever apple pie baking contest, held during this past weekend's Fall Festival. Sugar sprinkled on top gives the crust a wonderful color and crunch.

For crust

  • 2 cups Pillsbury flour,

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 2/3 cup Crisco shortening

For filling

  • 1 cup sugar, plus more for dusting top of pie

  • 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon minute tapioca, divided

  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 2 shakes of nutmeg

  • 6 cups of apples, chunked

  • Butter or oleo for dotting top of pie

Prepare crust: Mix flour, salt and sugar, together. Add Crisco and mix well with a hand-slotted pastry mixer until the dough has small lumps. Take just over half and put in bowl. Add about 2 teaspoons of water, and mix to make a ball. Flatten and roll to the size of your pie plate. Repeat with remaining flour to make top crust; set aside.

(For a single crust for cream pies, roll dough and put in pie plate. Prick with a fork and bake at 425 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until light brown. Cool and fill.)

Prepare filling: Mix sugar, tapioca and spices in a bowl. Add apples and toss to combine.

Sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon tapioca on the bottom of the pie crust and then fill crust with apple mixture. Dot with butter or oleo. Place top crust on top, fold ends over on the sides, and brush crust with a little milk. Sprinkle top with a little sugar.

Cut slits in top crust to allow steam to escape and bake at 400 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes, or until crust is light brown. You can cover the edge of your pie with foil to keep it from getting too dark.

Makes 1 pie.

-- Dorothy Simon, Castle Shannon

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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