Some things in life are as easy as apple pie. Not always. My crusts crumble; my apples dissolve into mush under them. When pie is called for, I substitute a crumble or crisp. Pie-baking belongs to cooks talented in that area.
Marblehead’s Jimmy Rigo is known to nourish a neighborhood with his homemade pies. He will bake the occasional blueberry pie in deep summer, but apple is his specialty. When Jim takes a pie out of the oven, his wife Anna alerts the neighbors, setting a table with newly acquired porcelain dessert plates and coffee cups. The party is on!
Recently, Jim walked me through his secret recipe for perfect filling.
-For a single pie his formula is 10 apples to a pie: 8 fuji apples and 2 Granny Smith. After much experimentation, he’s landed on this combination. Each cut into ½-inch cubes and tossed with 1-3/4 cups sugar.
-He sifts 2 tablespoons each of flour and cornstarch over the apples (use a small fine mesh colander) and “a teaspoon, or maybe a little more, cinnamon to flavor it.” Roll out and line the bottom of a pie plate with crust and pour this in.
-Jim says, “I throw small cubes of butter over the apples then cover them with the top crust. I brush some light cream onto the crust and sprinkle it with granulated sugar.”
– The pie goes into a preheated 425 F oven. “After 20 minutes, I cover the pie with aluminum foil, so the crust doesn’t burn. Then bake it about 40 minutes longer. Make sure to check it a little before finish time so it doesn’t burn. When it looks good and golden brown, it’s ready!”
But not all apples are meant for pie. Some exist to be crunched out of hand. Others tossed in a salad or melded with vegetables. One of the nicest things about autumn cooking is putting something in the oven, setting the timer and walking away to do something else. Maybe reading a book or going for a brisk walk.
Or raking leaves? Don’t waste this “stolen” time! Most root vegetables lend themselves to slow oven cooking — potatoes, carrots, turnips, etc. Butternut squash, once daunting because it involved heavy-duty sawing through a dense shell, is now available already peeled and cut at the supermarket. Not just a once-a-year holiday thing anymore. If you still want the real deal — a whole squash — head to the farmers’ market and choose one with a touch of earth still clinging to its skin.
Now partner that gourd with newly picked apples. Baked together, butternut and apples are the perfect blend of autumn flavors. Try a “deconstructed” version of the pairing by cutting up the ingredients, spreading on a sheet pan, tossing with butter and oil, and roasting. But I find it’s easier to get kids to eat squash when it melds with apples in the cooking.
I’ve culled a few easy hints that work for cooking with apples not headed for pie. First, always toss with fresh lemon juice to keep them from discoloring. Ideally, fresh juice is best, but a good bottled brand is available (as well as lime juice) on grocery shelves. Read labels for pure juice, and stay away from green plastic bottles.
Ground pepper from a shaker has all the appeal of pencil shavings. Whole peppercorns, ground on the spot add a warm aroma and flavor. (The difference is surprising.) And there are so many great-looking peppermills!
Whole nutmegs were another surprise when I first tried them. A few scrapes on a hand-grater makes an extreme difference.
When I see raisins in a recipe, I upgrade to “golden raisins.” Green grapes seem to plump up more sweetly than red ones. Save the dark raisins for the kids to add to celery spread with cream cheese for “ants on a log.”
Bottled dressing tastes of chemicals and wastes money. Some years ago, at a kitchen demo, Julia Child elevated a simple vinaigrette with hints of Dijon mustard and maple syrup (use the real thing). Note: I’m not dissing specialty salads like the Caesar or the blue cheese wedge. I love both.
APPLE SALAD WITH JULIA’S MAPLE-MUSTARD DRESSING
Makes about 8 servings.
For Julia’s dressing, whisk together these ingredients:
½ cup 100% olive oil
1 tablespoon real maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
For the salad:
3 red skinned apples, e.g. Cortland, McIntosh
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 cups mixed baby lettuces
1 very small red onion, halved, and thinly sliced
½ cup chopped walnuts
-Core apples; do not peel. Cut into ¼-inch thick slices. Toss in a medium bowl with lemon juice.
Add lettuce and onion.
-Whisk dressing once more and pour over the mixture. Toss everything gently to combine.
-Sprinkle with walnuts over the top
BAKED BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND APPLES
Makes about 8 servings.
Tart green apples are key here. The mealier sweet ones will just melt away.
½ a medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ¼-inch slices
1-1/2 pounds tart green apples (e.g. Granny Smith)
½ cup golden raisins
Grated nutmeg, to taste
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup real maple syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut-up
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
-Place a rack at the center of the oven; preheat to 350 F degrees.
-Parboil squash in a large pot of water, about 3 minutes. Drain.
-Combine squash, apples and raisins in a 13×9-inch glass baking dish. Season with nutmeg, salt, pepper.
-Stir together maple syrup, butter and lemon juice in saucepan over low heat, whisking until butter melts. Pour this syrup over the squash mixture to coat.
-Bake, uncovered, until squash and apples are very tender, about 1 hour. Cool for 5 minutes, before serving.
Linda Bassett, a Marblehead resident, has worked as a cook, trained upcoming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book,“From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.
Marblehead resident Linda Bassett has worked as a cook, trained up-and-coming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book, “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.