Fall is full of apples. They are mounded in rosy piles at our local farmer’s market. They fill stalls at the grocery store. In nearby orchards, windfall apples lie on the ground, fermenting, chewed by worms, returning to earth, or waiting to be picked up and made into cider. Recently, a friend and I walked through acres of trees, picking up globe after globe, rubbing it shiny against our jeans, carefully biting into the safe side, tasting this kind and that, riffing off wine sommeliers by claiming to find chocolate high notes and apricot finishes. The trick is remembering which variety is good for what. Like any area of special interest—as in, who knew there were collectors of bricks, who even haul them? Okay, that’s a tangent—there are more choices than you can imagine. I had no idea there were hundreds of apple varieties until we moved to southeast Minnesota, where orchards run across the edge of the prairie and on into the hardwood forests and bluffs that bound the Mississippi River valley.
In a previous life, my shopping was confined to the supermarket, and I only knew Delicious (mealy and tough-skinned) or Granny Smith (rock hard and sour). As my options opened, I found their names were as evocative as their unique flavors: Honeygold, Honeycrisp, Sweet 16, Fireside, Keepsake, SweeTango (an amazing new variety developed at the University of Minnesota). All held the promise of something irresistible, perhaps even necessary. Did I want to eat them right now, this minute, and enjoy a mouth-burst of sweet cider? Did I want to make applesauce or pie? Would I like the kind that cooks down smooth and silky, where swallowing a spoonful meant merely slipping it onto your tongue and pressing the richness against your palate? Or did I want slices that held their definition and fell out the edges of a pie in a cinnamony caramelized mess? Hmm?
I know these days we can’t be too careful about diet. Eating disorders are serious, and I don’t dismiss them. We’ve been urged by experts to learn when and why we eat. We’ve been told to control the urge to connect happiness with eating. There are as many How to Stop Emotional Eating programs as there are apple varieties. So how can I offer this without going too far the other way or being misunderstood?
“Comfort food” are not curse words in my vocabulary. They’re a form of grace. We offer comfort food to celebrate special people and occasions. We offer it to those who mourn. We sometimes offer it to ourselves when we close the door for an evening of quiet and a bowl of something that cheers the soul. For me, that might be mashed potatoes—or raising it to foodie standards, mashed root vegetables. At the heart of what I really need is for Jesus to come in and eat with me as he has proposed (Rev. 3:20), to “comfort me with apples” (Song of Songs 2:5).
Last Saturday, forgetting the particular habits of Macintosh (they turn softly to sauce when baked—I prefer chunks), I bought a bagful at the farmer’s market, planning to make apple crisp—a seasonal apple dish at our house. I took it to a friend’s home, where about twelve of us gathered for a meal. Summer had ended, and we were catching up. Most of us had comfort-needy issues: unemployment, impending birth, a painful divorce, over-work and weariness, waiting on tests results for liver cancer, impossible deadlines for graduate research—to name a few. Central to our time together was listening, praying, and sharing food.
So, if I were to make a list of autumn comfort foods, it would have to include apples. The fragrance of baking them penetrates some mighty dark spaces of life with their spicy, sweet aroma. Obviously, I can’t show up to do this in your kitchen, and however much I’d like to pretend this is an exclusive skill that takes years of discipline and knowledge, that would be misleading. No. It’d be wicked. Rather, I’d like you to know you can easily make baked apples yourself, and the result will be swoonworthy. I also predict that if you’re short on kitchen self-esteem, you’ll be impossible to live with after you serve these. They are guaranteed to impress everyone.
Well. Except for that chef, Ferren Adria, who turns everything into foam. Oh. That’s right. This isn’t about impressing.
Choose apples that are good for baking according to your personal preference: fat and saucy or firm and juicy. Either way, as they bake, the peel becomes the edible package that holds the apple and its juices together.
1 cup brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
4 T butter divided into 12 small pats
Butter a 9×13 cake pan or baking dish. It will hold about 6-8 apples depending their size. Wash the apples. Do not peel. Cut a small slice off the bottom so it sits flat. Core the apple with a paring knife or an apple corer, leaving the apple whole. Place them in the pan.
Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
Using your fingers, push one butter pat into the cored hole of each apple. Next, press in as much of the brown sugar as you can. Place another pat of butter on the top. If it’s messy, it doesn’t matter.
Pour ½ cup water in the bottom. A little extra liquid is good. If there is brown sugar left over, sprinkle it around and it will make a bit more caramelized sauce on the bottom.
Bake at 350 for 45-60 minutes or until tender when tested with a fork. Scoop into individual dishes along with some of the juice in the bottom. Serve plain or with cream drizzled across the top. (You might also add a few raisins and chopped nuts to the stuffing.)