Apples are a harbinger of fall, and they're also a baker’s best friend. Take an apple, apply heat and you’re guaranteed that what you get will be satisfying.
Sure, you can make a pie or a tart – I'll be doing that – and crumbles and crisps and turnovers and fritters. But for pure coziness, nothing beats an old-fashioned baked apple.
Baked apples were a dessert of my American childhood, but it was in Paris that they became something I loved. In France, people don't bake at home with the enthusiasm that we Americans bring to the craft. They do bake apples, though – stuffed with dried fruit, spiced and basted with pan syrup. The dish is so popular that when you look at apple charts, which turn up often at the markets in Paris, you can be sure there will be a note when a specific kind is good for pommes au four.
In America, baked apples typically are made with large apples such as Romes, Empires and Cortlands. For years, that's what I used. Those apples give you plenty of room for stuffing, and they bake to a spoonable consistency, which is lovely for some people and too close to nursery food for others.
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In France, you're as likely to find a baked Gala or a Golden Delicious, the latter an apple the French seem to appreciate more than we do. The benefit of baking those smaller apples is that they're, well, smaller: You don't get as much filling, but you do get what seems like just the right size portion. More Mama Bear than Papa or Baby.
Given my propensity for tinkering, it's no surprise that I like baking apples. They can be stuffed with any variety of good things. In this version, the filling is a mix of soft, sweet dried dates, spice cookies, maple syrup and little pieces of fresh lemon: chosen for their deliciousness, but also because these are ingredients that I almost always have at hand. I know adding maple syrup to dates sounds like sugar on sugar, but it turns out that with the spice and lemon, the combination is just right. You'll see.
Choose firm, unblemished apples and core them one of two ways: Remove the core and pits from the center of the apple in a slender cylinder (or by cutting away with a peeler until what you've got is cylinder-like; I've never gotten it perfectly cylindrical and it's never mattered). Or cut a slice off the top of the apple and hollow out the core and bits to make a bowl with sturdy sides, which will leave you more room for filling, so you may want to up the amount of it by about 50 percent. Either way, don't dig all the way to the bottom of the fruit.
Peel the apples from the top down to the midpoint. Peeling helps keep them from bursting out of their skins in the oven, and it gives a surface that will sop up the tasty basting liquids.
In France, you're likely to see these apples served warm with a dollop of slowly melting crme frache or a trickle of heavy cream over them. But moi? I go for the warm apple with ice cream - memories of an American childhood.
Fall-in-the-Air Baked Apples
Baked apples are best within a few hours of being made. You can keep them covered in the refrigerator overnight, but their texture will not be as soft and comforting.
1 lemon, cut crosswise in half
8 plump pitted dates, chopped
4 Biscoff or Speculoos cookies, chopped
3 or 4 tablespoons pure maple syrup
4 large apples, such Golden Delicious or Gala
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup apple cider, apple juice or water
For serving (optional): Ice cream, heavy cream, creme fraiche or plain yogurt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a baking pan that will hold the apples comfortably.
Slice off a strip of lemon peel from one lemon half, cutting away the bitter white pith. Remove 8 segments of lemon (also with no pith) from that same half and chop them finely. Toss the chopped lemon into a bowl with the dates, cookies and 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup and stir to combine.
Peel the apples from the stem end down to their midpoints; reserve the peels. Rub the peeled part of the apples with the remaining lemon half. Core the apples, taking care not to cut through to the bottom. (Or cut a small slice from the top of the apple and scoop out the core, scooping away a little extra apple all around, to create a “bowl” for the filling.)
Cut half the butter into 8 pieces. Put a piece of butter inside each apple, then divide the fruit filling among the apples, spooning it into each cored section and mounding on top if you have excess filling. Top each apple with another piece of butter.
Pour the cider, juice or water into the baking pan. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces and toss it into the pan along with the reserved apple peels, the piece of lemon peel and 1 tablespoon of the maple syrup. Stand the apples up in the pan.
Bake for 60 to 75 minutes, basting every 15 minutes, until they are soft enough to pierce easily with a thin knife. After about 30 minutes, taste the pan juice. If you'd like it a bit sweeter, stir in the last spoonful of maple syrup.
Transfer the apples to a serving platter or put each apple in a bowl. The apples can be served with or without the basting liquid. If you'd like the juice to be more syrupy, pour it into a small saucepan and boil it down for a few minutes.
Serve the apples after they've cooled for 10 minutes or when they've reached room temperature. Serve with ice cream, cream, creme fraiche or yogurt if desired.
Per serving (using 2 tablespoons butter): 250 calories, 1 g protein, 46 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 45 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 37 g sugar
Yield: 4 servings