Apple Time

Farmer Victoria’s surprise gift this week of a dozen small green early apples, of unknown variety but rigorously organic and unsprayed, led me to the first apple crisp of the season. I follow an old recipe from Craig Claiborne’s original New York Times Cookbook, first published in 1961. When I worked at the Times in the 1980s–incredibly now almost 40 years ago–Craig was still a fixture, albeit a somewhat diminished one. He had been on staff, occasionally with the title of “food editor,” since 1957 and had introduced the Times to the idea of restaurant criticism with a rigorous four-star rating system. John Mariani would know better than I do, but I always considered Craig to have been the very first modern restaurant critic in American journalism. In any case, he created, encouraged, and benefited from what would become a groundswell of interest in food–all kinds of food, home cooked, chef prepared, ethnic and regional cuisines (which often mean the same thing in North America), seasonal ingredients and season-appropriate recipes. Legend at the Times had it that when it came time to collect all these recipes into a single volume, New York Times Books, the book division of the paper, was uninterested. Craig, who otherwise would have had to divide the book’s income with the paper of record, was given free rein. He took the proposal to Harper & Rowe, the erstwhile Harper and Brothers which would later morph into HarperCollins, they published it and of course Craig earned royalties–and they were splendid. Since it was first published in 1961, The New York Times Cook Book has sold nearly three million copies in all editions and it continues to sell strongly despite updated and revised editions. Craig Claiborne left his entire estate to the Culinary Institute of America, and I hope that his heirs continue to consult the book, as I and so many others do. It is still an invaluable resource, despite its age.

I cannot tell you when I first discovered the apple crisp recipe. For years I had followed Craig’s recipes as they appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine and then later, when I first lived in New York, his restaurant recommendations. At some point after the book was published, I found the recipe and I’ve been making it ever since, in New York, in Maine, in Boston, in England and France and Spain and Italy and Lebanon and Hongkong and even on the island of Cyprus.
Whenever autumn rolls around and the air grows crisp and mellow with the fragrance of woodsmoke and somewhere in all those places apples start to appear in market stalls, then I pull out a souffle dish, butter it liberally, slice up a bunch of apples, toss them with cinnamon, sugar and cloves and pile them in the dish, topping the apples with a buttery mix of flour, sugar and chopped nuts, and bake it until the kitchen is filled with the rich and heady fragrance of sweetness and spice.

I’ve made this with all kinds of apples, even once with red delicious which I do not recommend. But just about any firm, tart apple will do; best of all, as in most apple recipes, is a mixture of several varieties to give sweetness, spiciness, and a little complexity to the dish. Apple crisp is intended to be a sweet for dessert but in fact it’s almost as good–no, it’s actually better–for breakfast. Or try it the old-fashioned way Mainers have their apple pie–as a one-dish meal for supper, following a big Sunday lunch, and with a dollop of vanilla ice cream alongside.

This makes enough for six or eight servings, depending on what else is served with it.

  •             2 pounds crisp, tart apples, cored, peeled or not as you wish
  •             Butter to grease the souffle dish
  •             1 cup sugar, divided
  •             ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  •             ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  •             2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  •             ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  •             Pinch of sea salt
  •             6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
  •             ½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

Slice the apples into chunks or half-inch thick slices. If you wish, prepare them ahead of time by an hour or two, but drop the slices in a bowl of acidulated water (water in which the juice of half a lemon has been squeezed) so they don’t turn brown, then drain them just before you’re ready to put the crisp together.

Set the oven on 375º. Butter the bottom and sides of a soufflé dish big enough to hold all the apples without towering over.

In a bowl, combine the drained apple slices with just half of the sugar, plus the spices and lemon juice, and toss to mix it well. Pile the apples in the buttered souffle dish.

In another bowl, mix together the remaining sugar with the flour, salt and the butter cut in rough chunks. Using your hands rub the chilled butter into the flour mix until it’s sandy in texture. Add the chopped nuts and mix them in well. Now pile this on top of and around the apples, letting some of it drop down the inside of the soufflé dish. The apple slices should be completely covered with the flour.

Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the apples are cooked through.


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