Apple Season

‘Tis the season to go apple picking! I haven’t picked apples since I was a wee little one, and now that I have a car and can travel to any of the dozens of farms in the area, I feel like I should be making up for lost time.

Truth be told, I spent the last few years not really eating apples. They’re always much more expensive than bananas, and I’d been burned by the plastic 3-pound bags at the supermarket so many times that I lost interest. However, since I moved to Connecticut and started popping into Whole Foods and the little health-oriented Edge of the Woods market in New Haven, I’ve discovered some local varieties like Macouns that made me downright excited about the approach of apple season.

In the course of researching orchards in the area, I ran across a few (lots) of articles out there about how apple picking is “stupid” or “boring” or, inexplicably, “something girls love.” These articles seem to be written primarily by college bros who probably don’t completely understand how food gets from the farm to their table, let alone how preserving works. And the point of going apple picking and bringing bags and bags of apples home is preserving a product that’s as fresh as it can possibly be. (That and it’s something to do outdoors before it gets miserable and cold.) Since I’m making an effort to eat seasonally and take advantage of local produce, I figured this would be a great educational opportunity to see what’s available to me in my backyard.

Anyway, hubs and I went on over to Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford to see what I could stock up on to enjoy now and freeze away for the winter:
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They had a great little chart that showed which apples were in season at the moment, and the applications for each of them. We picked some Ida Reds for applesauce and a couple soft-fleshed Empires and Cortlands just for the heck of it, but generally we went for crisp apples that were either great for eating raw or held their shape and taste when subjected to heat: Braeburns, Fujis, Golden Delicious, Mutsus / Crispins, and Staymans / Winesaps. All varieties I’d eaten before.

They also had this gigantic variety called Jonagolds, a mix of Golden Delicious and Jonathan that I’d never seen before. We almost completely passed over them and went back at the last minute to pick a few, just to know we’d sampled all the orchard’s varieties. By a twist of fate, the last one I plucked from the tree happened to fall on the ground, and not wanting to leave it as a complete waste, I picked it up and took a bite.

Pure. Heaven. This bruised, wounded thing was possibly the best apple I’d ever tasted. Hubs and I devoured all but the wound, and deeming them The Most Perfect Apple, we frantically filled two bags with just Jonagolds. We left the orchard with nearly 35 pounds of apples. Back at home, we sat on the porch and each had another gigantic Jonagold before surveying our spoils (which included some spiced white wine).

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You can see that maybe 40% of our apples are Jonagolds – trust me, they’re that exciting! And after some experimentation, I found that the Jonagolds were better than the Golden Delicious when it came to cooking and baking. For dessert that night, I dry sauteed Jonagolds and Golden Delicious in butter for about 10 minutes, until they softened. The G-Dels held their shape but completely lost their crunch, and I noticed they lost some taste, too; the Jonagolds held up better. Later when I stewed some G-Dels in water, they looked waterlogged and lost a lot more taste, needing some added sugar (to be fair, this was before I delved into canning and realized that sugar was a necessary evil in preserving apples in liquid). The Jonagolds, on the other hand, remain crispy and sweet. They also beat G-Dels for eating because their skin is a tad softer, as well as being a little sweeter.

Baked stuffed Mutsu apples didn’t work so well – the tops burst open and got soft, but the bottoms stayed crisp and very hard. However, I think that’s because I tried putting them in individual ramekins, so the bottom halves didn’t get proper airflow. Overall they weren’t too sweet, but perhaps I needed to let them ripen a little. They held up much better when I skinned them and canned them, and they’re definitely on my go-to list for pies and canning since they don’t break down like Macintoshes do.

I keep mentioning canning, but I don’t think it was a completely conscious decision. When I realized I had nearly 35 pounds of apples, though… well, there’s only so much you can stuff in a tiny little freezer or eat within a month. There was no better time than now to just dive right into canning. All it took was $15 at Walmart and a couple recipes. If memory serves me correctly, I mainly drew from this apple pie filling recipe.

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But first, hubs wanted to make apple strudel like he did in Home Ec in eighth grade, something he remembered as having a thin but robust (not really flaky) crust, not too sweet, and possibly more German than Austrian. We used some whole wheat flour because the higher protein content (14% versus 11.7% for the white) meant it would be more elastic and easier to roll out. I contributed the cutting of the Mutsus and Staymans, and the making of the vanilla sauce. I’m not sure if we achieved his aims, but I think I prefer mine with a less complicated dough.

The strudel was huge and nearly wiped out our Mutsus and Staymans, so I turned to Jonagolds for my big foray to canning, with delightful results.

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There it is – sanitizing bath for the cans, apple pie filling in progress, and Staymans, Jonagolds, G-Dels, and Mutsus blanching away. The most time-consuming part was cutting up all the apples. I ended up with 8 1/2 pints of apple filling, and once I figured out not to mess with the tops right after they came out of the processing bath, all my jars plinked!

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Every grandmother ever would be proud.

There were also four cups of blush-colored Ida Red applesauce floating around behind all this. Applesauce is easy, though. Apples (peeled or unpeeled), water, sugar, cinnamon stick, lemon juice, cook, stick blender.

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In the spirit of wasting as little as possible, I gave the leftover apple skins their own treatment. As I peeled I mixed them with lemon juice, lots of sugar, and apple pie spices, then baked them low and slow at 225 degrees until they curled in and became crunchy. I  moved them around every 30 minutes or so, picking out the done ones. It took a total of 2 1/2 hours to dehydrate them all – not for the faint of heart.

Note: Make sure you and your friends are allowed you to eat the apple skins. We don’t need any freakouts.

A couple weeks later, I was crazy enough to go buy more local apples from the health market and make another batch of pie filling for the freezer. And I have to say, despite all the craziness and the days spent in the kitchen, my only regret is that I didn’t start way back in September… or even in the summer when I could have caught peach season. But at least I started!