By Kathy Gunst
Created Sep 26 2007 - 2:04pm
This past weekend was the kind of weekend that makes New England famous. Warm, intense sun, cool breezes, and a sky so blue and clear it doesn't look quite real. The leaves are just beginning to turn and seeing one or two branches blazing with maroon and orange paints a pretty picture. One of my favorite fruit farms is open for picking, offering the last of the summer peaches and ten types of apples, so we pack into the car and drive north.
The fields surrounding the farm have all been hayed and those wonderful cylindrical rolls are still left out drying on the parched earth. There's been no rain again for over two weeks and the world is looking dry.
The fruit farm is nearly empty in the early afternoon and we march up to the counter like little kids about to pick as much candy as they want. Just the idea of picking fresh fruit off a tree gives me a thrill. But when the young woman at the counter tells us the last of the peaches has been picked clean just an hour before my heart falls. My friend has come to visit from New York and I promised her a peach picking expedition. The young woman tells us we can walk through the orchard and try our luck. I'm feeling optimistic. We manage to fill a small bag with the last of the peaches, but the pickings are slim. There are still some hearty Harrow Beauty's and several tenacious Madison's. But to breathe in just a little of that sweet nectar, and pick some of those fuzzy, ripe orange peaches, makes the trip worth it.
As we're leaving the peach orchard we see all kinds of excitement under the apple trees. A family of four pulls a bright red wagon brimming with apples. The kids munch away, juice dripping down their chins. It's hard to remember that really fresh apples have that kind of juice. Seems they dry up awfully quickly, but there was the proof. One little girl's white dress, adorned with hand embroidered roses, has a zig zag line running down the middle from apple juice stains. She looks happy. Damn the dress.
We stroll through rows of apple trees, reading the names of the different varieties out loud like a stanza from a poem: "Mutsu, Empire, Jonagold, Ginger Gold, Northern Spy, Ida Red, Cortland, Macoun." Then we discover the Honey Crisp trees, the featured apple of the week. They are huge, the size of small grapefruits, green with gorgeous red streaks. These apples have so much crunch that it's not an exaggeration to say it's a noisy experience biting into one. Serious snap. I'm not sure they are the ones I want to pick (my latest obsession is with green, slightly spicy apples called "Ginger Golds"), but one bite of the Honey Crisp's and I'm hooked. They drip a sweet elixir that tastes like it's been laced with freshly ground cinnamon. So we pick and we pick. And we eat and we eat and we laugh hard and have the kind of day that keeps best friends best friends.
Driving home we talk about pies and tarts, apple cakes and apple strudels. But we decide we wanted to make applesauce in an attempt to capture the apple's honey-like juice and preserve it well into winter.
Meanwhile my oldest daughter and a close friend of hers came home from college for the weekend. We enlist their help first thing the next morning. (Well, first thing in the morning for a college kid home for the weekend is around noon.) Well rested, they peel with a vengeance and before I know it there are 20 pounds of peeled apples on the table. They bite into the apples and scream: "How can an apple be this sweet and juicy?" I think about the little girl with the white stained dress. I think about how my daughter is turning twenty the next day and how she was that little girl just a mega second ago. I think about how time plays strange tricks on us all.
My daughter has a German friend and her German vocabulary includes the word "apfelmus," meaning applesauce. As she peels she chants: "let's make apfelmus." Soon we are all laughing and saying the word apfelmus as much as possible.
But when I suggest to my daughter and our friends that we roast the applesauce instead of doing the traditional long simmer, they look at me the way my dog does when I say something that really confuses her. With a cock of the head, and an expression that translates to: "Not sure I heard you right? Did you say roast applesauce?"
But I explain that I'd done some experimenting last fall and that roasting apples is a terrific, undiscovered technique. "All we do is peel the apples, toss them with some spices and a touch of sugar and they caramelize and kind of melt down on their own. Then you simply mash them with a potato masher when they come out of the oven all hot and gooey and you have instant applesauce." At this point their expression changes: it now says "You must be a genius or something!" We pull out my biggest roasting pan, toss the apples with ground cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, a touch of allspice, maple syrup, and sugar. We put the apples into the hot oven and walk away. We go outside and walk through the woods. When we get back the kitchen smells like a clich` of fall - all crisp and full of apples. You can practically imagine a thick sweater and a roaring fire and everyone feeling happy eating this applesauce. I take the pan out of the oven and lightly mash the apples and then we taste it.
My daughter starts chanting, "This is the best apfelmus I've ever tasted," and her friend repeats over and over "Mmmm, apfelmus." We put some of the apfelmus into jars and some of it into bags for the freezer and go back outside to watch the leaves do their color dance. It's been a good day, a very good day.
Go apple picking and pick as many apples as you like. You can use one variety or mix and match with several varieties. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Place the apples in a large roasting pan and mix with maple syrup (about ¼ cup for every two pounds). Sprinkle on a dash of the following spices (about a dash per pound): cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, and ground ginger. Mix well, sprinkle on about 1/8 cup sugar for every two pounds. Place the roasting pan on the middle shelf in the preheated oven and cover with foil. Let roast 30 minutes. Gently stir after 30 minutes. Uncover and roast another 30 to 45 minutes or until the apples are very tender and just starting to fall apart and burst. Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before using a potato masher to gently mash the apples to the consistency you like your applesauce: thick and chunky or smooth. Taste for seasoning and add more sugar or spice if needed. Place in a bowl or covered jar and refrigerate for up to 5 to 7 days, or place in freezer bags, seal tightly, and freeze for 6 months.
For information about finding an apple orchard near you contact the Maine Dept. of Agriculture Food and Rural Resources, 28 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0028 and ask for a copy of their publication "Finding Maine Food and Farms."