Saturday, October 27, 2012

Apples, Equipment and Crisps, Oh My!

With the Autumn apple harvest still underway you can find a myriad of apples at your local grocer.  And with some simple equipment you can quickly be making a number of homemade apple delights.

Apple Selection

What type of apple should you choose when baking or cooking?  I know you can find elaborate charts naming every type of apple under the sun, with this one preferred for this recipe and that one for yet another.  But can you really remember all of those options when shopping?  I use one simple rule.  When baking apples for dessert, like pies and crisps, I choose a 50/50 combination of Granny Smith and Cortland.  When I can't get Cortland I substitute Fuji.

Granny Smiths are crisp and quite sour. They're a good all-purpose cooking apple, and their flavor is enhanced when paired with sweeter, spicier apples in pies and crisps.  Cortlands are juicy and slightly tart, with bright red skin and snowy white flesh. They are a terrific baking apple when combined with Granny Smith. And if you buy too many, Cortlands are a great on a fruit and cheese plate, as the flesh doesn't brown and discolor quickly when sliced.  The Fuji was developed in Japan by crossing Red Delicious apples and Ralls Janet, an antique apple cultivated by Thomas Jefferson in 1793. Though not the best choice for baking, Fuji apples' spicy, crisp sweetness makes them excellent for for applesauce and as a substitute for Cortland in pies and crisps.


One of the reasons I most often hear for not making simple apple crisps is the peeling, coring and slicing of the apples.  If you make a full size baking dish (typically 11" x 7" in the USA), you'll need about 8-9 large apples.  If it's Thanksgiving and you're having a house full, you'll need even more!  For this task I do not peel the apples by hand.  Instead I use this tool I found while shopping in Amish country in Ohio.  You can find them online and at many local stores now. Just search for Apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer and you'll find many options.  I paid about $15 for mine and it's heavy duty cast iron and the base is painted green.  I wouldn't spend much more for anything high-tech and made of stainless steel or powered electrically.  The old design works great, has a counter suction cup and peels, cores and slices the apple quickly and easily by a few turns of the crank.  If, on the other hand, you are making homemade apple sauce, while you can rely on this device, I  prefer the KitchenAid  Fruit/Vegetable strainer which attaches to their stand mixer.  By using this device, you can cook the apples with skin and cores, which gives you additional flavor.  You place the cooked apples into the device and out one side comes the delicious apple sauce and out the other comes your seeds, peels and other solids.

Apple Crisp

I was looking back through all of my former posts thinking surely I had made apple crisp.  I've made other more exotic crisps, but never posted about the old fashioned family favorite, apple crisp.  So with the above in mind, today I'm going to share my apple crisp recipe and technique.  You may already have your own and I'm sure it's good so I hope you will pick up a little something of value from this posting.

Pre-Cook the Apples  

Now you may be thinking this seems like a waste of a first step, but I do think it is the key to having apples cooked to perfection.   I want apple slices that retain their structure as they bake, fully softening so that there is just the tiniest bit of crispness remaining, and remaining firm enough that an individual slice retains its initial shape. A splash of lemon juice helps to set the pectin in apples, which helps them retain their shape and this is why most recipes call for lemon juice.  But it's not enough to do the job  For this I typically use my microwave, tossing the apples with their usual starch, cinnamon and a little sugar, then cooking them on high for about 10 minutes in a glass bowl, stirring the ingredients gently once or twice while cooking.  This will help the pectin to fully set and then during regular baking they will not lose their structure.  Further if you've pressed the pre-cooked apples down into your baking dish, they will also not collapse further leaving you with a half dish of crisp or worse, a hollow dome on your apple pie.

Yield:  The below recipe is for a 8-inch square baking dish, serving 4-6 persons.  Double the recipe for a 11 x 7 inch baking dish.


4 large cooking apples, sliced (4 cups)
3 tablespoons flour or 2 of cornstarch (more if the apples are very juicy)
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
juice from half of fresh lemon
dash of cinnamon

3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup butter, direct from refrigerator
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Serve with cream or ice cream, if desired


Peel, core and slice your apples.  Heat oven to 350F degrees. Grease or spray with food release the bottom and sides of 8-inch square pan.  Toss the sliced apples with the remaining filling ingredients.  Microwave for 10 minutes, stirring gently 2-3 times during cooking.  Remove and let cool to room temperature.  If the apples have release significant quantities of juice, toss with a bit more cornstarch before proceeding to the next step.

In medium bowl, toss together the topping ingredients except for the nuts coating the butter pieces very well.  Using a hard bladed (not wire) pastry blender/knife, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it forms small pieces.  Stir in the chopped walnuts if using. If using whole walnuts as I often have on hand, simply use the pastry blender to chop the walnuts right into the topping mixture.

Spread the microwaved apples in the baking dish and sprinkle crumb topping over apples.  Sprinkle a bit more cinnamon on top for color.

Bake about 45 minutes or until topping is golden brown and apple mixture is bubbling. Serve warm or at room temperature with cream or ice cream, if desired.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Caramel Apple Breakfast Loaf

These are the flavors of fall when you live in the north.  The trees are in their Autumn splendor, leaves crunch under foot, and apples dipped in caramel sauce demand to be eaten.  I love the flavors of fall and I noticed this pastry when my sister pinned it to her Pinterest board.

I viewed a number of recipes to come up with this variety, which I think is particularly good for breakfast.  You'll find similar recipes for apple bread, caramel apple dessert cakes and similar coffee cake recipes.

If you you like a more dense moist bread like I do, use three apples in the recipe. If you want a more coffee-cake like texture, reduce the apples to two. In any case, ensure that you use a mix of good baking apples.  I used one Granny Smith and two Fuji, as these bake up very nicely.



2-3 large baking apples
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg


2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted


Heat oven to 350°F. Grease bottoms only of two loaf pans with cooking spray or shortening. Peel and core the apples and shred on a box grater.  In large bowl, stir together the shredded apples, brown sugar, buttermilk, oil and eggs. Stir in remaining cake ingredients until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour into loaf pans.

Bake 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Place paper towels under the cooking racks.  Cool cakes in pans on racks for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pans to loosen the loaves; remove from pans and place directly on cooling rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour.

In small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly; reduce heat to low. Boil and stir two minutes. Stir in buttermilk. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Cool about 15 minutes.  If mixture is too thick, thin with a little buttermilk. Gradually stir powdered sugar into glaze mixture and let cool completely. Beat with spoon until smooth and thin enough to drizzle. If glaze becomes too stiff, stir in additional buttermilk or heat over low heat, stirring constantly. Drizzle glaze over cakes.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lisbon, Great Seafood and Egg Custard Tarts

Another birthday finds me in Europe, and no nicer spot could you find to host a little celebration than Lisbon.  This small country's population (about 10 million) is clustered around its two major cities, Lisbon and Oporto.  On my last trip to Portugal I was in Oporto and wrote to you about the fine port wine in city named for its golden river.  But today I'm in the capital city and here you have the best selections of food prepared by some of the worlds best chefs using ingredients from around the world.

Fresh market in Lisbon
If you paid attention in world history, you will recall the Portuguese were quite a colonial power in their day with ships traveling to the far reaches of the planet bringing home spices and foods of all types.  Combine that with occupations of this land by Celts, the Roman Republic, Germanic invasions and, in the 8th century Moorish invaders, you find a country whose cuisine is truly international. 

Food is often seasoned with small, fiery chili peppers (piri piri), black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavouring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs like coriander and parsley. Breakfast is usually just coffee or milk and a roll with butter, jam, cheese or ham. Lunch, often lasting over an hour is served between noon and three o'clock, and dinner is generally served late, beginning not before eight o'clock in the evening.  Is it any wonder breakfast is a very light affair?

The famous Portuguese tile work is notable.
Portugal is the westernmost country of mainland Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West giving miles of beautiful shoreline and access to fresh seafood.  As such, seafood seemed to be featured on many menus in Lisbon, with salted cod (bacalhau) being very popular.  I'm told by my local hosts that each region has its own bacalhau recipe.

On the meat front, pork is the most popular, with preparations from roast suckling pig to carne de porco à Alentajana, which consists of pork marinated in wine and garnished with clams.  Very tasty!  Of course grilled chicken seasoned with piri piri is always popular as is a hotpot of beef, sausages, potatoes, vegetables and rice known as cozido à Portuguesa. 

Many of the desserts in Portugal are egg-based, often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The most typical desserts are rice pudding with cinnamon, caramel custard (flan), and the ever-popular pastel de nata, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon. It is believed that these tarts were created before by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, in Lisbon: for this reason, they are alternately known in Lisbon as Pastéis de Belém.  Anywhere the Portuguese colonized, these little tarts became and remain popular!

Pastéis de Nata
When dining out understand that many of their dessert creations have names like barriga de freira (nun's belly), papos de anjo (angel's chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven), as they were invented by nuns and priests during the Middle Ages.  So don't expect a direct menu translation from your iPhone!

View of Lisbon Facing the Sea
If you haven't been to Lisbon or anywhere in Portugal, I would highly recommend it.  It is a popular destination with British tourists so its easy to get along with only English as your language.  If you speak some Spanish, all the better.  Prices are generally lower than most of the rest of Europe, the people are friendly, there are many tourist activities and the food/wine are sublime.  Add to that a seaside destination and one of the sunniest spots in Europe, and you have the makings of a perfect destination for your next trip!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Oktoberfest and Pork Chops in Beer Bacon Gravy

It all began with a royal wedding in 1810, and with annual celebrations thereafter, the German's have created the largest festival in the world.  I had the pleasure of being in Munich for Oktoberfest recently and had such a wonderful time in lovely Bavaria.  This year marks the 179th celebration and if you ever get a chance to attend, I strongly recommend it.

The region itself is beautiful with many castles and palaces and much natural splendor to behold.  If you go in September you not only get great Autumn color you'll catch the famed festival where beer, bratwurst and pretzels are all available in quantity.  When making your plans, remember that Oktoberfest typically ends the first Sunday in October lasting only 16 days.  So expect a crowd in the region and pack your lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders).  Our German friends from the north said no one wears them anymore, but to their surprise and our delight, there were many folks (Germans and tourists alike) dressed in traditional garb.

At the festival they have specialty tents for various interest groups, and accordingly we were in the LGBT tent (above).  That's a band on a platform high above the crowd in a very large tent.  And they have dozens of these tents filled to capacity each day of Oktoberfest.  The music in each tent varies to match the interests of the crowd, but from what I could make out they all eventually swing around to the famous German drinking songs and everyone is standing up on the benches swinging their huge beer steins back and forth singing the songs.

Octoberfest hearts are one of the most popular traditions among all age groups at the Oktoberfest in Munich.  They are as much a part of the celebrations as the specially brewed Wiesn beer, or the traditional halbe Hendl - a spit roasted buttered chicken.  Millions of the famous heart shaped gingerbread cookies are sold every year from the over 100 Oktoberfest gingerbread cookie stalls scattered around the festival grounds.  They are actually baked relatively hard so they can be worn around the neck to announce to all that you are loved (and for others to keep their hands off!)

So when the colors turn lovely here in Chicago, I'm reminded of my wonderful time in Bavaria and get a taste for their food and drink (beer of course, which they consume in record amounts.)  So today I'm fixing this dish that combines favorite flavors of the region.  It's also quick and easy to prepare and comes out perfect every time, so don't hesitate in making on a week night.

Pork Chops in Beer Bacon Gravy


2-4 bone-in pork chops, 1-inch thick or a bit more

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus a few drops more if needed
3 thick slices bacon, diced 1/2-inch
1 medium onion, diced 1/4-inch
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 bottle amber to dark German beer
1/2 cup stock


Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.  Season the meat with salt and pepper on both sides.  On one side sprinkle lightly with a dash of sugar.  Heat the oil in an oven-proof skillet over high heat. When the oil smokes, add the pork chops sugared side down and cook for 3-5 minutes until well browned.  Turn once and brown the other side for 3 minutes more. The chops should be brown on the outside and uncooked in the center at this stage.  Remove to a platter and set aside.

Add a bit more oil to the pan if necessary and add bacon and brown for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the onions and saute over medium heat with the bacon until soft, about 5 minutes more. Sprinkle in flour, stir for 1 minute, then add the beer. Cook until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes more, then whisk in the stock.  Adjust the thickness of the gravy as necessary by adding more liquid or by adding more starch (flour and water well mixed before adding to the skillet.)  Return the chops to the skillet with the gravy and spoon over the chops.  Cover and place in the oven for 15 minutes while you prepare your other side dishes, which ideally should include mashed potatoes to take advantage of the delicious beer bacon gravy.