I saw a basket of Empire apples at Oliver’s Market the other day, and it took me right back to a day in 1973 when I visited the Geneva Agricultural Research Station in upstate New York to interview Dr. Roger Way.
Dr. Way had recently hybridized Red Delicious and McIntosh apples — a cross that produced a superior apple that he called Empire (after New York, “the Empire State”), and was just being introduced into commerce. I was there to write an article about this remarkable apple.
Red Delicious is a pretty apple with a dark red color but inferior flavor. McIntosh has a tough skin and a unique flavor that many people find tiresome if that’s the only apple available (which it was for many years, especially in the Northeast). Empire, on the other hand, combines Red Delicious’ great color with an appealing flavor described as “rose hip tea with a teaspoon of honey.”
I bought an Empire to eat on the drive home, and that description is perfect. Here’s to Roger Way, wherever you are!
We are now in prime apple season, when the fruits are young and crisp and tart, before they turn soft and mellow and mealy.
Apple season starts early in Sonoma County, when the Gravensteins arrive in late July and early August. But it’s now, when the nights turn cold, that the best apples show up. I’m talking about the Cortlands, Braeburns, Jonathans, Jonagolds and, of course, the Honey Crisp.
Honey Crisp has become an enormously popular apple since its introduction in 1991. Its juice-laden cells are much larger than most apples’, and so its sweet juice spills into the mouth with each bite. Each bite is shaped like a flake struck off a chunk of flint. The juice is moderately tart, and not particularly complex, although it is very sweet.
If you like Honey Crisp, you’ll really like Jazz, a cross between Royal Gala and Braeburn. Jazz was hybridized in New Zealand and introduced in 2000. Although its texture isn’t as much flaky fun as Honey Crisp, its flavor is more complex and truly exceptional, like tart cider enhanced by overtones of ripe pear.
No apple has a more gorgeous flavor than Cox’s Orange Pippin, which is successfully grown in the Pacific Northwest, although it’s most at home in New England and its native England, where it’s that country’s favorite apple. I have occasionally found it locally, although you’ll have to search hard.
Here’s how Rowan Jacobsen, author of “Apples of Uncommon Character” (a great book), describes its flavor: “Think ambrosia salad — pineapple, oranges, marshmallow, and coconut — with lime squeezed over the top and a sprinkle of rose petals. Cox rarely loses a taste contest.”
He notes that many attempts to transfer Cox’s inimitable flavor into hybrids have been made, but none have paid off.
As he writes, “its grandchildren include Gala, which is to Cox as Drew Barrymore is to John Barrymore.”
All the aforementioned apples are fine for eating out of hand, but which varieties (available to us here on the West Coast) are best for baking?
That means they hold their shape instead of turning to apple mush, and they retain that sweet-tart flavor that makes apples so perfect for mid-fall desserts.
I have made superior apple pie from Honey Crisps, which for some reason survive their time in a hot oven just fine, and their sweet juice caramelizes beautifully. Others ideal for baking include Jonagold, Braeburn, Pink Lady, and, for a green apple with extra tartness, Granny Smith.
They are not easy to find around here, but if you do run across Calville Blanc, a variety that originated in Normandy, France, it is the sine qua non of apples for a true Tarte Tatin.
However, here we are in Northern California, and our true apple dish is good old-fashioned American apple pie.
I have used the following recipe with Honey Crisp apples many times with great success, but try another apple if you’re adventurous.
There is a store between Forestville and Sebastopol called Mom’s Apple Pie. It used to be surrounded by Gravenstein apple orchards that supplied the year’s first fresh apples to all of America, but the bottom fell out of the market because of controlled atmosphere storage in Washington State.
However, Mom’s Apple Pie remains and the pies are as good as ever.
Here’s how to make one yourself.
All-American Apple Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie
Double pie crust
6 medium Honey Crisp apples
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons salted butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon white sugar-cinnamon mix
Quarter, peel, and core the apples and cut the pieces in half to make eight slices. Place the slices in a bowl.
Combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg and add them to the bowl. Toss the apple slices gently with the dry ingredients until they are evenly coated.
Line a 9-inch pie pan with one of the pie crusts. Place the apple mixture in the shell and sprinkle it with the lemon juice, then dot the top with the butter.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Place the second pie crust on top and trim excess. Brush the top crust with milk. Squish the top and bottom crusts together along the rim of the pie pan with the back of a fork.
Very lightly sprinkle the top of the crust with a tablespoon of cinnamon and white sugar mixed 5-50.
Prick the top pie crust in five places with a fork. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the oven rack to catch any drips.
Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the juices are running.
Jeff Cox is Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.