In Season: Apples

Sometimes in life it’s better to be uninformed. The lack of knowledge allows us the freedom to make decisions differently than we might make otherwise. Sometimes these decisions have disastrous results, sometimes they have serendipitous results. Such was the case when I decided to make this recipe for apple pie bars. I only glanced at the recipe as I was wooed by the title and the picture, but I assumed it would be a simpler version of apple pie…in a bar form. Generally, bar recipes are easier and less time consuming (think brownies and blondies). I was also drawn to this recipe because bars are portable and bite-sized. I could have apple pie without the fuss and this sounded like the perfect recipe for that, I thought. Well, not so fast, sister.

The bad news. My biggest gripe about the recipe is that the alleged preparation time is one hour. Unless you are an octopus or have a flying monkey for an assistant, I have no idea how you can prepare the recipe in one hour. In fact, as the clock was ticking by, I became rattled and turned into a crazy person. I was racing around my kitchen, trying to beat the clock, just so I could reassure myself that I do know what I’m doing in the kitchen. It looked like a baking crime scene when it was all said and done. I would say allow a good hour and a half or more to get the recipe together.

Now, the good news. If you are looking for a different take on apple pie and you have the time, inclination and low enough cholesterol level, and decide to make these apple pie bars, you will be rewarded. Imagine your house smelling like heaven. Because, as you know, if there is a heaven, it smells like still warm, baked apple pie.

But that’s not all. Despite the fact that there are close to seven sticks of butter in the recipe (but just don’t think about that, okay?), the apple pie bars aren’t particularly rich or heavy, yet a little goes a long way. The serving size is two-inch squares, which is the perfect size for a snack or dessert, especially with a tiny scoop of, say, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams salty caramel flavor. I used a pan smaller than the one called for in the recipe, but I still got 40 bars from the pan. From that I gave nice little gifts to three neighbors, two small gifts to friends and Todd and I enjoyed them for dessert on two separate nights (and one of those nights we had a guest over to have dinner). Pretty good haul if you think about it. I think the bars are also a genius idea for a get together. I like the fact, too, that they will last for four days at room temperature in an air tight container or they can be frozen for up to a month. Give some away, enjoy some for a few days and save some to munch on over the month. A win-win situation, really.

The recipe calls for using boring Granny Smith apples. I used a mix of four varieties: Eastern, Gala, Granny Smith and Stayman. The three varieties other than the Granny Smith are fairly sweet. I think using all Granny Smith apples would have made the apple mixture lean toward the tart side, especially since the recipe does not include much sugar to sweeten the apples.

By the way, do you know how many varieties of apples there are in the United States or the world? Me either, until now. According to my always-accurate Google research, there are approximately 2,500 varieties grown in the U.S. and approximately 7,500 varieties of apples grown world-wide. 2,500 and 7,500, respectively, people. That is a lot of damn apple varieties. However, sadly, only 100 varieties are grown commercially and one of the “best” that is grown is Granny Smiths? What the heck? If, purportedly, 100 varieties are grown commercially, why, then, do we rarely ever see more than about five or so varieties at the grocery store and maybe only 10-15 at the orchards? Where are all of these apples? Seriously, where are they? I want to know. I’m talking to you, Mr. Commercial Apple Grower.

Sorry about that. Back to cooking notes. The shortbread dough for the crust was stickier than other shortbread doughs I’ve made, so I put it in the refrigerator for about fifteen minutes prior to baking. I baked the crust in a 375 degree convection oven. Oops. Evidently the crazy person who happened to look like me and who was doing the baking forgot that when using convection the temperature should be adjusted down, usually about 25 degrees. Thankfully, sanity returned and I cooked the crust for only 17 minutes, instead of the full 20 minutes. Everything was alright, although maybe slightly overbaked. The fact that the dough was a bit thicker due to the smaller pan size probably worked in my favor here, too. For the topping, I substituted pecans for the walnuts. There was about a cup or so of leftover topping, which was due in part to the smaller pan size, but other reviewers commented on having leftover topping as well. I’m figuring out a use for it, though, don’t you worry. I’m not letting butter, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts go to waste. No way.

So, despite my whining about the time investment, and my momentary lapse in sanity at times while making these, I think the recipe is worth the effort. Of course, now you’re fully informed, so who knows what might happen when you make them. Let me know…and let me know if you know where all those apples are.

In Season: Figs

August 29, 2012.

It’s true. I have a thing for figs. Fresh, just-picked-from-the-tree figs, that is, not those scary black dried things found in the bulk food section of the grocery store. So many varieties, so much versatility. Black Mission, Blue Celeste, Brown Turkish, Desert King, Naples White, Papa John, Tiger and the list goes on. I’m always amazed when I encounter people who either don’t like figs or, if you can believe this, have never tried a fig. How is that possible?

Over here at Sugar Talk I’m supposed to post only about all things pastry and sweets, but with figs I am going to break this rule. They can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner or as a snack or dessert. The fewest of accoutrements and there you go. Figs are also perfect just on their own. They don’t have to be gussied up to be eaten. I’m hard pressed to think of other fruits that may be used in so many ways. It’s little wonder that figs ran a close second to apples in the garden of Eden.

To make one of my favorite breakfasts during fig season, I take Greek yogurt and top it with Michele’s granola (handmade in small batches in nearby Baltimore), layer on a couple of cut figs and finish it with a drizzle of honey. Healthy and delicious.

I think another lovely combination could involve cooked steel-cut oatmeal, a bit of warm milk or cream, figs and honey. Or maybe I will finally try my hand at making preserves – I’m thinking warm toast with homemade fig jam. People with fig trees are usually always willing to unload their surplus, and this drunken fig jam recipe sounds delightful. Just the thing to do with an extra supply of figs. And really, who doesn’t like a little kick of Cognac in the morning with his or her toast?  I can also envision giving adorable half-pint jars of this jam as a gift, or serving it along side a cheese plate.

At lunch time, figs seem to easily find their way into salads. This salad recipe that includes figs stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon certainly sounds decadent. Or how about a salad that includes flash-pickled figs? Decisions, decisions.

Moving around the clock into the afternoon snack territory, I’ve partaken in more than a few figs that I’ve quartered and then topped with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraîche and drizzled with honey. If the clock has moved a little farther along, try goat cheese or blue cheese instead, add a few dashes of freshly ground pepper, and now you have a quick and easy, yet sophisticated, snack to enjoy with cocktails.

Time for dinner? Figs are in season in the summer and summer means grilling. So, how about grilled pork chops served with pickled figs in balsamic vinegar? (I’m really into pickling right now, in case you’re noticing a theme here.) Or hey, this is different – fish grilled in fig leaves. You could also add some figs to your favorite type of skewer (I’m thinking lamb and fig would be a dynamite combination and this kebab recipe from The New York Times should convince you that I’m right) or just grill some and have them as a side dish. With a little imagination or a quick search of your favorite food web sites, you might be surprised by how figs can make your dinner meal more interesting.

And now, let’s face it, what you’ve been waiting for…dessert! I think figs get overlooked when it comes to summer desserts, or any desserts for that matter. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are maligned, but they seem to be ignored, at best. Think about a time recently when you were at a restaurant and figs were included on the dessert menu. Or have you seen lately any fig dessert recipes in any of the popular food magazines? Me either. I don’t understand why this is because the semi-sweet, somewhat juicy, somewhat syrupy nature of figs make them a perfect ingredient. In fact, this perfection means it doesn’t take much to create a winsome dessert to share with friends after an evening meal al fresco, which I did here. There are many ways that figs may be used in dessert (I’m talking to you, fancy restaurant pastry chefs), but I’ve found that putting them in a crostata is one of the best ways. The crostata dough serves, really, as just a vessel for the figs. In this honeyed-thyme figs version, the figs get to do their thing. They aren’t overlooked, people aren’t ignoring them. They finally get to be the star of the show. Finally.

In Season: Berries and Peaches

July 31, 2012.

Many things are the embodiment of summer to me, so it’s difficult to say this fruit or that vegetable is my favorite one of the summer. But ranked closely behind a perfectly ripe juicy tomato are perfectly ripe juicy berries and run-down-my-arm juicy peaches that I can smell a room away. Don’t you agree? And right now, those berries and peaches are in season and just waiting to be the main ingredient in cobblers, crumbles, pies, cakes, muffins, you name it.

I could barely get home the pint of blueberries I picked up from Phil at his Willow Branch Farm’s stand at the St. Michaels farmer’s market because my hand kept reaching into the container for just…one…more. These blueberries actually tasted like blueberries, the blueberries I remember from the u-pick place in Indiana my mom and I would go to. It had been a very long time since I had a blueberry that tasted like that. With these beauties from Phil, I naturally thought, “Muffins!” I upgraded this blueberry muffin recipe from the Williams-Sonoma Muffins cookbook by tossing in blackberries I got from him as well. Nothing fancy or complicated, but they sure tasted like a homemade berry muffin should and my friend Jeannie smiled ear-to-ear when I dropped off at her house some still warm ones. Frozen and subsequently reheated, they were still a delight. My only complaint about the recipe is I wish the crumbly topping and the muffin itself had browned a bit more. I think the added crunch would have made a nice difference. Maybe increase the heat slightly next time or bake them on a higher shelf? Either way, I think the recipe is a good basic one that would perform well if you experimented with other berries or fruits.

With the local Caroline County peaches I picked up, I wanted to bake something out of the ordinary – no peach pie, no peach cobbler, no peach Melba. All delicious, to be sure, but I wanted to make something different, and it needed to be special in its own way. As it turns out, I had been asked to make the birthday cake for the 15th birthday celebration at the St. Michaels farmers’ market. My friend Cathy had given me the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook by The Fabulous Beekman Boys and I thought, “Ah ha!” Really, who better to come up with a unique twist on using peaches in a dessert than two gay gentleman who have parlayed restoring an historic farm estate in upstate New York into a wildly successful television series, a line of goat milk soaps, cheese products and a cookbook? Turns out my instinct was right on. Buttery Peach Cake, anyone? This cake is right up my baking alley: old-fashioned, uncomplicated and seasonal. It’s an interesting cake, too, as the peaches go on the bottom and the batter goes on top.The cake itself is moist (and buttery!) and the ginger and cardamom spices on the peach slices are an unexpected treat for the tastebuds.

The review. First off, patrons of the farmers’ market were offered little bites of the cake and most of the comments I heard sounded like “Delicious!” or “Yum!” or “Different!” Phew. I really didn’t want to be remembered as the volunteer who brought a crappy birthday cake to the market’s well-attended 15th birthday celebration. Second, this cake scales very well (I made two cakes – one a single recipe and one a double recipe). Third, although not complicated, it’s a bit time consuming given steps like first blanching the peaches in hot water to help remove the skins. Fourth, the cake (even the single recipe), took close to an hour or so to bake – almost double the time indicated in the recipe – and I had to cover it about halfway through to avoid overbrowning the top. (And about that, don’t make the mistake I did and get impatient and take off the foil to check it while it’s still baking. Let’s just say that in lieu of a cake skin graft, strategically placed homemade whipped cream provided the necessary cover and distraction.) Finally, the Beekman Boys suggest eating the cake right from the pan once it’s cooled (I love the mental picture of a bunch of friends just sitting around after dinner, forks in hand, snarfing away on this cake), but I made it a day in advance, refrigerated it, then let it come to room temperature before serving and it still got rave reviews.

Whether you’re inspired by these recipes or some of your own, now’s the time to enjoy fresh, local berries and peaches. But, hurry, before they’re gone.