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The Apple of the Future

IN THE KITCHEN/RUSS PARSONS

February 04, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Invited to a friend's house for a big-deal dinner, I asked what I could bring.

"How about dessert?" he asked.

Great. Visions of ga^teaux and spun sugar cages danced through my head.

"Actually," he continued, "I've been dying for a good baked apple."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 25, 1998 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 12 inches; 412 words Type of Material: Correction; Recipe
It has come to our attention that the traditional method of cooking recipes with alcohol in a closed oven may cause intense heat flashes in newer, tight-sealing ovens. For this reason, we are changing the recipe originally published Feb. 4 for Vanilla-Baked Apples With Bourbon Sauce. In the revised recipe, the bourbon is flamed before baking, dissipating the alcohol.
According to food scientist Harold McGee, "As long as there's a way for the alcohol vapor to escape gradually during baking, then you don't wind up with alcohol vapor build-up. But if the oven is really well-sealed, there is. If that happens and the electrical element happens to be cycling on so it's red-hot when you open the door, oxygen rushes in and you have the potential for a [heat] flash."
VANILLA-BAKED APPLES WITH BOURBON SAUCE
2 tablespoons chopped pecans
6 large baking apples (preferably Pink Lady or Golden Delicious)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 vanilla bean
3/4 cup bourbon
Slivered peel of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons butter
There's nothing simpler than a baked apple, no matter what variety you use. There are a couple of things to be careful about, though. First, be sure to cut a strip around the top of the apple. If you don't, as the flesh begins to swell from the cooking, the skin will crack and slip. Serve the apples with creme frai^che or vanilla ice cream.
Toast pecans in small ungreased pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Do not scorch. Remove to small mixing bowl.
While pecans are toasting, core apples to within 1/2-inch of bottom, leaving bottom intact to act as cup to hold flavorings. Trim thin band of peel from around top of each apple and place apples in large baking pan.
Add granulated and brown sugars to bowl with toasted nuts and stir to combine well. Cut vanilla bean into 6 segments and place 1 segment in center of each apple. Spoon liberal amount of sugar-nut combination in center of each apple but do not pack. Sprinkle some of mixture over top of each apple and in pan as well.
Heat bourbon in small pan until almost boiling. Remove from heat and being very careful to protect your hands and face, ignite bourbon with match. When flame dies out, set aside.
Scatter slivered lemon peel around apples and pour bourbon into pan. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees until apples are almost done, about 45 minutes. Check occasionally and add water if necessary to keep bottom of pan moist. Remove foil, increase heat to 450 degrees and bake until sharp knife inserts easily into apple, 10 to 15 minutes more.
Remove from oven and divide apples among 6 dessert plates. Remove lemon peel and, while pan is still hot, stir butter into reduced bourbon

Baked apple? I didn't know whether to be insulted or amused. A baked apple? Could there be anything simpler? It's what the British call a "nursery pudding."

Still, a request is a request, and at least I didn't need to get the kitchen too dirty. I searched the cabinets for something to make the apple a little more interesting and found some bourbon (always on hand, strictly for culinary uses, you know) and pecans. These two ingredients have a remarkable affinity for each other, particularly once the pecans have been toasted and picked up some smokiness.

But the biggest factor in the dish's success was not what I added but the fruit itself. It may be that no one will ever build a better mousetrap, but an apple is an entirely different matter.

In a previous column, I wrote about my experiment making applesauce from a couple dozen apple varieties. No sooner was it printed than I started hearing about a new variety called the Pink Lady.

The apple is still hard to find, but it's going to be growing in importance over the next couple of years. There were 25,000 pounds harvested in California in 1995. For this harvest--its first real commercial production--there are between 450,000 and 500,000 pounds. Next year there will be about 900,000 pounds--more than the Red Delicious.

Though it is named after a particularly cloying bar drink (would you believe grenadine, gin and half-and-half?), this is one grown-up apple. The Pink Lady is a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Lady Williams, which is a Granny Smith cross. It has the sweetness and spiciness of the Delicious along with the cider-like tang and crisp texture of a Granny. The result is a wine-like flavor almost like a really fresh sparkling cider.

But the point of my testing was how different apples cooked. I made applesauce from a Pink Lady (a pound of peeled, cored, sliced apples, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water). Or, rather, I tried to make applesauce from it. This apple is so firm it makes the Granny Smith look like a sponge. It cooked and cooked and never lost shape, even though it softened and sweetened up nicely.

This makes it inappropriate for applesauce but exactly the apple for baking. Different people look for different things in a baked apple. A couple of years ago, Cook's Illustrated did one of its definitive "The Best Baked Apple" stories and determined that a Baldwin, a Cortland, an Ida Red and a Northern Spy were the best apples for baking because of their soft, melting texture.

Besides the fact that none of these apples is available commercially on the West Coast (the magazine points out that they're scarce even in New England), soft and melting is not what I'm looking for in a baked apple. I want an apple with some backbone, an apple that still has some character.

That should mean a Granny Smith. But while Grannies do make an acceptable baked apple (though not according to Cook's Illustrated), they'll never make a great baked apple. Their flavor is simply too simple. After cooking, it has one note, and that is tangy.

For that reason, my favorite baking apple until now has been a Golden Delicious (of which Cook's Illustrated also approves). It's a little soft, but it has a rich buttery flavor with an interesting spice.

Now comes the Pink Lady, an apple that is tart and sweet and spicy. An apple that is firm and holds its shape when cooked. Though neither of its parents is perfect, this kid may have it all.

VANILLA-BAKED APPLES WITH BOURBON SAUCE

2 tablespoons chopped pecans

6 large baking apples (preferably Pink Lady or Golden Delicious)

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1 vanilla bean

Slivered peel of 1/2 lemon

3/4 cup bourbon, plus extra if needed

2 tablespoons butter

There's nothing simpler than a baked apple, no matter what variety you use. There are a couple of things to be careful about, though. First, be sure to cut a strip around the top of the apple. If you don't, as the flesh begins to swell from the cooking, the skin will crack and slip. Also, don't let the bourbon run dry (a good motto on any occasion). If it scorches, it will ruin the flavor of the sauce.

Serve the apples with creme frai^che or vanilla ice cream.

Toast pecans in small ungreased pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Do not scorch. Remove to small mixing bowl.

While pecans are toasting, core apples to within 1/2-inch of bottom, leaving bottom intact to act as cup to hold flavorings. Trim thin band of peel from around top of each apple and place apples in large baking pan.

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