Apples have a bit of a rep for being the Tom Hanks of fruit. Everyone likes them, but they aren’t exactly exotic.
Not so, says author, foodie and senior lifestyle editor at Yankee Magazine Amy Traverso who quite literally wrote the book on cooking with apples. From Adam and Eve to the apple-grafting Greeks, apples are in fact infinitely fascinating — even exotic — in Traverso’s social history-slash-cookbook The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. Her collection is a treasure trove of all things buttery, baked, sliced, grilled and pureed including delights like an Apple and Mustard Grilled Cheese Sandwich; Bread and Butter Apple Pickles; Crepes Filled with Caramelized Apples and Served with Maple Crème Fraîche and a recipe for an Apple-Pear Cobbler with Lemon-Cornmeal Biscuits (below) Traverso was kind enough to share with HGTVGardens.
Traverso traces the apple’s origins to ancient Kazakhstan and describes how, by 300 BC the Greeks were practicing grafting to produce consistently delicious varieties. She also unleashes fascinating factoids like the news that China grows 35 percent of the world’s apples. In addition to sweet and savory recipes, The Apple Lover’s Cookbook includes the kind of apple stats you’d expect from a baseball card: a list of 59 apple varieties with their characteristics and best uses. We asked Traverso to go deep and tell us where her apple love originated.
You were even married in an apple orchard. Are you apple obsessed?
Yes, when I started working on the book I was merely interested. I liked apples. But the more research I did on their history and diversity and the more varieties I tasted, I really did become obsessed. I thought I’d be so tired of apples by the time I was done with the book, but that never happened. I could’ve kept going.
Earliest apple memory?
My grandmother made an apple crisp recipe that she found in a 1945 issue of Country Gentleman magazine. It was different from the usual oatmeal-topped apple crisp in that it had a topping made from flour, eggs, butter, baking soda and sugar—sort of like a sweet biscuit. It’s in the book and it’s probably the most defining flavor of my childhood. We’d go apple-picking in Glastonbury, Connecticut and then my mom or grandmother would make it.
If someone wanted to grow apples in their garden, is there one variety you would recommend that performs well?
It really depends on where you live. Some apples like warmer temperatures, others really need cold weather to reach their full potential. And there are so many good ones! But just to narrow it down, I’d say if you live in a colder region, zones 4, 5 and 6 on the USDA map, try Liberty, which is resistant to apple scab and mildew. I have a Roxbury Russet tree in my yard—the variety dates back to the early 1600s—and I’d recommend that to someone looking to grow an heirloom variety. It’s rare, delicious, and moderately disease-resistant. Calville Blanc is a French apple, also from the early 1600s. It’s one of the best baking apples I’ve ever tried, and it has decent disease resistance.
In warmer climates—California or the mid-Atlantic and southern states—you could try GoldRush — which has very good disease resistance — the Pink Lady or Gravenstein, which thrives in milder weather.
Any apple growing tips you’ve picked up along the way?
Plant them where they’ll get plenty of sun and fresh air. Apples require pollinators, so you want to plant them in complementary pairs. Be ruthless about pests and disease…check the trees regularly and remove infected fruits. And learn how to properly prune.
How many apple varieties exist today?
University extension programs estimate it at about 7500 worldwide, and that sounds right to me. Only a few hundred are grown in any volume, though. And in the U.S., about 10 varieties (Red Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, etc.) dominate the market.
For many people apples are synonymous with harvest and plenitude and the ability of the earth to sustain us. Tell me the four words that come to mind when you hear the word “apple.”
Beauty, sweetness, Eden, love.
Best apple reference in literature, art or film?
Well, the most noteworthy one, of course is Adam and Eve. But that’s
actually a misunderstanding. In the original Hebrew text of Genesis, the
specific fruit isn’t actually named. Greek and Latin translations used
the word melon or malum, respectively, which could refer to either
“fruit” in general or “apples”
specifically. Considering the geography of the region where the story is set, a fig, apricot
or pomegranate would seem the most likely culprit.
Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away?
Yes! Apples are chock full of vitamins, fiber and antioxidants. The latter are mostly found in the skin, so don’t peel your apples, unless you think they’ve been heavily sprayed. Local organic apples can be tough to find on the East Coast. But there are lots of them being shipped from CA and WA.
Your all time favorite apple and why?
I love the flavor and versatility of the Ashmead’s Kernel. It’s very homely, but when I give people their first taste, their eyes light up! I think it tastes like champagne and honey. I also love Roxbury Russet, which is both delicious and historic—it’s the oldest named American apple variety that we still have today.
Apple-Pear Cobbler with Lemon-Cornmeal Biscuits
You know you have a good dessert when, after spending all day in the kitchen developing it, you still choose to eat another serving instead of a proper dinner. This is a fresh and unexpected take on a New England classic, topped with tender but crunchy cornmeal biscuits, laced with lemon and glazed with cream and sugar. The apples and pears in the filling are fully complementary (remember: fruits that sweeten together can be eaten together!) and really pop with a hit of lemon juice. Serve with vanilla ice cream, a drizzle of fresh cream, or simply by itself.
Apple Notes: The lemon flavors in this dessert make it a natural match for the Rhode Island Greening, Pink Pearl, or Roxbury Russet, while pears go very well with Ribston Pippins. However, you can’t go wrong with any firm-tart apples.
Make-ahead tip: You can prepare the fruit through step 1 up to a day ahead of time (you may need to drain the excess juice), but don’t make the biscuits until just before baking.
Equipment: 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven or other deep baking dish with sides at least 3½ inches high
Makes: 8 servings • Active time: 45 minutes • Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
For the filling
2½ pounds (1.13 kg, or about 5 large) firm-tart apples (see Apple Notes)
1½ pounds (680 g, or about 3 large) ripe pears, such as Bosc or Bartlett
⅓ cup (75 g) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons (21 g) chilled salted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
For the topping
1 cup (145 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (170 g) cornmeal (white or yellow, not stone-ground)
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1½ tablespoons (21 g) chilled salted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (240 ml) plus 2 tablespoons chilled heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 400ºF, and set a rack to the middle position. Peel and core the apples and pears. Cut the apples into ¼-inch-thick slices and the pears into ½-inch-thick slices. Put in a Dutch oven. Add the sugar, lemon juice, flour and butter, and toss to combine. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the topping: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, the 3 tablespoons sugar, the baking powder, salt, and lemon zest. Sprinkle the butter on top and use your fingers to work it in, forming thin flakes. When the dough begins to look like cornmeal, add the 1 cup cream and stir with a fork until the dough just comes together. Gently pat out on a well-floured surface to a ¾-inch thickness. Use a biscuit cutter or juice glass with a 2- to 3-inch diameter to cut out biscuits, scraping and re-rolling the dough as needed. Chill the biscuits in the refrigerator while the fruit finishes the first round of cooking.
Remove the fruit mixture from the oven and give it a quick stir—it should look softer and a little glossy. Arrange the biscuits on top, overlapping slightly in concentric circles, brush with the remaining 2 tablespoons cream, and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar. Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden brown and sauce is bubbling, about 35 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes, then serve warm.