Tree treats

Available in numerous varieties, apples are perfect for baking in the cold snap. And what better way to get back to our Jewish and biblical roots?

apples 88 (photo credit: )
apples 88
(photo credit: )
Who doesn't enjoy the beauty of trees and their fruit? After all, fruit trees were the highlight of the Garden of Eden. And with the growing talk about going green, the holiday of Tu Bishvat and its environmentally friendly theme is more relevant than ever. Past Tu Bishvat customs called for celebrating the holiday with dried fruit, since not many fresh ones were available for this winter festival. Today, thanks to trade and advanced horticulture, it's easy to find fresh fruit all year round. Still, dried fruit has its own delicious qualities beyond long storage time, and I do like to incorporate this holiday tradition into our menu. A platter of top-quality dried fruit and nuts is enticing and wholesome. To celebrate the Tu Bishvat connection to nature, I often buy nuts in their shells instead of packaged ones, to enjoy cracking and eating them as a leisurely snack. For a Tu Bishvat dessert, I include nuts or dried fruit along with fresh fruit. Apples are a perfect pick for baking at this season, as they are available in several varieties and are one of the most versatile fruits for making all sorts of delicious desserts. Linking apple pie and motherhood is not just an American tradition. The warm, welcoming scent of warm apple desserts naturally evokes comfort food and has broad appeal in European countries too. That may be why even top French chefs like to name their apple dessert creations for their grandmothers or give them names like gateau de pommes de ma mere (my mother's apple cake). Apple desserts have their place on the most luxurious tables of the Middle East. According to Arto Der Haroutunian, author of Patisserie of the Eastern Mediterranean, sweet Turkish filo pastry twists filled with apples and raisins and moistened with lemon syrup was one of many pastries "developed over the centuries in the Ottoman Court for the gratification of the Sultans." In fact, apples may come from this part of the Mideast. Dianne Onstad, author of Whole Foods Companion, wrote that the fruit probably originated in the Caucasus Mountains of western Asia, perhaps in Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, "where carbonized apples dating to 6500 BC have been found." No wonder they have long been depicted as the forbidden fruit that tempted Eve and Adam. Although American apple pie is world famous, my mentor and friend Anne Willan, author of French Regional Cooking and founder of La Varenne Cooking School in Paris, finds that "the best apple pies in the world surely come from Normandy." The province, where Anne and her husband, Mark, hosted us at their lovely country home, is famous for its excellent butter, creme fraiche, apple cider and Calvados, the celebrated apple brandy. "Three or four kinds are standard in local pastry shops," she wrote. They might feature apple slices embedded in almond cream or topped with caramel or with a lattice of buttery puff pastry. Ask 10 cooks which apple variety to use for what purpose, and you'll probably get 10 different answers. The general rule is that sweet apples are for snacks, and tart apples are for cooking. With experience, each person develops his or her own preferences. The Parisian chefs who taught me to cook used sweet, tender Golden Delicious apples for just about every dessert, and these dependable apples remain one of my favorites. Besides, with a sweet apple, I don't need to use as much sugar. Finally, a note on storing apples: Friends of mine keep theirs in a fruit bowl. True, they make an attractive display, but apples keep much better in a single layer in the refrigerator in the crisper drawer or on a shelf. According to the US Apple Association, if properly refrigerated, they will keep for three months. APPLE WALNUT CAKE This cake, composed of apple slices layered with an orange-and-cinnamon-scented dairy-free batter, is often called Jewish apple cake. The apples keep the cake moist and so you don't need a frosting. The batter is very quick and easy to make. You can substitute pecans for the walnuts. Use either tart green apples or sweet apples like Golden Delicious. Makes 9 servings
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 4 Tbsp. brown sugar, divided
  • 3⁄4 cup white sugar
  • 350 gr. apples, either tart or sweet
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
  • 11⁄2 cups all purpose flour
  • 11⁄4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1⁄4 tsp. salt
  • 1⁄4 cup orange juice
  • 1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 2⁄3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts Preheat oven to 175ºC. Lightly oil a 20-cm. square pan and flour pan lightly. Mix cinnamon with 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Peel apples and slice them about 6 mm. thick. Beat eggs lightly in mixer. Add white sugar and remaining brown sugar and beat on medium speed until eggs become pale in color. Add oil and beat to blend. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add about half of flour mixture to batter. Blend it into batter at low speed, stopping to scrape it down a few times. Add orange juice, orange zest and vanilla. Beat briefly to blend. Add remaining flour mixture and beat in at low speed. Finally, beat in walnuts at low speed. Spoon 1⁄4 of batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Arrange 1⁄3 of apple slices on batter and sprinkle evenly with 1 heaping teaspoon of cinnamon mixture. Spoon another 1⁄4 of the batter in dollops over apples and spread very gently. Repeat with 2 more layers of apples, cinnamon mixture, and batter, ending with batter. It's fine if top layer of apples is not completely covered with batter. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in cake's center comes out dry. Cool cake in pan on a rack about 20 minutes. Run a metal spatula carefully around cake and turn out onto rack. Let cool. APPLE COBBLER This homey American dessert is much easier to make than pie. You simply spoon dollops of soft biscuit dough on top of the apple filling. Sauteing the apples gives the cobbler filling an appealing tender texture. Use sweet, semi-tart or tart apples. Many old-fashioned recipes call for using shortening in the biscuit dough topping but I prefer all butter for its flavor and to avoid the trans fat. Chefs often replace the milk with light or heavy cream for a richer crust. Some like to serve the warm cobbler with ice cream or heavy cream. Makes 6 servings Biscuit Dough:
  • 11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 11⁄2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1⁄8 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. sugar divided
  • 6 Tbsp. (85 gr.) cold unsalted butter, cut in small cubes
  • 2⁄3 cup whole milk, or more if needed Apple Filling:
  • 2 to 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 900 gr. apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 1⁄2 cup sugar, or to taste
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice (optional) Preheat oven to 220ºC. For dough: Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and 2 tablespoons sugar in a bowl. Add butter and blend with your fingertips or with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk and stir just until a soft, sticky dough forms; add more milk by tablespoons if needed. For filling: Melt butter in a large skillet. Add apples and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Add sugar and cinnamon and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 or 2 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. Taste, and add more sugar if you like. Transfer apple mixture to a 23-cm. oval or square baking dish or a 6-cup casserole. Drop heaping tablespoons of the dough, making about 12 dollops, over the hot filling, leaving filling uncovered in spots. Sprinkle dough with 2 teaspoons sugar. Bake cobbler for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 200ºC. Bake for 30 more minutes or until topping is golden. Serve warm.n Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.