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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 12:00 am

Apples of gold

Make baked German apple pancake

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Remember Johnny Appleseed? Most of us learned about this American legend in grade school: the eccentric kindly loner who roamed the wilderness frontier in ragged clothes and a tin-pot hat with which he cooked his meals. Johnny planted seeds wherever he went so that pioneers moving west would have fresh apples — and cider, apple butter, and schnitz (dried apple slices).

Debunking hero figures is a popular sport these days, but Johnny Appleseed’s story is one that, for the most part, holds up to close scrutiny. John Chapman, born in 1774 in Massachusetts, headed west when he was 18. Contrary to the popular belief that he randomly planted seeds, Johnny Appleseed — as Chapman became known — was actually a nurseryman. He’d get his apple seeds free from cider mills, then go into an area, plant a nursery, and fence it in to protect it from livestock. He would then leave the nursery in the care of a neighbor, who would sell the trees on commission. Johnny then moved on and repeated the process, returning to each nursery every couple of years to tend it, and remaining an itinerant until he died in 1845.

Even though Johnny sold his trees, his kindness and generosity were still the stuff of legend. The trees cost only a few pennies, and he encouraged his managers to extend credit with no exact due date. No one was pressed for repayment, which could also take such forms as cornmeal or used clothing. Johnny kept the most threadbare clothing for himself, giving away the rest. He never wore shoes, even in the snowy winter. What money he did have he either gave away to the needy or spent on tracts for the obscure Swedenborg religious sect, which he also gave away.

Apples from Johnny’s trees were undoubtedly different from those available to us now. Consistent varietals are obtained by way of grafting because seeds from a given tree do not run true. Many of the apples from Johnny’s seedlings would have been sour and small or misshapen.

Today apples in stores are picture-perfect, shiny and unblemished. Unfortunately, as with other large-scale commercially produced fruits and vegetables, the focus has been primarily on keeping quality and transportability rather than flavor. This seems especially true of Red and Yellow Delicious apples.

“Red Delicious used to be everyone’s favorite apple,” says Gayle Johnson, owner of the Apple Barn (2290 E. Walnut, Chatham, 217-483-6236). “They’re sweet and crisp when they’re just picked — but in stores they almost have no flavor and are often mealy.”

The same can be said of Golden Delicious. Seasonal Golden Delicious apples are wonderful, not really tart but with a more intense flavor than the red version. They’re a good autumn choice both for eating in hand and for cooking. The bland Golden Delicious apples in stores don’t even look like the same variety: they’re perfectly smooth, whereas seasonal ones are lightly freckled.

The Apple Barn grows 17 varieties of apples that are harvested throughout the summer and fall. Some, such as the Willow Twig, are antique varieties, and some, such as the Honey and Suncrisp, which are distinctive for their exceptional crunch, are relative newcomers. A personal favorite is the Blushing Golden, a cross between the Jonathan and the Yellow Delicious. Blushing Goldens are as good to look at as they are to eat: Yellow, with rosy cheeks, they have the same perfumed flavor as the Golden Delicious but more tartness.

Here’s a recipe that’s ideal for a weekend breakfast on a chilly autumn morning or equally good as a dessert.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

Apfelpfannkuchen
(baked German apple pancake)

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Two large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Three or four large apples (about 1 1/4 pounds), preferably Blushing Golden or another sweet/tart variety that holds its shape well when cooked
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, and place the rack in the middle.

Have all ingredients for the batter at room temperature. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl; make a well in the center; add the eggs, cream, and vanilla; and whisk the ingredients together until no lumps remain. Alternatively, mix the ingredients in a blender or food processor, putting the liquid ingredients in first. Set the batter aside to rest for at least 30 minutes. The batter may also be made the day before and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking.

Peel the apples, if desired, core them; and cut them into half-inch slices, then toss them with the vinegar.

Heat the butter in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat. Add the apples, brown sugar, and cinnamon and cook until the apples are golden brown, about 10 minutes. While cooking, frequently stir gently so as not to break up the apples.

Remove the pan from the heat. Immediately pour a ring of batter around the edge of the pan and then pour the rest of the batter evenly over the apples

Place the skillet in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 425 degrees. Bake until the edges are brown and the pancake has puffed up, about 18 minutes. Loosen the edges with a heatproof spatula, invert the pancake onto a large plate, cut it into wedges, and serve it, first dusting it with confectioner’s sugar. Serves four to six.

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