With Thanksgiving just a couple of days off, we thought we'd give you some ideas for last minute desserts. You might want to serve something that is right at hand, easy to prepare and sure to please. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino would suggest, one dish that fills all those criteria is baked apples.
One thing: the baking approach is up to you. Either a hot oven works fine, or you can easily do this on the grill, using indirect heat and a lot of tin foil.
A crucial question is, what varieties of apples are best? Fortunately the top ten choices are well known in Maryland and easy to find at the farmers markets. You're looking for an apple that balances sweetness and tartness, and stays firm during cooking. Here's the roster for best apples for baking: Johnathan, Jonagold, Cortland, Honey-crisp, Granny Smith, Winesap, Braeburn, Rome Beauty, Golden Delicious, Northern Spy and the Gala. And our friend Dave Hochheimer of Black Rock Orchard swears by the Crimson Crisp (which Jerry seconds as an ideal baking apple,)
Coring the apple may not be quite as simple as it seems. The whole point is to get the stem and seeds out, make a cavity for the stuffing, but to avoid piercing the bottom, since you need that intact to prevent leakage.
If you have an apple corer, good for you! Push it down through the top but not all the way out the bottom. Twist and extract and bingo, it's done. You can also use a sharp paring knife of course. Once the core is gone you still need a nice generous cavity, so I recommend using a melon scooper. Once the seeds are gone, just work it around the inside of the apple until you have a nice big pocket for your stuffing.
Coring from the top is the conventional approach to the baked apple. But you can try a few other techniques. Cut the apple in half crosswise and retain the top with its stem. Hollow out the bottom and a bit of the top and stuff away. Bake the apple with the top on, which is how you serve it.
Another very artsy approach is to cut the apple lengthwise, remove the seeds, then partially cut a series of slices, top to bottom, taking care not to damage the center part that will hold it together. Fan these out and work some stuffing in between each slice, sort of like you were making garlic bread.
Speaking of stuffing, this is one of the chances for creativity. The classic stuffing is oatmeal, raisins, crushed pecans and brown sugar. This is easy enough to pull together, but feel free to raid your spice cabinet for all your favorite baking spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom.
But you can go further... much further. How about stuffing the apple with soft brie cheese, and drizzling honey over it? You can go totally savory with cheddar cheese and bacon. Or you can make a mash of spicy sausage, bread crumbs, minced celery and onions. You can take it back to the sweet side too. If you can buy some baklava, you can work that into the center of your apple. And honey and granola can be blended equally for a very sweet outcome.
Once the apples are stuffed, it's time to bake them. Baking time is about 30 minutes in a moderate 350° oven. On the grill, as we said, put the apples on a sheet of tin foil, and place them in a cooler part of the grill, never over direct flame. Cook covered, if you can.
A hot baked apple fresh from the oven is a magnificent palate for something cold and contrasting, like ice cream. Vanilla is a natural, but you can go nuts here. You also can work with honey yogurt, creme anglaise, or soft cream cheese, drizzled with honey.