Baked Apples and Thoughts on Food and Cooking

I used to cook everyday for a living. I cooked for hungry school children and teachers. I cooked for a busy, young family, and often I’d come home and cook for Sam and me. I used to think that it would be living my dream – to cook all the time and make people happy with the food that I cooked, but I discovered in the last few years that sometimes dreams change once you begin to live them. And sometimes life just takes you in different directions.

For me, I get satisfaction from turning seemingly basic foods into comforting and delicious meals. I like the feel of breaking cold butter into flour, blending the ingredients just enough so they become semi-homogeneous, and rolling out cold dough to lay gently into a pan as if laying a baby down to sleep. I really do enjoy making a homemade pie crust. I love the sensory parts of cooking – touching cake to feel for that spring of doneness, bending my nose over a pot of simmering soup to smell its seasoning, and listening to the crunch and crack of chopping nuts with a sharp knife.

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I’m not cooking anymore, not for work anyway and here’s why:

  1. Cooking loses its intrigue when it becomes repetitive, mandatory, and no longer creative. Sometimes cooking for a living can do that, especially when you’re cooking to particular customer preference.
  2. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that my body has been telling me it doesn’t like the way I eat anymore and while I’ve been trying to listen to what it wants me to eat, I’m having a hard time understanding. Preparing mouth-watering foods for others that I myself can’t eat (or am afraid to eat for fear of not feeling well) has worn on me and so I’d rather not be around food all day every day.
  3. Working in food sometimes means obsessing about food – thinking about what your next meal will be, what you will cook later, and creative new recipes you want to try. Sometimes my obsession with food drove me crazy and I felt it hard to release myself from thinking about it.

I find now that keeping cooking to a hobby still allows me to enjoy the pleasures of food and pleasing others with the food I cook without driving me and my hungry/angry belly crazy. I’ve learned to eat less of the foods I used to indulge in (and perhaps it’s simply a consequence of getting older) and avoid certain foods (though I test them out again here and there.)

What still makes me happy when it comes to cooking:

  1. Stocking the fridge with delicious foods for the week ahead – snacks, meals, cookies.
  2. Using up ingredients and leftovers just in time to restock and replenish.
  3. Making something out of seemingly nothing.

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I started a new job about a month ago (hence part of the reason I’ve been absent here) and it is so very different from my previous food jobs that it has been a bit of an adjustment. Instead of deciding what to eat from the myriad choices of the school cafeteria, I have to pack my lunch ahead of time and hope I’m still in the mood for that food by lunch time. Bustling around a hot stove and oven have been replaced with staring at two large computer monitors while furiously trying to find the information I need to answer the question at hand. I look forward to fresh air lunch time walks and to the end of the work day. It has been a big change, but I’m hoping it will lead to something greater.

Now for a simple recipe to end this long train of thought: Baked Apples. I invited some friends over for brunch yesterday without really considering what I had in my fridge to feed them. Despite the lack of planning, with a few items picked up from the store and a little creativity we had a delicious brunch. I baked homemade challah bread and stuffed some apples we had in the fridge with a delicious amalgamation from what I had on hand. And the results: divine. Now this is the kind of cooking I can enjoy!

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Baked Stuffed Apples

This recipe can be easily scaled up and toyed around with. The below amounts are approximations of what I used.

2 large apples (I used Jonagold)

1/2 lemon

2 T. brown sugar

1 T. butter, softened or melted

dash of salt

cinnamon to taste

ground ginger to taste

2 T. chopped pecans

1-2 T. dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly butter an 8×8 square pan or other pan that will fit your amount of apples.

Cut the apples in half. Using a melon baller or small spoon gently remove the seeds and core so you get a shallow canal in the middle of each apple half. Squeeze your lemon half over the apples and lightly rub them to make sure they are well covered. Mix your sugar, butter, salt, cinnamon and ginger in a small bowl. Stir in pecans and cranberries. Taste and adjust as desired. Divide mixture between your four apples halves and place in prepared pan. Cover in foil and baked until your desired tenderness 30-45 minutes. Serve warm with brunch or as a dessert with vanilla ice cream.

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Seattle Apple Pie

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We made it to beautiful Seattle and in a week’s time we have toured apartments, visited family and friends, walked around a hilly but beautiful new city, and eaten delicious food. Surprisingly I have hardly cooked in the last three weeks. Between staying at a hotel our last week in Boston and now staying with my in-laws, I don’t even remember how to do meal planning and shopping as all of our food has been prepared by others (and for that I am grateful!) Eventually we’ll have to get back to real life, but for now I’m enjoying it. Continue reading

Post 95 – Food Snapshots

Thanksgiving is over and Christmas will be here any minute! We had a wonderful Thanksgiving with Turkey, Wild Rice, Salad, and Mashed Potatoes. We have been enjoying other delicious foods since then including pizza and cupcakes to celebrate Sam’s birthday. Here are some photos of some of my latest good eats.

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America’s Test Kitchen Quicker Cinnamon Rolls

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Thanksgiving Apple Streusel Pie

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And homemade chocolate sauce…

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Gingerbread granola with crystallized ginger, cranberries, and raisins.

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Homemade pizza in the works

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Yum! Leftovers!

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Cran-Raspberry Birthday Muffins (for Sam)

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Holiday Lava Fudge Cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake – mmmmm!

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving and are almost ready for 2015!

Post 92 – How About Them Apples!

We took our annual apple picking trip Columbus Day weekend and we returned with 66 pounds of apples!

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(Ah the beauty of nature! I just love the color of these apples! Like purple plums! I wonder what happens to those sad apples that fall to the ground…)

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Our 66 pound stash included a full bag of just Honeycrisp (delicious!), some baking apples like Cortland (pie!) and some tasty eating apples like Gala and Fuji. We had the pleasure of hosting my brother-in-law and sister-in-law for the weekend so they helped us pick more than our usual amount.

On our way home from apple picking, we also made a stop at Walden Pond where we enjoyed snapping some silly panoramas with the scenic fall backdrop. Despite the cold temperatures and constant drizzle of rain during our picking, it was a wonderful way to spend a chilly fall day.

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Sadly the weekend had to end at some point. We sent them home with as many apples as they could carry and promises to visit them in their new home in Luxembourg in the future.

After a weekend of eating apples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, pie baking, and making our famous meat-stuffed apples (as well as sending some back with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law), we were down to about 35 pounds! I made some applesauce this past weekend and our stash is down even lower! We’ll see how long it takes to finish these off.

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While making the applesauce I enjoyed an informal apple tasting, stealing a slice of different apples here and there, comparing the texture and sweetness and crunch. I have always marveled at the beautiful colors nature creates with real, good foods, but I am even more amazed that even just within the category of apples how many different colors they come in. Check out this rainbow of apples!

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I hope you are enjoying the last few days of warmer temperatures and bouts of sunshine. The winter will be here before we know it.

Eat well!

 

Post 49 – Applesauce like Momma Makes It

This is starting to look familiar – a pile of fruit, a giant pot, and hours later a thick sauce of smooth, tart beauty. I’m getting good at this game. This time – it’s applesauce.

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My mom made applesauce when we were little.

No peeling – well except for that one year when we got out the hand-cranked apple peeler and whatchamacallit and had a go at it. We quickly abandoned that machine as you had to stop and fix it as often as you turned the crank.

Thanks to the food mill there’s no mashing and thanks to the flavorful apples, no unnecessary ingredients.

Love the colors!

Love the colors!

Apple cores

Apple cores

As a little girl, my family and I would go blueberry picking in the summer to stock the freezer with “beeble-berries,” as Momma called them. After the summer ended, we’d pull them out for blueberry pancakes, blueberry sauce for pancakes, or our favorite semi-dessert: a personal bowl of frozen blueberries sprinkled with sugar and doused in milk. After a few minutes of sitting, it became like blueberry ice cream as the sugar and milk froze in the crevices between the berries. It wasn’t exactly dessert, but it kept me fooled for a while.

In the fall there were apples. I don’t remember many apple picking outings with my family, but we must have gone once or twice or bought bags at the store. However we acquired our apples, Mom would make gallons of applesauce and, just the same as the blueberries, put some in the freezer for later. You knew it was homemade from its rose-colored tint, dyed from leaving the red skins on as it cooked. Then when it was done, we ground it through the food mill so it came out smooth and pure and apple-skinless.

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So I made applesauce this weekend, just like Momma made it. I cut up my apples, skins on, and simmered them on the stove until they melted and perfumed the apartment with the glorious smell of autumn’s coziest scent. The apples cooked down to half the height of the pot, but we still ended up with a giant bowl of applesauce. No fear – Sam the applesauce-eating maniac is here to eat it up in no time (and consequently I won’t have any to freeze like Mom did).

 

Speaking of Sam, he has taken to making me dinner a few nights a week now that I started cooking for this family (more on that later). This past week he made a wonderful Moroccan Chicken and the week before that a tofu stir-fry! It’s hard giving up my kitchen sometimes, but I love when he cooks for me! Below is a picture of the Moroccan chicken with butternut squash, dried apricots, and wild rice.

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Homemade Applesauce

There is no real recipe for this. I take some apples, core them, and slice them about ¼ inch thick. I put them in a big stockpot and add enough water to cover the bottom by an inch or two (depending how thick you like it). I bring it to a boil and then turn it down to simmer with a lid on until the apples are falling apart, stirring often near the beginning to be sure all the apples are getting an even amount of heat. Add sugar if you like (I didn’t) or cinnamon (either during the cooking or at the end).

When soft, run it through a food mill and let cool.

The food mill

The food mill

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The apple skins that remain

The apple skins that remain

If you don’t have a food mill, you can peel the apples ahead of time and use an immersion blender or food processor, being sure to puree in small batches. Freeze in gallon size freezer bags or enjoy right away. Be sure to try a bite when it’s warm – it’s delicious!

 

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Oh and if you’re wondering how many apples we have left from our original 35 ish pounds, here it is. I weighed them.

Apple count – About 12 lbs.

Happy Fall!

Post 48 – Forty Pounds of Apples

Summer has seamlessly given way to fall. We wake up to crisp mornings and the sun warms up the day hour by hour. I can’t believe how fast time flies.

There is a happiness that comes with the beginning of each new season, but I miss the summer already and I dread the cold, hard winter that may come our way.

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In the spirit of autumn, Sam and I went apple picking this weekend with a friend. As we pulled around the curvy bend of the road heading to the same farm where we picked apples last year I couldn’t help but feel like last year was just last night. Really? A whole year ago we were here? Did time go by that fast? Consequences of getting older…

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We had a dandy time picking apples, eating waaaay too many apple cider donuts, and finding bite-size apples to munch on while we picked. We came home with 40 pounds of beautiful apples, five pounds of which our friend took with him.

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What are you going to do with 40 pounds of apples?? People ask us incredulously.

Oh you’d be surprised how well we can handle our apples. This is apple season and we take full advantage. We will be making apple sauce and apple pies and apple cakes and other apple-y things. Believe you me, I have an arsenal of apple recipes and Sam can down a giant bowl of applesauce no problem.

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One of our favorite new traditions has been to make these wonderful meat-stuffed apples. They are sweet, savory, and filling, perfect on a chill autumn night. Don’t question the combination – it’s delicious. As they cook, the meat and apple juices ooze into one saucy sauce in the pan and the soft crunch of baked apples pairs well with the heartier texture of the meat. The recipe is fairly customizable too – change the meat, the spices, leave out the bread and milk, suit it to your taste, but I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.

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Savory Stuffed Apples

Based on Chef Jose Andres’ recipe

3 slices bread, crust removed and torn into small pieces

¾ cup milk

2 lb. ground beef or pork (we used beef)

1 small onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ tsp. cinnamon

3 T. chopped fresh sage

1 tsp. salt

good grind of black pepper

9-10 large baking apples

 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.* Soak the bread pieces in milk while preparing other ingredients. Using a melon baller or sharp paring knife, dig out the core in your apples to make a deep well (careful not to go all the way through). Reserve any edible pieces of apple innards for later. To prevent apple explosion, score your apples 3 or 4 times on the outside, by lightly running a small knife down the apple just enough to break the skin. (As you can see before my apples still released some of their juices, but at least none exploded). Chop the onion and garlic and mix it with the meat, spices, and bread and milk mixture. Fill the apples with the meat mixture, carefully stuffed it inside and patting down the top to form a cap. You may need more apples, depending on the size of your apples or you can make mini meat loaves (as I did) with the remaining meat mixture. Bake in an ovenproof dish drizzled or sprayed with oil for 35-45 minutes or until meat registers 165 with a thermometer. Serve warm.

*I would actually try baking them at a lower temperature next time (375) as the tops got a little too brown before the middle was cooked all the way through.

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Notice these guys burst a little. The ones pictured below, however, turned out beautifully!

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With your reserved apple innards make a quick apple crisp for 1 or 2. Apples for dinner and dessert!

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Here’s to the fall (despite farewell to summer) and to many more apple recipes!