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Apples of my eye

We tend to take apples pretty much for granted here in the US. We grow a lot of apples here and except for the deep deep South and the southwest, we’ve pretty much got apples covered. And we have our own mythology in terms of the spread of apples in the US – John Chapman, America’s “Johnny Appleseed” (who was literally a legend in his own time) spread nurseries of an apple from Massachusetts called the “Rambo” which probably was brought here from Sweden. Rambo is an ok apple – general purpose, really (which is what would have made it popular in the 18th and 19th century since if you could only afford one apple tree next to your house, you wanted it to be hardy and something you could use to make everything from cider (Colonial America’s #1 drink) to sauce to dried to pies. Which is what Rambo was good for. Not a great shipping apple mind you but when America ate it’s apples, it was not going down to the Safeway(tm) to buy them.

But people have never been able to let well enough alone with apples. The grandfather of all apples is Malus domestica, from Western Asia. And people have been messing around with crosses and selections literally for thousands of years. The US FDA is growing that wild apple at its experimental stations to find disease resistance benefits to help beef up today’s cultivars. There are literally 7,500 different varieties of apples and they all have advantages over other apples. We don’t see most of them in stores for the obvious reasons that growers stick with what they can sell a lot of, some of which are really rather blah apples (I’m talking to you, Washington State Delicious which to my mind tastes and has the texture of papertowels). And some of which I don’t find useful at Chez Siberia at all.

Like the Macintosh apple. Now, this Canadian cultivar has a bunch of things going for it – hardiness, nice tart-sweet flavor, lots of juice. All of these make it a great sauce-making apple. But I don’t make sauce. We eat apples fresh and we bake them into stuff. When you bake Macs, they dissolve into apple flavored mush, which is great if what you want is sauce but blechy in pies or apple crisp. With all the sugar and juice, you also can’t dry them very well and they also do not keep well under household refrigeration. I also find the texture mealy. I want an apple with snap, crispy flesh, and that I can put to multiple uses.

Snap, crispy flesh and keeps super well? In terms of what I can get in Upstate New York, nothing can beat Northern Spys. This is a great baking apple, hard as a rock, crispy flesh, big (which if you are making pies is great because you aren’t faced with peeling and cutting up huge numbers of apples – Aunt Toby hates the cutting up part). Spys are all of these. But…. for out of hand eating? Eh. Nope. They need heat to bring out the sugars. So, a great baking apple but that’s it. So, I’m looking for an apple with better fresh eating qualities, but good for baking and drying and keeping.

The New York State Experimental Station in Geneva, NY, soon after its establishment in the 1880s, started work on improving Macintosh apples. They were looking to keep the taste and appearance qualities but to gain some improvement in terms of staying on the tree, and off the tree storage. The benefits they were looking for came with a cross between the Mac and an apple called the Ben Davis (which has since gone out of widespread commercial production and can only be found in a couple of places in California, I think). This particular cross gained them better keeping qualities, better texture and mouth feel, better integrity under heat, while maintaining the Mac’s attractive appearance and flavor ranges. This is the Cortland apple, which frankly is the apple we depend on here at Chez Siberia. Today, we went apple picking at an orchard near us and we had the opportunity to get Macs, Cortlands, Galas, and Honey Crisps. My son went off to pick his fill of Macs; the DH and I ran up the hill and picked what was probably a bushel of Cortland apples in less than 30 minutes.

Now, Honey Crisp apples are a really fine apple for eating out of the hand – they are also extremely juicy so for juice and cider production, they are great. But all that juice makes them poor keepers and would make drying them a high-energy investment. So, no honey crisps. Galas are a great fresh eating apple also and are supposed to be good for pies and sauces also, but I was not interested in picking those today. And of course at this point, readers will note my less-than-enthusiastic feelings about Macs.

So, what are we doing with all these apples today? Well, we first scrubbed and rinsed them well, and then my son and I set to work cutting them up and soaking them in a little lemon juice and water while the DH loaded up the dehydrator with them. The next bunch, we peeled, again soaked a little bit in juice and water and froze on cookie sheets to package up for baking this winter. My daughter actually goes one step further and turns hers into pre-made apple pie filling. I’d rather have more flexibility than this so we just freeze them. The rest will get eaten out of hand or I might even make some crisp tonight.

For an extensive chart of apple varieties and their best uses: Apple and Use Chart

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  1. Shiphrah says:

    I love-love-love Cortlands! And at Passover, as we were making the charoset, my Texan step-daughter became a convert. Too bad she can’t get them there. Nothin’ but those damn not so Delicious.

  2. htwollin says:

    You know, Shiphrah – it hit me today that at Rosh Hashana, we always had apples and honey. Which makes perfect sense (at least from the European/northern hemisphere standpoint because those are two things which would have been harvested right about the same time, so to make the ‘something sweet for the New Year’ it was a cinch!

  3. It’s interesting. I brought home fresh picked apples from the farm the other day and my husband doesn’t like them. I prefer the sweet/tartness of a just-picked apple, but I finally figured out that he prefers the soft/sweet taste that comes after storage. I’ve never frozen apples before. Must look into that.

  4. htwollin says:

    To freeze apples: Put a little bit of lemon juice in a bowl of water (just enough so that you can taste tartness). Peel and lice apples into eighths and dip in the water, shake off and line up on cookie sheets until the sheets are full. One layer only. Then put into the freezer until totally hard, take off (you might need a spatula to do this but they will not stick; they are just frozen on) and put into plastic bags and seal up. We use a ‘meal and seal’ system but ziplock(tm) will work well also.

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