I sometimes feel like I neglect the poor humble apple. Caught up in the irresistible nectar-like liquor of a ripe marigold mango, or the perfumed snap of a pale translucent lychee, or the honeyed notes of a sugared gooseberry in high summer, it's easy to forget the value of our most beloved home-grown fruit. But the apple sits there patiently in the background, biding its time, a reliable constant. Like that best friend who will still always be there once passionate romances have long faded into the distance, proffering a consolatory cup of tea and telling you there are plenty more fish in the sea and you could do much better, and she always thought there was something suspicious anyway about the way he tied his shoelaces.
We tend to just lump apples into a single category. They are the generic crunchy, juicy, perfect fruit for eating on the go. Especially if you're one of those odd people who eat the entire lot, core, stalk and all. Children like them. You can just put one in a lunchbox. You don't have to worry about bruising, unlike with bananas, which are effectively untransportable. (Unless, like me, you own a much-mocked banana guard). Apples are pretty much the same, right?
This, I think, is a mistake. Unlike oranges, other citrus fruits, bananas, berries, lychees, which generally have a pretty uniform flavour regardless of type, apples vary wildly depending on variety. It is a mistake, I think, to just blindly lunge for the expensive bag of imported Pink Lady apples. While I can understand their appeal - they are, mostly, uniformly crisp, fragrant and tasty - there is great joy to be had from some of the other apple varieties out there.
My personal favourites are Coxes and Russets. You can't beat a really good Cox apple, crisp, dripping with tart, citrus-tinged juice, its skin overspread with a delightful red blush. Russets are also a favourite; I love their sage-green skin and matt golden bloom, and their subtly fragrant flesh. They work very well in salads, like this caramelised apple, rabbit and barley salad I made last year.
Discovery apples are also fabulous, coming into season in late summer. They have an amazing tartness and crispness to them, and are probably one of the more refreshing apples. I also lust after the perfect Granny Smith, which is surprisingly hard to find - vivid, alien green, often with a speckling of white freckles on its skin, and mouth-puckeringly tart within.
Regardless of your apple varieties, though, sometimes it's hard to eat them all before they start to turn less than perfect; and by that, I mean soft and floury inside, with a slight greasiness to the skin.
As part of my Fruitdrop delivery a few weeks ago, I received around twenty apples, of several varieties. By sight, I think they were Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Braeburn. While I ate a few raw, I could tell that I wouldn't be able to polish them off before they started to deteriorate; the nerve-wracking downside of getting so much fruit delivered. I set to thinking about how to use them in cooking; once cooked, it's impossible to tell an imperfect apple from a perfect one.
My first endeavour was a salted caramel tarte tatin, a recipe from last month's Delicious magazine. The recipe claimed said tarte would serve eight; I would like to amend this to 'serves four', simply because it was insanely good. There was salted caramel; into this went nine peeled, cored and halved apples. Over that went a thick layer of puff pastry, which baked to a burnished, crispy, feathery base for the oozing caramel and tender apples. It was essentially my idea of food heaven. That is definitely one viable suggestion for using up eating apples (don't try it with cooking apples, like Bramleys - they will collapse into mush and the tart will not be pretty).
However, if you want more of an everyday recipe (much as I love tarte tatin, I fear it's not a surefire route to slim hips and a toned physique) to use up ailing apples, this is almost as delicious.
It's also barely even a recipe, really, but the combination of ingredients is lovely and I felt I should share it. Caramelising apples is always a good idea; they become much more pronounced in flavour, turning into a soft, golden tangle of sweet deliciousness. You simply cook them in a little butter and brown sugar until they have turned sticky and dark. I always add a little cinnamon and ground ginger, because they both work so well with apples. Adding dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, provides an interesting contrast in texture, and a rich, toffee-like sugary note.
You can use caramelised apples as the basis of numerous recipes - mainly desserts, but if you use less sugar they work well with rich savoury ingredients, like cheese or meat. I decided to pair them with some soft, milky ricotta, because I figured its creamy blandness would provide a lovely contrast to the sweet, crunchy apples. This is a great recipe that would work for either breakfast or lunch.
There's bread, lightly toasted. You could use any bread, but I used fruited soda bread because I love soda bread and I thought the fruit in it would go well with the apples. I reckon sourdough would be fabulous, as would brioche and maybe even a toasted muffin or some rye bread. Over this you slather a thick layer of ricotta. Then on goes a liberal sprinkling of lemon thyme leaves; thyme works very well with both cheese and apples, and helps to cut through their sticky sweetness.
On go the apples, which have caramelised in butter, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and had a handful of jewel-like dried cranberries thrown in alongside them, to plump up in the syrupy juices. Then a few toasted nuts - I used walnuts, but pecans or hazelnuts would also be excellent. This gives a nice contrast in texture. Then another sprinkling of thyme.
It's a fabulous combination of textures; crunchy toast, soft and cold cheese, hot, crispy sugary apples and cranberries, and earthy nuts. I had it for lunch, but I can see it sitting happily on a breakfast table alongside a big mug of tea, or even as a dessert after a light meal. If you can't be bothered with the rest, just make up a big batch of caramelised apples, and have them on your muesli or porridge for breakfast. They're also excellent tucked into featherlight French crêpes, too.
I'd suggest you wander down to your local market soon and find yourself some unusual apple varieties. Go on, go crazy. Step out of that comfort zone. Purchase an unknown species of apple.
And if you don't like it enough to eat raw, caramelise it and stick it on some toast.
Spiced apple and cranberry toast with ricotta and thyme (serves 1):
2-3 slices of bread (I used fruited soda bread, but a walnut or raisin loaf would be good, or rye bread)
2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
2 small apples
A small handful of dried cranberries or raisins
100g ricotta cheese
A few sprigs of lemon thyme
1-2 tbsp chopped walnuts or pecans
Get the bread ready in the toaster while you make the apples. Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan until foaming and bubbling. Add the spices. Quarter and core the apples, then cut into thin slices. Add to the pan along with the cranberries, and cook over a high heat until softened and caramelised in places - this should take around 10 minutes. Turn the heat down once they are caramelised to let them soften some more.
Toast the bread and spread with the ricotta cheese. Pick the leaves from the thyme and sprinkle over the ricotta. Spoon the hot apples over the cheese and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve immediately.