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Seasonal Cooking : As French as Apple Flan

When apple season arrives, the delightful aroma of cooking apples, made with a little butter, sugar and either lemon, vanilla or cinnamon, wafts from many kitchens in France.

French cooks do not add water, a method that ensures the apple flavor stays intense. In the course of the cooking, the butter is absorbed by the apples and the sugar lightly caramelizes. Some of the apples remain in chunks, while the rest form a creamy-textured puree that holds the pieces together.

In France, some call this mixture apple compote, while others refer to it as apple marmalade. It is actually a thick, chunky version of applesauce. This mixture is said to have originated in Normandy, the French province famous for apples, butter and a powerful apple brandy called Calvados, which some cooks like to slip into their applesauce for extra zest.

In France, the favorite apple for cooking is the sweet Golden Delicious, but McIntosh or tart Pippin and Granny Smith apples also give wonderful results. French cooks occasionally vary the basic recipe with a little white or red wine, which evaporates as the apples cook, so only a delicate wine flavor remains. Raisins or currants might be steeped in rum or brandy, then simmered with the apples.

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Chunky applesauce is easier to make than our usual version; you don’t need to strain it through a food mill, which is messy to clean. The apples cook quickly because they are cut into thin slices. This useful mixture keeps for several days and can be used in many ways.

Serve this deluxe applesauce as a delicious dessert on its own, either hot or cold. For a festive touch, top it with ice cream, frozen yogurt, sour cream or plain or vanilla yogurt, and perhaps a sprinkling of toasted almonds or walnuts. Another favorite topping is a meringue that is spread over the apples and browned in the oven for a cool-weather treat.

For something a little more elegant, pour a light custard over the mixture and bake it as Norman apple flan. Turn the applesauce into a filling for turnovers and apple charlottes. Or use the applesauce as a tasty filling for blintzes or crepes. Simply roll it up in the crepes, bake until hot and serve. If you buy ready-made crepes, this lovely dessert will be super-quick as well.

This applesauce also makes a change-of-pace accompaniment for pancakes or waffles--for breakfast or brunch.

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It also makes a great accompaniment for roast meats and poultry. For serving with a savory dish, prepare it with half the sugar. If you have already made the applesauce sweet, you can add lemon juice and a dash of cloves to make it a delectable, spicy-sweet partner for meat.

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In this easy recipe, you can vary the ingredients as you like. Use more butter--or less--to taste. Start with the smaller amount of sugar and add more if desired, depending on the sweetness of the apples. You can substitute brown sugar for white sugar, or replace half the sugar with honey. Serve the applesauce as a dessert on its own, or top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, or a dollop of sour cream, whipped cream or yogurt. Or, in keeping with the dessert’s Norman roots, serve it with creme fraiche.

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CHUNKY FRENCH-STYLE APPLESAUCE

2 pounds Golden Delicious, Pippin or Granny Smith apples 2 to 4 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice Grated zest 1/2 lemon, optional 4 to 6 tablespoons sugar

Peel, halve and core apples. Cut into thin wedges or slices.

Heat butter in large heavy, deep skillet or heat-proof casserole. Add apples and saute over medium-high heat 2 minutes, turning pieces over occasionally until coated with butter. Add lemon juice and zest. Cover tightly and cook over low heat, stirring often, until apples are very tender, about 20 minutes.

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Stir in 4 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until mixture is thick and nearly all liquid evaporates. Taste and add more sugar if desired. Cook briefly to dissolve sugar. Serve warm or cold. Makes 3 cups.

Variations:

Cinnamon Applesauce: Replace lemon juice and zest with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.

Vanilla-Scented Applesauce: Replace lemon juice and zest with 1 vanilla bean. Remove vanilla bean before serving. Or flavor applesauce with both lemon and vanilla.

Spirited Applesauce: Add 1 to 2 tablespoons Calvados or brandy to mixture just before removing from heat.

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Serve these blintzes with the traditional accompaniment of sour cream, or substitute nonfat sour cream or yogurt. For a quicker dessert, roll the apple filling inside purchased crepes.

APPLE-FILLED BLINTZES

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2/3 cup flour Dash salt 2/3 cup milk 2 eggs 2 cups Chunky French-Style Applesauce 1 tablespoon oil, plus extra for brushing pan 2 to 3 tablespoons butter Powdered sugar, optional Combine flour, salt, milk and eggs in blender container. Mix on high speed about 1 minute or until batter is smooth. Strain batter, if lumpy. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.

Prepare Chunky French-Style Applesauce. Set aside.

Remove batter from refrigerator and stir well. Gradually whisk 1 tablespoon oil into batter. (Batter should have consistency of whipping cream. If too thick, gradually whisk in more milk, about 1 teaspoon at time.)

Brush 7- or 8-inch crepe pan or small skillet with oil and heat until drop of batter added to pan sizzles. Add just enough batter to coat bottom of pan, turning pan quickly. Brown lightly on 1 side over medium heat. Transfer crepe to plate. Continue with remaining batter and oil to make 8 to 12 crepes.

Butter shallow baking dish. Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons prepared applesauce onto browned side of each crepe and roll up. Place blintzes, seam side down, in baking dish. Dot with butter. Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes, or until blintzes are hot and lightly browned. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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For this luscious dessert, chunky applesauce is topped with Calvados-flavored custard and baked in ramekins or small souffle dishes. Flans can be served hot or cold. If you have already prepared Chunky French-Style Applesauce, use 1 cup of it for this dessert and omit the apples, butter and 2 tablespoons sugar in this recipe.

NORMAN APPLE FLANS

3/4 pound Golden Delicious apples Butter 6 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 cups milk 2 eggs 2 egg yolks or 1 additional egg 2 tablespoons Calvados

Peel, core and thinly slice apples. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in large saute pan or skillet, add apples and stir until coated with butter. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until apples are tender, about 15 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat, stirring, until liquid in pan evaporates.

Generously butter 4 (2/3-cup) ramekins. Spoon apple mixture into ramekins.

Bring milk to boil. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes. Lightly whisk eggs and yolks in bowl. (Save egg white for another use.) Add remaining 4 tablespoons sugar and whisk just to blend. Gradually whisk in 1 cup milk. Using wooden spoon, stir in remaining milk, then Calvados. Pour mixture into measuring cup.

Set ramekins in large shallow baking dish. Divide custard mixture evenly among ramekins. Place pan with ramekins in oven heated to 350 degrees. Add enough hot water to pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins. Set sheet of foil on top to cover ramekins. Bake until cake tester or point of small thin-bladed knife inserted gently in center of each flan comes out clean, about 28 minutes. (During baking, if water in pan comes close to boil, add few tablespoons cold water to pan.)

Carefully remove ramekins from water and cool briefly on rack. Serve dessert in ramekins, either warm or cold. Makes 4 servings.


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