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A Core Ritual

Each fall morning my mother made baked apples for breakfast. I awoke to the comforting smell of Rome Beauties bubbling under their crusts of sugar and cinnamon. This fall ritual of hers seemed to fit the changing colors of the leaves, the new crispness in the air.

Mom worked full time, so it surprised me that she had time to make baked apples on weekdays. But they are the simplest of old-fashioned foods--four ingredients at most for the easy version.

The trickiest part is to pick the right apple, one that holds a firm skin as it bakes, while the insides soften to a tart-sweet creamy filling.

Maryland, where I grew up, had a wide range of baking apples to choose from. Mom was partial to the tart Rome Beauty, Northern Spy and Cortland apples which baked to a deep red hue. McIntosh and Delicious were either too mushy or too sweet for her taste. She would have loved some of the Midwestern and Western apples I’ve tasted lately--such as the Paula and Ida Reds. Favorite eating apples, like Haralson, tend to burst their skins when baked but make wonderful applesauce.

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The perfect apple will vary by preference of the cook and region, but universal characteristics hold true: strong color and roundness retained after an hour in the oven, tart enough to be a good highlight for the sugar and spices and soft but not mushy interior.

Mom cored her apples almost to the bottom and baked them in a Pyrex pie dish, She used a sharp paring knife, but I find a melon baller much easier; it’s just the right size to scoop out seeds and not puncture the bottom of the apple.

The cored apples can be filled or not. Mom usually sprinkled them generously with sugar and cinnamon, added a pat of butter to each cavity and poured water around the bottom of the apples to about 1/2-inch up the side of the pie plate. She never covered the dish while baking, saying that the syrupy liquid thickens better that way, although the apples take slightly longer to bake.

A moderate oven, about 350 degrees, bakes the best apples. Too hot an oven bursts the apples, too slow evaporates the liquid.

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Trimming down the fat in Mom’s baked apple recipes required eliminating the butter pats. Some flavor was lost, so I began experimenting with a combination of real maple syrup and honey instead of the blander sugar, as well as different filling ingredients. Raisins and chopped dates can be tossed with spices and stuffed into the cavities for a sweeter dessert apple. A friend suggested using apple juice or cider instead of water. This caramelized as it cooked and produced a beautiful syrup. Of course, a dollop of low-fat vanilla frozen or plain yogurt on top of the baked apples did no harm.

Basting the apples as they cooked was another of Mom’s secrets. She used a turkey baster, pumping a small amount of the cooking liquid over the top of each apple every 15 minutes or so. This kept the tops from drying out too much and distributed the syrup flavor.

MOM’S BASIC BAKED APPLES

4 large tart apples

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1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar (packed), honey or maple syrup

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon butter, optional

1 cup water

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Using melon baller, core apples to within 1/4 inch of bottom. Place apples in 9-inch Pyrex pie pan or 8-inch square baking dish. Divide sugar, cinnamon and butter evenly among apple cavities. Pour water into dish.

Bake apples at 350 degrees 1 hour or until very soft but not split, basting frequently with cooking liquid. Let cool slightly before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

CRANBERRY APPLES

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4 large tart apples

3/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

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1 cup apple cider

1/2 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt

Using melon baller, core apples to within 1/4 inch of bottom. Place apples in 9-inch Pyrex pie pan or 8-inch square baking dish. Divide maple syrup, cranberries and cardamom evenly among apple cavities. Pour cider into dish.

Bake apples at 350 degrees 1 hour or until very soft but not split, basting frequently with cooking liquid. Let cool slightly, then serve with dollop of yogurt over each.

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Makes 4 servings.

9DATE-WALNUT APPLES WITH CINNAMON SYRUP

4 large tart apples

1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar (packed) or maple syrup

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1/4 cup chopped pitted dates

2 teaspoons toasted chopped walnuts

1/3 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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1 cup water

Using melon baller, core apples to within 1/4 inch of bottom. Place apples in 9-inch Pyrex pie pan or 8-inch square baking dish. Divide sugar, dates and walnuts evenly among apple cavities. Combine honey, cinnamon and water and add to dish.

Bake apples at 350 degrees 1 hour or until very soft but not split, basting frequently with cooking liquid. Let cool slightly, then serve with cinnamon syrup from baking dish.

Makes 4 servings.

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