If there is a scent that says “home,” it’s the aroma of an apple dessert baking in the oven. Even if you didn’t grow up in a house where such treats were made, the scent of apples and butter, cinnamon, and sugar has an almost primal pull. When we’re making our apple turnovers at my bakery, people follow their noses and come into the shop right off the street. They might leave with something different, but it was that scent that enticed them inside.
I think the nostalgic way people feel about apple desserts is why you don’t often see bakers and pastry chefs messing too much with the notion of what they should be: pies and tarts, crisps and betties, turnovers and cakes, all flavored with sugar and cinnamon. So how do you make these simple, homey treats as delicious as possible? Use the best apples you can find.
Seek out different apple varieties
My favorite apple to bake with is grown locally at Gowan’s Oak Tree in Philo, California, about an hour’s drive from my bakery in Healdsburg. The orchard grows a big, boxy apple called a Sierra Beauty. It has a great balance of well-developed sugar, which gives it a wonderful flavor and lets it caramelize beautifully, and acid, which keeps the flavor from becoming bland when baked. Sierra Beauties are also really dense—they seem to give off less water than other varieties—so they hold their shape when cooked.
Because I’m so spoiled by these wonderful apples, I haven’t experimented with too many other varieties. Grace Espinoza, a member of the Gowan family, says a Gravenstein is probably most similar. Ask your market to start stocking Sierra Beauties: they ship and store well. If you don’t live out west, you can mail-order Sierra Beauties but the shipping can add up. To do so once, to see how wonderful these recipes can be when made with such a flavorful apple, makes sense. But then go and seek out your own favorite, preferably locally grown variety at its peak flavor time. (For some suggestions culled from growers and other bakers, see the sidebar.)
Test which variety you like best by making turnovers. After narrowing down your contenders, make the apple turnovers. But instead of filling all eight turnovers with the same apple, fill a couple of turnovers with one variety and a couple with another. Keep track of which turnover had which apples, and then gather some friends for a taste test. Note not only the flavor of the apple— does it come through the cinnamon and sugar, or are you tasting only that?—but its texture as well.
If you’ve taken my suggestion to find your favorite baking apple, you may wind up with more apples than you know what to do with. (Some varieties will keep for a few months in a cool place; ask the seller.) What I suggest is making a big batch of apple purée, which will keep in the freezer for months.
Buying the best apple for baking
Since apples are grown just about everywhere in the United States, it isn’t difficult to find orchards and farmers’ markets that feature apple varieties that you won’t find at your average supermarket. Talk to the apple sellers. Tell them you’re looking for a baking apple, one that holds its shape well and has a good balance of acid and sugar.
Tasting the apple is a good place to start, but your favorite baking apples will likely be different from the ones you enjoy raw as a snack; they’re generally more tart and less sweet. A low-acid, high-sugar variety, like Gala, is great fresh but becomes quite bland when baked. Rome Beauty, on the other hand, develops a more pronounced flavor when cooked.
These varieties are considered good for baking: Baldwin, Cortland, Golden Delicious, Gravenstein, Idared, Jonagold, Mutsu (also called Crispin), Newtown Pippin, Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greening, Rome Beauty, York Imperial.
Just as important as choosing apples that are good for baking is avoiding those that are not. These varieties are considered bad for baking: Gala, Jonathan, McIntosh, Macoun (but good for puréeing), and Red Delicious.
Then there are those apples that might hold their shape well but lack flavor, or that have flavor but fall apart. While there’s general consensus about the best and the worst baking apples, these apples fall somewhere in between: Braeburn, Empire, Fuji, and Granny Smith.
Finally, experiment with those varieties that you may never have heard of but that come highly recommended by a grower. Never heard of Black Gilliflower? Me neither, but supposedly it’s great for baking.
Peel when you want and ignore the browning
Many recipes suggest immediately tossing peeled apples in lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. That’s fine for a Waldorf salad, where brown apples would look unappealing, but if I’m going to bake the apples I generally don’t bother. A little surface browning won’t affect the apple’s flavor (and I think lemon juice does). And once you toss the apples with cinnamon and bake them, sauté them with butter and sugar, or cook them into a purée, they turn darker anyway. I’ll peel, core, and slice apples up to a day ahead of using them in a recipe. If kept in an airtight container in the fridge, there’s no harm done.