Friday, August 10, 2007

Heirloom Apples: Early and Evocative

There they are, sitting right next to the blueberries, producing that cognitive dissonance, that feeling of unease, that always accompanies the reminder that the hottest month of summer is teetering at the apex, ready to tip over into fall at any moment. Joe Pye Weed pinkening at the edge of the pond. Apples at the side of the road.
We do associate apples with fall, after all. But some of the best apples begin appearing in August (even July!), and by late August and early September there are several varieties to choose from. Most people have their favorites, and their favorites for different purposes. For me, they are the ones my grandmother insisted on: Stayman Winesaps, Baldwins, Jonathans, Macouns, Gravensteins, Northern Spys, for eating and for pies; Macs for applesauce; and Rome Beauties for baked apples. Many of these are 19th century varieties, but many are still grown and, depending on where you live, with a little effort can still be found--even those old pie paragons, Baldwins and Gravensteins. Where you live also dictates what is grown, as apples, like people, have their climatic preferences. In Rhode Island, we have our own Rhode Island Greening, an excellent late-season, all-purpose apple that dates to the 1600s (but is scarce even here in Rhode Island now). When you do find these special apples, it is invariably from individual growers and small farmers; commercial growers breed and select varieties for uniform (often large) size, pretty appearance, and shipping and shelf qualities--for their needs, not yours. The selection is a miniscule percentage of the varieties that were commercially available before World War II, and many of the new, "improved" varieties, like modern tomatoes, are all show and no go. I prefer the taste, texture, and cooking properties of the old ones and seek them out.
The apples that have appeared locally in the past week or so are Lodis and Yellow Transparents. Lodi, a hybrid developed in 1924, is a cross between a Montgomery and a Trasparent; the Yellow Transparent was introduced from Russia in 1870. They are similarly crisp, very juicy, and sweet/tart, and are good for both applesauce and pies. All to the good. But, like dear friends who show up too soon for dinner, they find me unready to fully engage: early applesauce or early apple pie is just too. . .early. A light, simple, free-form tart, however, offers the pleasure of the first apples without the dread sense that it’s time to order the firewood.
Rough Apple Tart
Sometimes called a galette or a crostata, neither of which is technically correct, a spare, free-from tart is a nice casual summer item. It can be made with most any fruit or combination; if you have a peach or some berries hanging around, feel free to add them. It is best when very fresh, so try to plan on removing it from the oven within an hour or so of when you want to serve it. The glaze is optional, but I like it for this otherwise monochromatic tart, all flaky pastry and barely tampered-with fruit.
1 1/8 cup flour
¼ cup RI johnnycake cornmeal or other fine white cornmeal
½ tea salt
1 tea sugar
8 T cold unsalted butter
2 T lard or shortening
2-3 T ice water

Pulse dry ingredients briefly in the food processor. Drop in butter and toss to cover; pulse 8-10 times until butter is distributed but some is still in large pieces. Add lard or shortening and pulse until mixture is coarse crumbs, about 10-15 more pulses. With feed tube running, add only enough water and run only enough time until dough comes together into a ball; turn out onto a piece of wax paper, wrap, and chill.
Filling, Assembly, and Baking
6 small apples
2 T brown sugar
1 T flour
pinch salt
1 T slivered almonds (optional)
2 T sugar
1 T unsalted butter
2 T currant jelly or apricot jam, plus water to thin (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Toss the apples with the brown sugar, flour, and salt. Roll the chilled dough out into a rough circle or oval directly onto a flat cookie sheet (it is soft, and difficult to transfer). Don’t worry about the shape; you want it to look thrown together, which it is. It should be about 1/8” thick. Place the apple mixture into the center and spread out evenly and thinly to about 2” of the edge, then roll the edge inward to form a rim. Some empty spots of dough are fine, and desirable. Sprinkle with the almonds and distribute the sugar over the top, including the rim. Dot with the butter. Bake for 25 minutes; the crust should be golden and the apples starting to brown at the edges. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake about 10 minutes more, until the tart is a nice color; remove to a rack. If you are glazing, melt the jelly or jam, thinning with water if necessary, and glaze the tart lightly, using a dabbing motion, while it is still hot. Let cool on the rack for 15 minutes, then slide tart onto the counter. Cut with a pizza cutter or bread knife, transfer carefully to plates with a spatula (the crust is very thin and flaky—and delicious), and serve plain and pronto, either warm or at room temperature.

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