LONDON -- When it comes to apples, the British don't mess around. They grow them, eat them and even catalog them with a passion that borders on obsession.
And it's all the Romans' fault, for they're the ones who brought the fruit here in the first place, planting trees in Kent in the south of England.
The National Collection of Apples -- yes, there is such a place -- claims to have the oldest variety, brought over in 450 A.D. by the Roman general Ezio. It's a small thing called Decio, green with a touch of russet.
In medieval times, orchards weren't just places to grow fruit. They became the ancient version of bowling alleys, where people participated in games and tournaments. By the 1890s, epicures paid as much consideration to apples as they did to claret. They were a prize food, the caviar of their day.
Today, the National Collection has 2,016 varieties, and they're creating new ones that have only numbers to identify them. Not for them the idiosyncratic names of Hoary Morning, Suntan Camelot, Redsleeves or Cox's Orange Pippin.
If you travel through the south of England, you will see a mixture of new and old orchards. Trees in the former stand in neat rows close together. The latter are filled with gnarled trees full of character.
As winter approaches, it's here where you'll see the mistletoe hugging the apple trees. As a symbol of affection, it's chosen its home well. It's hard not to have a warm, glowing feeling after a satisfying apple dish.
This time of year, thoughts of warm, embracing desserts are uppermost. These are some recipes that evoke social meals around a large pine table in an English country kitchen laid with flagstones.
You don't need a Peasgood Nonesuch or a Beauty of Bath to make these dishes tempting and scrumptious. A beautiful Golden Delicious or a crispy, slightly tangy Granny Smith will still impart those true apple flavors.
1 pound apples
4 tablespoons golden raisins (optional)
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or cinnamon (optional)
1 cup sugar
2 sticks margarine
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour, sifted
pinch of salt
drop of milk
Peel the apples, cut into quarters, core and slice. Cook over low heat with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. The aim is to soften the apples but not fully cook them; otherwise they lose their shape. If you like, this is when you add the raisins and spice. When cooked, take off heat and place in a greased pan or oven-proof bowl. Set the oven to 350 degrees.
Cream the sugar and margarine together until smooth. One at a time, fold in the eggs. Sometimes the mixture will look as if it's curdling. If so, just add a little of the sifted flour and mix thoroughly. After the eggs, fold in the flour. Add the salt, a few drops of vanilla and a little milk to make the mixture a soft dropping consistency.
Spoon the mixture onto the apples and smooth over. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until the top is golden and the topping is cooked through.
The combination of the apples with the softness and texture of the sponge topping make this a truly mouthwatering dessert. Depending on your preference, you could add whipped cream or a good vanilla ice cream.
For a dinner party, another option would be to make smaller individual dishes, which would look very impressive on the table in front of your guests.
Michele's baked apples
There's more to baked apples than just throwing them into a pan in a hot oven. Here is a superior version to get your taste buds around. Serve hot or cold and use uniform size apples that won't topple while cooking.
Core the apple. If you don't have a corer, you can still do the job by cutting a square straight down through the center of the apple and then gouging out the hole with a small spoon. Then, with a sharp knife, trace a circle around the middle of the apple, just cutting into the surface. The edges of the cut pull apart while cooking and serve to stop the apple from splitting. The cut also looks very attractive when served as the white flesh peeks out from the skin.
Next the filling. Here's where you have a number of options, and it's the chance to experiment.
First, seal the hole at the bottom of the apple with a large knob of butter. Now it's preference time.
As a dyed-in-the-wool English person I would fill the hole with a good quality mincemeat, which, I hasten to add, does not have meat in its modern version but has a lovely rich fruity, nutty, sugary taste.
You can add a preserve of your own choice. A good thick-cut marmalade or even a ginger preserve would be lovely.
Depending on the filling, if you want a really sweet dessert, you might add a rich, dark brown sugar and even mixed spices.
Next, fill the top with butter and smooth over. For a spicy, wintry flavor, stick cloves into the skin.
Sit the apples in a pan, leaving space between them. Pour in some water to cover the bottom of the pan and bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Check the apples halfway through the cooking and baste them with the liquid. If necessary, add a little more water. This will form a sticky, rich sauce you can pour over the cooked apples when serving.
Long before the oven door is open, the smell of wintry spices hits the air and tantalizes the taste buds.
When the apples are done, take out the cloves and serve individually.
The best accompaniment again would be whipping cream or a good vanilla ice cream. The smooth, rich texture is the perfect foil for the baked apple with its slightly crispy skin.