Friday 24 November 2017

The Big Apple

From times past to the present day, apple tarts, crumbles and the classic tarte Tatin have delighted generations, says Brenda Costigan, and they're all easy as pie to make, too

In 1815, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, that she was glad her new cook had begun so well, and could make apple pies: "Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness." How little has changed! Watch out for Irish apples this autumn, particularly the eating apples, as they have such good flavour. Naturally, their availability is seasonal.

It is worth noting that the pectin in apples may help prevent the build-up of cholesterol in the blood. Also, the insoluble fibre provides bulk and holds water, which helps the efficiency of the digestive system. It is a good idea, when possible, to eat apples in their skin, because almost half the vitamin C content is just underneath the skin, as are most of the fragrance cells, and as apples ripen they develop more aroma and flavour.

If you don't have an apple tree in your garden, plant one now -- and remember to research the flavour of the apples that you grow.

Shortcrust pastry

This is one of the most useful and versatile of all the types of pastry, and it can be made with or without sugar. Sweetened shortcrust pastry is used for apple tarts and the like, while salt and freshly ground black pepper is used when making pastry for savoury dishes.

If you have a food processor, the rubbing of the butter into the flour takes only 30 seconds or so.

I like to empty the flour and butter mixture into a bowl to add the water, as I feel I have more control over the amount required. Wrap the finished pastry in clingfilm and put it into the fridge to chill for half an hour, or overnight. Pastry can be frozen successfully for up to three months.

Never stretch pastry to fit, as it will inevitably shrink. Instead, roll it a little larger than you need and ease it into the tin.

The following recipe is enough for a double-crust apple tart, that is, one with pastry on the top and the bottom.

You will need:

250g (9oz) flour, not self-raising

25g (1oz) caster sugar

150g (5oz) butter, firm but not rock hard from the fridge, cut in small lumps

Cold water, about 3-6 tablespoons

Put the flour and the caster sugar into a bowl, add the lumps of butter and rub them in with your fingertips until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. If you have a food processor, you can use it instead to do this. Add just enough cold water to make a firm dough.

Gather the dough together with your hands to make a smooth ball. Wrap the ball of dough in clingfilm and put it in the fridge for half an hour to chill, or overnight, if you prefer.

Then roll it out and use.

Apple tart

The challenge when you're baking an apple tart is ensuring that the apples cook in the same amount of time as the pastry. This potential problem can be easily solved if the apples are par-cooked before you put them into the tart.

Another thing to watch out for is that the pastry on the base of the tart is well cooked. The base will cook more effectively and be crisper if the tart is made in a tin rather than in an ovenproof -- ceramic or pyrex --dish, as the heat will penetrate the tin more easily. If you are using an ovenproof dish, just make sure that the tart is cooked right through.

Also, when you are baking any dish that has a pastry base, it is a help if you have a heavy metal baking tray (or a cast-iron tray) that can be put into the oven in advance to heat up.

The tart is then placed on top of this pre-heated tray during baking, and the extra heat underneath from the tray will help to cook the pastry base. Serves 6.

You will need:

700g (1 1/2lb) Bramley cooking apples

25g (1oz) caster sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2-3 tablespoons water

Shortcrust pastry, see above

1 beaten egg, to glaze (optional)

Cream or ice cream, to serve

Use a tin or 23cm (9in) ovenproof dish, lightly greased with butter.

Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. Peel, core and slice the Bramley cooking apples and put them into a saucepan with the caster sugar, the ground cinnamon and the water. Cook them gently with the lid on for about 5-10 minutes until apples are beginning to soften. Empty the softened apples into a bowl to cool. Put a heavy metal or cast iron tray into the oven to heat.

Roll out half the pastry and use it to line the base and sides of the tin or ovenproof dish, whichever you are using. Fill the pastry casing with the cooled, softened apples. Roll out the other half of the pastry and place it on top of the apple filling. Wet the edges of the pastry to stick the base and the top of the pastry together, trimming off any excess pieces. Pierce a few holes in the top to allow the steam to escape.

Brush the top of the pastry with some beaten egg, if you are using it. Place the tart in the pre-heated oven on top of the heated tray.

Bake the apple tart for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is well cooked. Serve hot or cold with some cream or ice cream.

Apple crumble

Using some wholemeal flour in this crumble will give a nice crunch to the topping.

The Bramley apples are cooked first with a tiny amount of water so that the resulting puree is not too runny.

Don't sweeten the apple mixture too much -- instead, let the crumble provide the bulk of the sweetness.

Accompany with some creme fraiche, whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 6.

For the filling, you will need:

900g (2lb) Bramley apples

25g (1oz) caster sugar

2 tablespoons water

For the crumble, you will need:

150g (5oz) white flour or wholemeal flour (or use half and half)

40-50g (1oz-2oz) caster sugar

50g (2oz) butter, cut in lumps

Whipped cream or creme fraiche, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180 C, 350 F, Gas 4. Peel, core and slice the Bramley apples and place them into a saucepan with the caster sugar and the water. Cook gently with the lid on until the apples become tender and mushy. Pour the cooked apple mixture into a lightly greased, 1.75L (3pt) wide, ovenproof dish. Place the white or wholemeal flour, or half and half, whichever you are using, and the caster sugar into a bowl. Add the lumps of butter and rub them in with your fingertips until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. If you have a food processor, you can use it instead to do this. Scatter the crumble mixture over the apple mixture. Bake in the preheated oven for about 30-45 minutes until the topping is lightly browned. Serve hot, accompanied by whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Variation 2:

Add 50g (2oz) chopped almonds or hazelnuts to the crumble mixture before you spread it over the apple mixture.

Variation 1:

Add 175g (6oz) frozen blackberries to the stewed apples before you put them into the baking dish. This will result in a wonderful, rich purple colour.

Tarte tatin

A French classic, this gorgeous recipe was invented by the Tatin sisters in the 1850s, when one of them absentmindedly put the apples she had cooked in butter and sugar into a tart tin, without the pastry lining. She placed pastry on top and then turned the baked tart upside down. You can serve the caramelised apples on their own, with cream or ice cream, and omit the pastry layer all together. The baked tart can be served hot or cold. Serves 6.

For the caramelised apples, you will need:

Juice 1 small lemon

4-5 firm eating apples, Granny Smith or Cox

75g (3oz) butter

175g (6oz) caster sugar

For the pastry, you will need:

175g (6oz) self-raising flour

2 tablespoons caster sugar

110g (4oz) butter, cut into lumps

1 large egg yolk

3 tablespoons water

Whipped cream or ice cream, to serve

You will need a 23cm (9in) ovenproof pan or round baking tin. Do not use a loose-bottomed tin or the juices will escape. Traditionally, a cast-iron pan was used to cook the caramelised apples, and the pastry was simply put on top and the pan was put in the oven. Any all-metal, ovenproof pan can be used. If you don't have an ovenproof pan, just prepare the caramelised apples in your regular pan, then transfer them to a round baking tin before you top with the pastry.

To prepare the apples, put most of the lemon juice in a bowl. Peel the apples and cut them into wedges -- about six per apple -- cutting away the core. Put the apple wedges into the bowl and mix with the lemon juice to prevent them from discolouring. The lemon juice also adds flavour to the finished dish.

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the caster sugar and stir until the caster sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat and let the mixture bubble, stirring occasionally until it turns a nice caramel colour. It may look somewhat curdled at this stage, but don't worry about this.

Spoon in the apple wedges, taking care to stand back as they will splutter. Add any remaining lemon juice. Now cook the apples in the caramel, stirring occasionally for about 3-5 minutes or so until the apples are slightly softened, but they must still hold their shape. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to one side while you prepare the pastry. If you like, you can serve the apples at this point, with some cream or creme fraiche.

Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. To prepare the pastry, mix together the self-raising flour and the caster sugar. Add the lumps of butter and rub them in with your fingertips until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. If you have a food processor, you can use it instead to do this. Mix the large egg yolk with three tablespoons of water and add to the dry ingredients to make a moderately soft dough. If necessary, add an extra drop of water. Using a rolling pin, shape the pastry dough into a ball and roll out on a floured surface into a circle slightly larger than the pan or baking tin. Lift the pastry and place it carefully over the hot apples, tucking in the overlapping pastry around the edges. Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden and cooked. Leave the tart in the tin for about five minutes so the juices can settle. Loosen the edges with a knife and invert on to a plate. Serve with cream or creme fraiche.

Variation 1:

Scatter a handful of blackberries or toasted, chopped hazelnuts over the prepared apples before putting the pastry on top.

Variation 2:

Add 50g (2oz) toasted, chopped hazelnuts or pecans to the pastry mix before adding the liquid.

Apple and lemon tart

For something a little special, this recipe, inspired by one of Mary Berry's, consists of a pastry base filled with a mixture of grated cooking apples, eggs, lemon juice and sugar, resulting in a delightfully moist, sharp, sweet filling. The filling mixture is poured into the uncooked pastry base and the two are baked together. Serves 6-8.

You will need:

Shortcust pastry, using half the quantities given in the recipe for shortcrust pastry

For the filling, you will need:

4 eggs

150g (5oz) caster sugar

Zest 1 lemon, finely grated

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

4-5 cooking apples -- 750-800g (1 3/4lb) before peeling -- Bramley apples are ideal

25g (2oz) butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla essence (optional)

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)

You will need a round springform tin, 25-26cm (91/2-10in) in diameter and 3-4cm (1 1/4--1 1/2in) deep. Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. If you have a heavy metal baking tray, put it in the oven now. Roll out the pastry and line the tin. Trim the edges, leaving just a small amount hanging out all around.

To prepare the filling, beat together the eggs, the caster sugar, the finely grated lemon zest and the fresh lemon juice in a large bowl. Peel and coarsely grate the cooking apples straight into the egg mixture -- this prevents the apples going brown. Stir in the melted butter and mix well, adding the vanilla essence and the ground coriander, if you are using them. Pour the apple mixture into the pastry case until it comes up to almost the top of the pastry. Don't overfill or the apple will spill out. Ensure the apple mixture is evenly distributed.

Carefully place the prepared tart on the heated baking tray in the oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Then reduce the heat a little -- 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5 -- and bake for another 20 minutes until the tart has set and is a rich, golden brown. If the top of the tart seems to be getting brown too soon, cover it loosely with foil. When baked, the centre should be firm, and not runny. Allow to stand for a good 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with cream or creme fraiche.

Chef's tip: If you are worried the pastry base is not cooked, place the cooked tart -- only if the tart has been baked in a tin -- over a moderately hot electric or gas ring and cook for 30-40 seconds.

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