Comfort food in a storm

The tempest-born apple dumpling (photo by Megan Labrise)

It was your typical Sandy story: an ancient tree blocked the road to my house, wiping out power and phone lines on its way down. Nothing at all to complain about, considering the losses some suffered. I camped out at a friend’s for the week, where two of the few things to do were read and bake.

My course of action was apparent. Adams Fairacre Farms had power and bin upon bin of local apples, and it was time to explore some lesser-known varietals. When it comes to biting into a fresh apple, most of us are either a Mac or HC (Honeycrisp) and everybody knows you bake with tart green firm ones. But there’s got to be more to the sweet life than Granny Smith apple pies. My cart was loaded with wild cards: Cameo, Cortland, Fuji, Stayman.

I reckoned the best test of each apple’s ingredient quotient would be an apple dumpling. In that dish the flesh of the fruit is central — you can tell if an apple’s too juicy because it makes the pastry soggy, or too sweet because the addition of a modest amount of sugar makes your cheeks ache. And apple dumpling was my father’s nickname for me as a baby, so I’ve got an affinity.

Though it seems simple, you do need a good recipe. Compromising the crust by poor construction puts the “dump” in dumpling — you’ll see and be sorry. So I put my trust in Deb Perelman, whose Smitten Kitchen Cookbook came out on October 30. Perelman’s famous food blog, Smitten Kitchen, is an award-winning compendium of recipes tested and tasted in her small Manhattan workspace. The cookbook is a 320-page extension of her self-taught prowess, illustrated with photographs of mouth-watering dishes displayed on her flecked counter top. The blog allowed her to quit her day job, leaving her all day to test, taste and photograph her recipes while caring for an adorable toddler son; a.k.a. Living the Dream.

Perelman’s Peach Dumplings with Bourbon Hard Sauce became the basis for my apple incarnation. The simple genius of her recipe calls for the fruit in question to be peeled and bisected. Into the little hollow created from scooping out of the seed(s) is pressed a mixture of brown sugar and spices, and a tiny pat of unsalted butter. Each fruit half is then wrapped in dough and baked cavity up. That keeps the filling from turning into the molten sugar-butter core that turns crust into a trapdoor.

I arranged the apples in a police lineup: Stayman, Cameo, Fuji, Cortland. They were peeled, halved and pitted in an instant, and splayed on the cutting board awaiting their fate. It would be easiest to tell if Cortland had or hadn’t done it, because it’s the only apple that doesn’t oxidize; its flesh stays impossibly white. That makes it an excellent choice for salads.

Stayman is a tart-sweet apple that’s often found in cider blends. Its skin is red with patches of Granny Smith-green and russet dots. Its flesh is firm and crisp and has faint wisps of red throughout, like broken capillaries. This apple was most likely to come with small jagged leaves still attached to the stem. It was an excellent choice for a dumpling, holding its shape and coming in at mid-level sweet. Grade: A-.

Cameo is sweet-tart and juicy. It is the largest of the apples I sampled, the kind that looks like it’s puffing its chest out, standing tall, with a tapered bottom. (All the others are your typical oblate spheroids.) Heavy vertical streaks of red are set on a golden-yellow background. It is crisper than Stayman. Because it’s bigger, the dough-to-fruit ratio was the best. It was similar to Stayman in sweetness, with a bit of a buttery quality to it. Grade: A.

Fuji is a sweetie with pronounced flavor. The kind you see mostly frequently in the Hudson Valley is sort of a light chartreuse that can have large patches of vibrant pink, like someone said something to make it blush. It’s close in crispness to Stayman. But when it bakes up it’s a little too sweet for my liking; I would adjust any added sugar accordingly. Grade: B+.

And then there’s Cortland, the odd apple out. It’s a deep red with mottled green and russet dots, and a big thick stem. You can’t call it crisp like the others. Though it’s soft, it does hold its shape when baked: a truly curious cultivar. Coincidentally, it’s the only one of the four from our area, developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. John Nicklin of Marlboro holds the patent on the Redcort, one of its most successful “sports” (mutations). And — don’t you know — the Cortland was my favorite one. It imparts that traditional apple-pie flavor like none other. Grade: A+.

Though Cortland wins the day, as you can see from the grades it’s hard to go wrong with any type of apple dumpling. So reach into the nearest bin and get your boon to the oven soon.

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  1. Almanac | Megan Labrise
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