Laura Dean Bennett
”Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Apples are an ancient fruit, and one of the most prolific and popular fruits in the world.
They have been part of the American experience since its beginning.
September in Pocahontas County is harvest time. Time to get the gardens in and, if we didn’t get a killing frost or late snow in the Spring, it’s time to look to our apple trees.
A good apple harvest in the fall means an abundance of apples carefully stored in the cool of the cellar for use during the coming winter months.
It’s also time to process and pack away the sweet little globes in all their delicious forms for the long-term.
From apple juice and cider to applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly and apple pie filling, canning allows us to preserve our apple crop for use throughout the year.
Apples may now be thought of as “American as apple pie,” but the domesticated apple – Malus Domestica – did not originate here.
It actually originated in what is now Kazakstan and neighboring Russia.
Apples were cultivated there and the near East as early as 2,500 years ago and were brought home to Rome and Greece, where Romans were known to grow at least six varieties.
Odd as it may seem, the apple is a cousin of the rose, as apple trees are members of Rosaceae, the rose family.
Romans took seedlings with them as they traveled throughout Europe, Brit-ain and North Africa.
From Europe and Brit-ain, apple trees made their way to the New World, where crab apple trees had been the only apple species native to North America.
Today, there are more than 30,000 varieties of apples being produced around the world.
French Jesuits are thought to have first brought domesticated apples to North America near the end of the 16th century.
When the Pilgrims landed early in the 17th century, they brought with them apple seeds and tree cuttings for grafting, as did the settlers of James-town before them.
A variety of apple trees thrived in the colonies thanks to the pollinating powers of the honey bee, which also had not previously existed here.
Honeybees had to be brought across the ocean to pollinate the fruit trees.
Colonists who wished to secure a land grant were required to clear and improve that land before ownership was conferred. Planting an apple orchard was a relatively simple way to do so.
Although most of these early species of American apples were prolific, they were not nearly as sweet as our apples of today. Those which were the most sour were commonly called “spitters,” and were used for cider.
These days, apple cider is a special treat, usually enjoyed in the fall and during the holidays.
But in early America, fermented cider was commonly served at all meals, even to children, since reliably safe drinking water was often a rarity.
The legend of Johnny Appleseed is based on the life of a young man named John Chapman.
Having learned the apple business as a young man growing up in Massachusetts, Chapman started an apple tree business in 1801.
He brought his knowledge and his apple trees to western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, planting seedlings near creeks and rivers close to new land grants where there was a burgeoning market for apple trees needed to improve the land.
Working for 50 years throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, Chapman planted so many apple trees, he earned the nickname, Johnny Appleseed.
By the mid-1800s, near-ly 14,000 varieties of apples existed across the country.
When Johnny Appleseed is said to have crossed the northern panhandle of West Virginia in the early 1800s, he may have planted the seeds that developed into West Virginia’s first successful and super sweet apple, the Grimes Golden.
The second apple “discovered” in West Virginia was the Golden Delicious, found in Clay County in 1912. This popular cultivar was designated the state fruit in 1995.
Gradually, over ensuing decades, commercial growers concentrated on a handful of hardy hybrids which were most popular and marketable.
Apple varieties that ripen in late June and early July (Yellow Transparent, for example) are usually not good candidates for storing.
Yellow Transparent apples, while seldom seen in supermarkets, are very popular here in Appalachia for making an incredibly delicious and smooth applesauce.
But many apples that ripen in late autumn – Rome Beauties and Fall Rambos – may be stored for as long as one year.
For that kind of long-term storage, apples need to be kept completely dry and very cold – ideally, at temperatures slightly above freezing.
Apples vary greatly according to their size, color, aroma, crispness, sweetness and tanginess.
The three categories of apples are cider, cooking and dessert.
For eating out of hand, it’s hard to beat Gala, Fuji, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Cortland, Empire, Red Delicious, McIntosh, Braeburn, Winesap or Pink Lady.
The best apples for applesauce are freshly-picked juicy varieties with smooth flesh that cook quickly such as Grimes Golden, Yellow Transparent, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp, McIntosh and Gala.
If you like baking apple pies, you’ll want to can apple pie filling to have on hand when a quick pie will come in handy.
You won’t go wrong with these varieties: Golden Delicious, Pippin, Granny Smith, Pink Lady or Gravenstein apples.
Bakers are also fond of Rome, Jonagold, Gala, Braeburn, Northern Spy, York Imperial, Cortland and Winesap apples.
Winesaps are also good for appetizers. Their spicy, tart bite goes well with cheese and wine or cider and they store beautifully well into the holidays.
October brings frosty mornings and sometimes even an early snow or two.
It’s time to savor the rich aroma of apple butter and the spicy tang of apple cider, served hot or cold.
Cider stores so well, by canning in a glass jar or freezing in an airtight container or freezer bag, it can then be used all year long.
And it’s not too late to grill out a few more times. Try grilling apple slices with pork chops or assemble some chicken and apple kebabs for a healthy fall supper.
Use some of your fresh apples for baking some fall favorites.
After you’ve mastered apple pie, try some old fashioned apple desserts like Apple Brown Betty and apple dumplings.
Halloween brings out the little ghosts and goblins to bob for apples and enjoy traditional treats like candied or caramel apples.
As the calendar moves us into November, apples continue to shine.
Whether on the table in a centerpiece or in our cuisine, apples serve many purposes.
They partner well with game, chicken and pork dishes, and make a tasty addition to turkey dressing and countless delicious desserts.
Give your home an enticing aroma with a stove top apple potpourri.
Simmer the following in a pot on the stove; one cut up apple, the peel of an orange, one tablespoon of cloves, two cinnamon sticks, one tablespoon of vanilla, one tablespoon of almond extract and 1 1/2 cups of water.
Those not lucky enough to already have apple trees within their reach, may want to plant their own.
For gardeners interested in maintaining certain cultivars, like Golden Delicious, the trees must be asexually propagated by grafting or budding.
Both grafting and budding involve combining the scion or upper portion of a tree with a rootstock, or root system. This ensures the new trees will always produce fruit with the specific characteristics of known varieties.
Budding, usually completed in the late summer, involves taking a single leaf bud from a healthy, growing twig and placing it in a similar sized cut made on the rootstock. If the bud is successful, the cut will heal, and the leaf bud will start sending out new growth.
Grafting can be completed by many different methods, but usually involves combining a rootstock and piece of scion wood of similar diameter.
Zigzag cuts are made into both the rootstock and the scion wood, so they fit together to encourage the growth of a single tree.
The West Virginia Extension Service is an excellent source of advice on growing apple trees.
Perhaps you want to try your hand at the kinds of recipes Americans were baking in the 1800s.
Settlers in early Virginia would have been very familiar with Apple Tansey and Apple John. These popular apple desserts were brought to the colonies from England in the mid-18th century.
Apple Tansey is an old recipe, first published in London in 1754 in The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion.
Recipes for Apple John – an upside-down cobbler made with shortcake dough – were passed down from mother to daughter for generations before a recipe appeared in The Housewife’s Cookbook, by Lilla French, in 1917.
Here are modern updates of these colonial American favorites.
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
4 large eggs
2 Tbsp. heavy whipping cream
2 tsp. rosewater/or vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. sugar
Granulated or powdered sugar for garnish
Fresh lemon wedges for garnish
You will also need: a seasoned cast iron or oven-proof nonstick skillet
Preheat your oven’s broiler. Core the apples, then slice them into thin rounds. If you prefer, you can peel the apples before slicing.
Melt the butter over medium heat until hot, being careful not to let the butter brown or burn. Add apple slices to the skillet. Fry them for about 5 minutes, turning once, until they soften and begin browning at the edges.
While apples fry, beat the eggs together with the cream, rosewater, nutmeg, and 2 Tbsp. sugar.
When apples are ready, pour the egg mixture evenly over the top of the apples. Cook the tansey for about 3 minutes until the bottom solidifies.
Place skillet in the oven under the broiler. Let it cook for 2-3 minutes longer until the egg mixture is cooked through. Use an oven mitt to remove the skillet.
Turn the apple tansey onto a large flat plate. Sprinkle it with sugar and splash it with fresh lemon juice. Serve garnished with lemon wedges or sliced lemon rounds, if desired.
Spiced Hot Apple Cider
Serves 8 chilly guests
2 quarts apple cider
1 orange, thinly sliced
1 apple thinly sliced
3 cinnamon sticks
6-8 whole cloves
2-3 allspice berries or 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp. molasses
Optional garnishes: apple slices, orange slices, whole cinnamon sticks, whipped cream
Combine all ingredients in a pot on the stove or in a slow cooker.
If using your stove, bring the cider to a boil in a large pot over high heat, then reduce to the lowest heat and allow it to gently cook for 30 to 40 minutes for the flavors to come together.
For an easy slow cooker method, combine all ingredients in a large slow cooker. Set the slow cooker on high heat and cover. Leave it on high for at least one hour, or up to two hours. Reduce to the lowest heat setting to keep warm for up to four hours.
6 cups sliced apples
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup milk
To make stewed apples, place the sliced apples in a large saucepan, then add sugar, cinnamon and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Continue to simmer gently until the apples are soft (approximately 10-15 minutes).
If needed, add additional water. Remove from heat and put the stewed apples in a 9 X 9 X 3-inch or similar-sized greased baking dish or pan.
In the meantime, preheat oven to 425°. Put flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl; stir to combine. Cut the shortening into the flour mixture. Add milk and stir just enough to combine using a fork.
Drop shortcake dough by spoonful on top of the stewed apples to cover them. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.
Remove from oven and invert on serving plate.