When the temperature dips and the leaves begin to turn, nothing tastes better than a crisp, juicy apple.
Call it Jonathan, Granny Smith, Blondie or a litany of other names. There’s a locally grown variety for palates craving tangy tart to super sweet — and everything in between.
“This year the Honeycrisp has been exceptional,” says Lance Hall, owner of Sunflower Orchards in Paola, Kan. “But I do love Fuji apples, and we have four varieties of them.”
Hall works with his customers at the Overland Park Farmers Market to pinpoint their preferences on the sweetness scale.
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“We’re trying to match the apple variety to their tastes,” he said.
Chances are something from his 2,000 apple trees will provide just the right flavor profile, including several varieties not usually found in grocery stores.
Any apple grower will tell you it’s impossible to be just a little into the apple business. The investment of land and trees is too deep for the dabbler. Hall decided to take the plunge five years ago when he realized there wasn’t another apple orchard in Miami County. Now he’s celebrating his third year at the Overland Park market and enjoys seeing families come out on you-pick days announced on his orchard’s Facebook page.
Johnny Appleseed would recognize the traditional freestanding trees of Sunflower Orchards, but there’s also a revolutionary trellis system. A portion of the trees grows on wire, like grapes grow in a vineyard. These dwarf trees make easy targets for apple-picking kids.
Hall says apples should come to market with their stems in tact.
“We pick the day the before the market,” he said, “so the stem is still green.”
To keep apples fresh for weeks, store them in airtight bags in your refrigerator’s vegetable crisper.
Pick apples for the purpose
Think of the fruit’s ultimate use when you scan the rows of shiny apples at the farmers market. Some varieties are best eaten out of hand, because their texture won’t hold up to cooking. Other kinds seem nature-made for baking in pies or simmering into applesauce or chutney. Then there are the popular multitaskers you can toss in a lunch sack, slice on a salad or chop into almost any recipe you can dish out.
Jonathan, Jonagold and Fuji are all go-to varieties for experienced baker Jan Knobel of The Upper Crust pie bakery in downtown Overland Park. Knobel and her sister Elaine VanBuskirk co-own the business that turns out 400 pies a week — a fourth of which are apple.
Knobel bakes a straight-up apple pie but also offers creative variations with blueberry or rhubarb. Customers are anticipating the return of Harvest Apple Pie, the bakery’s autumn staple. It includes fresh cranberries, orange juice and orange zest.
“It literally tastes like fall,” Knobel says.
Only midsized apples get the nod for Knobel’s pies.
“Bigger is not better,” she advises. “The larger varieties tend to have more blemishes. We know, because we peel all our apples by hand.”
Make apple-picking memories
For the quintessential autumn experience, visit an area orchard and fill a bushel with apples straight off the tree. Several you-pick options are available, but longtime area residents wax nostalgic with memories seeded by Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm.
The iconic family restaurant stood at U.S. 40 and Lee’s Summit Road for more than 90 years. Even though its you-pick orchard closed in 2003 and the trees are long gone, the Stephenson family still hears heartfelt compliments and gets the occasional phone call about seasonal apple picking.
“It was always fun,” says Ron Stephenson, fourth generation of the orchard’s founder. “It never failed to surprise me that so many people would comment on the orchard even when you’d meet them in a social setting.”
Laurie Monsees of Kansas City remembers that a trip to Stephenson’s was always a part of her family’s autumn.
“My sisters Carolyn, Julie and I would always head out for picking,” she said. “Yes, it was about the apples, but it was also about tradition and family time.”
Most of the pickings were transformed into chunky cinnamon-spiced applesauce to stock the family’s basement freezer.
“I remember jars and containers covering every kitchen surface,” says Monsees. “With our Indian summers, sometimes it was pretty hot outside. Mom was red-faced with all the cooking going on.”
Still crisp in her memory are the apples Monsees says the family set aside for eating fresh.
“Some of those Stephenson’s apples were kid-sized. They were Jonathans ... super crisp, a little bit tart. As a kid, they’d sit in my hand just right.”
Monsees hopes to rekindle her childhood memories by buying apples from a local grower.
“I want to go somewhere beyond the grocery store this year. It’s a labor of love to run a local farm ... to bring nurturing, quality food to people in today’s environment.”
Julienne Gehrer is a freelance writer and the author of “In Season: Cooking Fresh from the Kansas City Farmers’ Market.”
Apple Picks: Sweet to tart
▪ Red Delicious – Story book in appearance and sweetness, it’s become a lunchbox staple. Limited culinary use because its fleshy texture turns mushy when cooked. Best eaten fresh or added to salads.
▪ Fuji – One of the sweetest fresh-eating apples that packs substantial crunch. Mostly red with splashes of yellow or green. Can take the heat of baking without wimping into mush.
▪ Honeycrisp – A large yellow and red apple that’s mostly sweet with a hint of tart. Super crispiness makes it excellent for eating fresh and tossing into salads.
▪ Zestar – Known as the sister to Honeycrisp since it shares many of the same characteristics. Firm flesh makes both varieties good picks for caramel apples.
▪ Gala – A mildly sweet apple with a tart background flavor. Mostly red colored and comparatively thin skinned. If you don’t want to peel, Gala is the way to go.
▪ Blondie – A sweet apple similar to Gala but with a yellow skin and a slightly more tart finish. Crunchy texture makes it great for eating fresh picked.
▪ Golden Delicious – A sweet apple with a tart subflavor. Unlike its red-peeled cousin, it doesn’t get all mushy in the heat of cooking.
▪ Jonathan – The workhorse of apple varieties because of its versatility. Small in size and good for eating out of hand, making applesauce or baking in pies or dumplings. Has a tangy flavor when eaten fresh and tops the list for pressing into cider.
▪ Granny Smith – Tart green apple that packs some pucker power alone but pairs nicely with aged cheeses. Its firm texture earns it a blue ribbon for being a pie baker’s best friend.
Get the you-pick experience
Grab the kids and head out to local orchards to pick tree-ripened fruit and grow family memories. Be sure to call ahead to confirm hours and availability. Apple-picking options can vary considerably from day to day.
▪ Alldredge Orchards
10455 Route N, Platte City
▪ Cider Hill Family Orchard
3341 N. 139th St., Kansas City, Kan.
▪ Schweizer Orchards
5455 S.E. Route FF, St. Joseph
▪ Sunflower Orchards
16905 W. 311th St., Paola, Kan.
▪ Wagon Wheel Orchard
15380 Edgerton Road, Gardner
▪ Weston Red Barn Farm
16300 Wilkerson Road, Weston
Honeycrisp Apple Slaw
This easy autumn salad goes well alongside sandwiches or roasted meats. If you want to work a day ahead, make the slaw without the apples, then toss them in about half an hour before serving. This gives them time to marinate in the dressing yet maintain their light color and signature crunch.
Makes 12 servings
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons celery seed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 Honeycrisp apples, cored and chopped (peel optional)
In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar and honey. Stir in celery seed, salt and pepper, then set aside. In a large bowl combine cabbage, carrots, pecans, red onion and apples. Add dressing, toss thoroughly and serve immediately.
Per serving: 116 calories (63 percent from fat), 8 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 184 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Caramel Apple Muffins
Taste all the goodness of caramel apples in a spicy muffin. This recipe works equally well with white or wheat flour.
Makes 12 muffins
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup Jonathan or Granny Smith apples — peeled, cored and diced
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup milk
8 tablespoons caramel ice cream topping
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a 12-cup muffin pan.
In a large bowl combine butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla. Stir in diced apples.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, soda, salt and spices. Add a third of the dry mixture to the batter alternately with a third of the milk, stirring after each addition.
Divide batter between muffin cups and bake at 400 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes.
Allow muffins to cool before removing from pan. Drizzle 2 teaspoons of the caramel topping over each muffin. Refrigerate any leftover muffins.
Per muffin: 152 calories (27 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 26 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 323 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 5 cups
A savory complement to chicken, turkey, game hen or pork. Also pairs well with smoked cheddar or baked brie as an appetizer.
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 large onion, minced
20 ounces crushed pineapple
1 cup raisins
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon mustard seed
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 Fuji apples
16 ounces whole berry cranberry sauce
1 cup chopped walnuts
In a large stainless steel or enamel pot, combine all ingredients except apples, cranberry sauce and walnuts. Bring to a slow boil over moderate heat. Simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Peel, core and chop the apples. Add apples, cranberry sauce and walnuts then simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Process in sterilized canning jars or store in refrigerator for up to two weeks. May also be frozen for up to six months.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 106 calories (16 percent from fat), 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 55 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 12 servings
Crisps, cobblers, Bettys and buckles serve up a taste of wholesome goodness from America’s past. Try this warm from the oven or reheat slightly before serving. Top with vanilla bean ice cream and a shake of cinnamon.
8 Jonathan apples
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter, cubed
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Peel, core and slice apples. Place in the bottom of a greased 13- by 9-inch pan.
Place flour and brown sugar in a separate bowl and cut in the butter using a pastry blender. Stir in the oats, walnuts and cinnamon, then spoon the topping evenly over the apples.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until the topping is lightly brown and the apples are fork tender.
Per serving: 454 calories (43 percent from fat), 23 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 41 milligrams cholesterol, 63 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 162 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.