Let's get one thing straight: Cortland is a terrible baking apple. There. I said it. I can now breath easier.
It's been recommended for baking by so many cookbooks, used on so many cooking shows, and suggested to me by so many farmers, that for years I was trying to use it. I finally gave up on Cortland two years ago when Kathleen Weldon from New England Grown introduced me to the Northern Spy apple. Finally, I found a real baking apple that keeps its shape instead of turning into apple sauce like Cortland does.
Last week I wanted to bring an apple galette to a friend, but Northern Spies weren't out yet. They don't show up till very late in the season. I should have waited, but the apple galette craving was too much to handle. I was facing a dilemma at Whole Foods. I could always go the easy and reliable route and get Golden Delicious. They keep their shape beautifully, but are kind of boring in the flavor department due to low acidity (not a biggie as that can be remedied with lemon juice). But Golden Delicious were not local, and it seemed ridiculous to bake with an apple from Washington State while living in New England in the fall. So I went the risky, feel good route, and got local Cortland. The guy at Whole Foods swore by them as the best baking apple and assured me they'll keep their shape.
Well, it was apple sauce as usual. It's one of those rare cases where the picture made it look better than it really was. Those nicely caramerlized shapes you see in the picture were just a thin top layer that set quickly during baking. The inside of the slices turned to complete mush. It reminded me of the French Chef episode when Julia Child flips Tarte Tatin, and the soupy apples completely fall apart. "I wonder if those were really Cortland apples," says Julia. That's what I've been wondering for years. But unless there is some apple conspiracy to sell fake Cortland apples to unsuspecting public, I think those really were Cortlands.
Luckily, I am now a proud owner of a huge bag of Northern Spies. I asked Kimball farm for a dozen to make sure I have enough for all my tart classes and Thanksgiving. Northern Spies keep incredibly well (as long as 2-3 months) because they mature late and have more acid and less sugar than most apples. The best way to keep them (as with all apples) is in the fridge in a plastic bag with holes for ventilation. Just make sure to poke those holes before putting the apples in the bag so that you don't bruise them.
Since we are entering a serious pie and tart baking season, I thought you might find my illustrated guide to pie and tart dough handy.
Happy baking to all!
November 3, 2008 update:
Julia Child once said that a potato is a neurotic vegetable. I'd like to add that an apple is a neurotic fruit. That dozen of Northern spies that I got from Kimball this year didn't turn out nearly as well as in the past years. They kept their shape only slightly better than Cortlands. However, I tried another apple for baking, called Golden Blushing (also from Kimball) and it was outstanding. Baked as good as I remember Northern Spies baking, kept the shape, great sweetness/acidity balances, etc. Well, I don't know what to say. Maybe I just keep getting unlucky with Cortlands. Apples are so unpredictable...