Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just say NO to Cortland apples

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...

16 comments:

Esther said...

So that's why my applesauce turned out so well... (used a half peck of cortlands!)

Lulu said...

I picked about 10 pounds of Cortlands a few weeks ago and used them to make apple crisp. About one out of every 7 apples I used would be slightly off-white, and those would turn to mush in baking, but the others were fine. Maybe you've just been cursed by bad apples?

Merry said...

I like a tart apple for pies, so my favorite is Rhode Island Greening. But, they have become almost impossible to find. I'm afraid they're going extinct like fresh sour cherries. So sad. I'll have to try the Northern Spies (sounds very John Le Carre).

Helen said...

Don't even get me started on sour cherries. why are they so impossible to find? In Boston, we see them for 1 or 2 weeks out of the year if we are lucky.

I'll be on the look out for Rhode Island Greening. Thanks for the tip :)

adele said...

How does one distinguish baking apples from non? I'm not big on apple pie, but I do like the occasional Tarte Tatin.

Helen said...

baking apples keep their shape after cooking and turn tender but not mushy. eating apples turn to complete mush when baked. it's not that you can't eat a baking apple -- many of them taste perfectly good raw. it's just that baking with an apple that turns to applesauce does not usually result in a good apple pie or tart.

Kym said...

I'm a big fan of the way macintosh apples cook.

Helen said...

Macintosh turn to mush for me after baking, but the flavor is nice.

By the way, it all depends on what you are making. For things like apple cakes and apple crisp it doesn't matter much. But for a pie or tart, choosing a right apple makes all the difference.

Julia said...

I think Royal Gala is a great baking apple. It definitely holds it shape and, to me, has a perfect balance of sweet and acidity.

Puglette said...

I haven't tried them in baking yet, but for a good eating apple, I love the Honey Crisp.
Have a good day,
Puglette
:o)

Helen said...

honey crisp are my favorite eating apple too! But I am not sure if they'd bake well. I am sure the flavor would be good, but they'll probably turn to mush.

Anonymous said...

But they make a damn fine eating apple right off the tree!

Anonymous said...

But they make a damn fine eating apple right off the tree!

Anonymous said...

I mix Cortland with Granny Smiths when baking and have had nothing but excellent results each and every time. Perhaps it's the baker?

Anonymous said...

I just bought some because they were recommended to me! Darn!! If you haven't tried a SweeTango apple, you need to run to the store right now and get some! They are my absolute favorite apple.

Unknown said...

Juicy apples rarely make good pies because they're too wet. Look for drier, tart apples for baking.