I’ve had multiple people asking me about Norma’s first article. Apple Enthusiast Magazine can be difficult to track down, and as such, the advice on baking apples that Norma’s supposedly going to provide with her column — advice I am sorely unqualified to give — is nowhere to be found.
Well, I’ve now read the thing and there’s nothing of substance in it. Seriously. She doesn’t even mention apples. Here’s how it starts:
When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. My interests range from homemade potpourri baskets to holiday baking to teddy bears with a knack for solving crimes, but at the end of the day, I’m a writer.
From there, she proceeds to say how happy she is to have joined the Apple Enthusiast team and then gives us some additional Midwest cutesy charm, just barely making sense. Observe: “From a young age I learned that a cherry tart in the hand is better than two in the bush.”
So for all of you who were hoping for some good advice on baking apples, it’ll have to wait at least a week.
In the meantime, here are my picks.
I’ve had a long-standing prejudice against Red Delicious apples. As such, I haven’t tried one for years. And yet, it seems silly to forego a consistent familiarity with one of the most popular and recognizable apples if I’m to keep my finger on the pulse of apple-dom.
First, a little history. The Red Delicious was one of the earliest supermarket apples in the USA. In fact, it’s not going too far to say that the Red Delicious is the quintessential supermarket apple. Originally named the Hawkeye, it was renamed in the 1880s when it won a competition held by a mail-order nurseryman by the name of Clarence Stark. He changed the name to Delicious for marketing purposes.
With the advent of refrigeration in the 1940s and the further technological developments of the 1960s, we got to the point where we could store apples in special rooms that allowed us to control the temperature, humidity, and oxygen levels, thus prolonging their lives. Over the years, the prettiest and heartiest Deliciouses were selected by growers — again for marketing purposes — and by the 1980s, the Red Delicious was the most popular grocery store apple. However, its taste had begun to decline as a result of the selection for more marketable traits: the thick skins made them better storage apples and the ruby color made them attractive, but they lost some flavor.
There was also a side effect to their having been selected for their redness. Unripe Deliciouses are just as red as ripe ones. And so for growers, it was guesswork to determine when to pick them. Ripeness is about starches turning to sugars. If the apples are picked too early, they won’t be sweet; if picked too late, they’ll turn mealy. And who hasn’t had a mealy Red Delicious?
Nobody, that’s who.
In the 90s, Red Deliciouses began to fall out of favor with American consumers, and Washington state’s apple industry suffered as a result of the widespread shunning of them. The government bailed out the apple industry (no joke) in 2000, and since then, we’ve seen a larger variety of grocery store apples.
But the Red Delicious remains a cornerstone of the American apple industry despite its market crash. There are over 200 varieties of apple that have have been derived from this famous fruit, and its kind of sweetness is quite distinct and popular. I call it honey.
It’s not just me, though. Many apple tasters make the distinction between sugary and honey, with “honey” being a brighter kind of sweet. Basically, you cross-reference a Red Delicious and a Honeycrisp and you’ll know what I’m talking about: the flavor they have in common is honey.
The Red Delicious I tried was not a bad apple. It was juicy, crisp, and quite sweet. But it was pretty much how I remember them — not my favorite. This week’s picks tend toward the sweeter side of the spectrum, with many of them having that honey quality.
One interesting test to determine whether an apple is honey or sugary is to offer it to my dog. She likes honey, but is not as into sugary. She goes nuts for our first official pick of the week: the Jonathan. Compared to the Red Delicious, the Jonathan is a deeper, sharper flavor. If you eat one right after eating a Red Delicious, it will impress you as more complex, but it’s nowhere near as complex as, say, a Cox’s Orange Pippin or a Zestar.
Tone down that honey and move toward the McIntosh end of the spectrum, and you’ve got yourself a Spartan. This one’s a winner for me. A little like the Macoun, but lighter.
But if you like sweet, then you’ll love the Hawaii, a golden apple named for its supposed pineapple scent. The fresher you get an apple — that is, the closer to its having been picked — the more likely you are to recognize subtle undertones like the Hawaii’s pineapple scent, which I’m now finding is more difficult to smell after a few days of refrigeration. But it’s still quite sweet. In fact, I’d call the Hawaii both sugary and honey. One of the sweetest apples I’ve ever had.
You kind of expect yellow apples to be sweet, or at least, I do. But the Grimes Golden pleasantly surprised me with its spiciness. It looks a lot like the Hawaii, perhaps not quite as light-colored, but it has a certain effervescence when you bite into it. And once its initial shot of tartness dissipates, you’re left with a touch of honey underneath.
By comparison, the Golden Russet is not nearly as spicy, and it has an acidic undertone. Not a real pleasant apple, but team it up with the Cox’s Orange Pippin and you get the Golden Nugget, a russeted apple that is almost as good as last week’s Ashmead’s Kernel. Probably the winner for this week, though the competition wasn’t that stiff.
The Golden Nugget, and its superior cousin the Ashmead’s Kernel, both have that pear-ish quality, which inspired me to purchase an Asian Pear from a farmer’s stand near one of my usual apple vendors. An Asian Pear looks exactly like an apple — same basic shape, same hardness. It’s a light, golden brown color, a little like an Ashmead’s Kernel, and though I know I’ve tried one in the past, I just had to see whether it was really so different from the pearier varieties of apple I’ve tasted recently to truly warrant the title pear.
Mark my words, people: the Asian Pear is no apple. It tastes vaguely pear-y, though the texture is somewhat grainy, kind of like sugary cream of wheat. It’s not bad, but different enough from apples to scare me back to a palate-cleansing Macoun and the final few varieties for this week: the Northern Spy, the Smokehouse, and the Hidden Rose.
Of these three, the Smokehouse is the best. It’s a nice, rich, general-purpose apple, pretty much right in the middle of the sweet/tart continuum. Add some acid to that flavor and you’ve got a Northern Spy, not a keeper for eating purposes, unless you’re French and/or you like bitter tannins. If, however, all of this week’s sweet apples have you craving something tart, the best I can do for you is the Hidden Rose, which is like an inferior Pink Pearl. It’s pink inside, and its first burst of flavor is pretty nice. But afterwards, it gets a little bitter. If the Pink Pearl is like eating a spoonful of pink grapefruit scooped fresh from a halved fruit, the Hidden Rose is like eating that same grapefruit, pealed — not cut — and with all its “underwear” (as my sister calls it) still on.
So there you have it. Not a strong week, but I made sure to get some King Davids and Cornish Gilliflowers to see me through to next week. In the meantime, at least I know that I can stay away from the Red Delicious for another couple of years.