It's Fall!! Finally, the 80-degree days of this past September are easing into crisp mornings and brisk blue skies. Concord grapes and shiny gourds are at the farmers' market, and peaches are giving way to mountains of apples and pears. Had the first hot cider of the season last week, and next week, I'll be heading up to the Hudson Valley for a weekend of cider-doughnut munching and apple-picking. So lots of apple posts this week, starting with a memory of autumn in California--an elusive season, since October is much more Indian summer than sweater weather, but with its own charms nonetheless.
One of my best Bay Area autumn memories revolves around apples, or more specifically, the Apple Farm, up in the Anderson Valley. Located down a skinny little side road off Highway 128 in Philo, near the beautiful Hendy Woods redwood grove, this organic apple orchard is a meandering bucolic dream. Ducks and bunnies wander through the herb garden. Tall sheds, open to the still, sweet-scented afternoon air, are filled with heavy wooden boxes packed with gleaming Golden Delicious fruit (which, when freshly picked, is miles away from the usual bland, rubbery corner-store fruit). At the self-service table near the tiny gravel parking lot, crates of juicy, deeply flavored heirloom apples perched next to heavy glass bottles of hard cider and quarts of sweet, cloudy amber apple juice.
On that October weekend a few years ago, Apple Farm co-owner Sally Schmitt taught a group of us just what to do with her apples. (These cooking weekends are really enjoyable, and well worth signing up way in advance for, since they book up very quickly. Check out their website, above, for details). Sausages braised in cider, curried duck breast with apple salsa, and best of all, an upside-down gingerbread cake topped with apples drenched in a buttery brown-sugar caramel. Over time, I've tinkered with the original recipe, substituting different gingerbread recipes for the cake and pears or poached quinces for the apples. A friend from New Orleans always adds a slug of rum to the butter-sugar topping, making it into a kind of apples Foster, while a long, leisurely quest through the world of gingerbread commentary led to this triple slam of powdered ginger, fresh ginger root, and candied ginger in the cake. (Also called crystallized ginger, it's readily available in Asian markets and specialty food shops.) The fresh and candied ginger aren't crucial, but they add an irresistible depth of flavor not found in powdered ginger alone. The apples cook down quite a bit, so squeeze in as many slices as possible, even layering them two deep in places if you can.
Another trick for this cake is to try baking it in a cast-iron skillet instead of a cake pan. Cheap, endlessly useful and nearly indestructible, a cast-iron skillet is equally perfect for roasting a chicken, making a batch of corn bread, and baking a deep-dish blueberry pie and a lovely gingerbread cake.
If you have a favorite gingerbread recipe, by all means use it here, although this version has a particularly alluring balance between springy, delicate texture and forthright spicy flavor. One thing about the recipe: out of habit, you may find yourself reaching to beat in the eggs directly after creaming the butter and brown sugar. Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, not here. You MUST mix everything else into the batter before you add the eggs. The eggs go in LAST, weird as it seems. Trust me, I've done the other way, and I've ended up with a dry, lumpy, weird mess instead of a nice thick batter. And don't use ancient spices--if you have a dusty jar of ginger that's been sitting over the stove for the past 3 years, it's going to have as much flavor as lint. Chuck it and replace, or better yet, dump out all your old spices but rinse out and save the jars. Go to a health-food, Middle Eastern or Indian shop that sells spices in bulk, and stock up on small batches of spices you use a lot, then decant them into the jars when you get home. They will cost mere pennies per bag and will be loads fresher than supermarket spices. And don't store your spices over the stove--the heat dries all the flavor out of them. They really do need the requisite cool dry place.
If you've been to the Apple Farm (or to their stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market) and bought a jug of their lovely apple-cider syrup, it makes a great substitute for the molasses. Or try a mix of half cider syrup and half dark (grade B) maple syrup. This has become my standard Rosh Hashanah dessert, much better than the usual heavy honey cake. And baking it will make your house smell like autumn in heaven.
Gingerbread Apple Upside-down Cake
1/2 stick (4 tb/2 oz) butter
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3 or 4 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup boiling water
2 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 stick (8 TB/4 oz) butter
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
2/3 cup molasses or apple-cider syrup
1 Tbs grated fresh ginger
1 Tbs chopped candied ginger
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a large, deep cast-iron skillet. Swirl butter around to coat sides, then sprinkle 2/3 cup of brown sugar over bottom of pan. Cook over low heat for a few minutes, until sugar no longer looks grainy. Remove from heat and arrange apple slices in a decorative pattern. (Or, grease a deep cake pan. Melt the 1/2 stick butter and pour into pan. Sprinkle the sugar over the butter, and mix together. Top with apple slices.) Set aside.
Mix boiling water and baking soda, and set aside. Sift together dry ingredients. Cream whole stick of butter and 2/3 cup brown sugar, then beat in molasses, fresh ginger, and baking soda-water mixture. Add dry ingredients and candied ginger, stirring gently until batter is smooth. Stir in eggs. Pour batter over apple slices – batter should fill the pan no more than halfway, to allow for rising. If you have extra batter, bake in a separate pan. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool, then carefully invert on a plate large enough to catch any stray drips of caramel topping. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.