Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Apple Chips and Autumn

Dear Fall,

My relationship with you has been more challenging than with the other seasons. For years, I loved the smells, the tastes, the feelings of crispness in the air, but was wary of enjoying them. I'd gaze upon the magazines at the grocery store, colorful covers boasting culinary opulence: roasted turkeys, glazed hams, baked pies of every flavor. Very early, however, I understood that fall meant winter, and winter was a strange and dark time in my childhood home. For many of those years, I avoided immersing myself in the joys of autumn because the fall from technicolor was so much farther than the fall from black and white.

I am happy to report, however, that my circumstances have changed dramatically. My climate has changed. My control has changed. My family has changed. But twenty years can make some habits hard to break. The habit of disliking you, the harvest season. I assure you, it was always me, and never you, that was the problem.

This year, as I have labored for the last decade, I am working to return to your grace. I slow to breathe in the cinnamon-scented pine cones at the market. I bury myself in autumn recipes, like pumpkin butter, and braised squash, and roasted brussels sprouts. I relish the chill in the air, perfect for Bailey's and coffee on the weekends, freshly baked french bread, and the triumphant return of many soups to dip that crusty bread into. Though apprehensive, I do not fear your early sunset; rather I delight in watching the sun crest the mountaintops during my morning commute. Although I could not bear to overpay for spiced lattes at coffee shops, I briefly consider it. And thanks to, I now bake apple chips in celebration of the coming season.

Working out the kinks of my new oven, this was the inaugural recipe using my convection settings. Following the recipe, after the baking time of 45 minutes at 200 degrees (non-convection), my chips were still damp and had not yet reached even leather status, let alone the elite ranking of Crispy Chip. There is a lot of inherent play in the light simple syrup used to precook the apples, as well as in the thickness of the sliced apples. Though my $8 Progressive mandoline worked like a dream, for $8, you just have to live with the limitations of how thin you can slice your food. I'm certain that had the apples been more thinly sliced, this technique would have worked better. However, in life and in the kitchen, you work with what you've got. Luckily only a few apples slice into a large bowlful of slices, and I had plenty of sugar to refill my simple syrup mix.

I believe this might just be one of those recipes that you have the pleasure of watching come to life: monitoring to see when the apples turn just to your liking based on the density of the apple slices, your particular oven, and of course, just how much chew you like in your apple chips. What a wonderful opportunity to prepare other items for the week's meals, or to spend the baking time cooking and connecting with your children, watching magic happen as whole apples become apple chips. My preferred batch baked dry and crispy, light and sweet, and posed no risk of removing my fillings when chewed. Here is what it took in my oven to reach that crispy fall loveliness.

Baked Apple Chips
Adapted from Sue Veed's fabulous recipe at Serious Eats.
(Click here for printable recipe.)

1. Scrub your favorite batch of apples. This is a good way to use up a surplus from your co-op box, a sale at the store, or if your family is appled-out and you need something new and interesting to do with them before they go bad. Granny Smith were on sale, but I also had some Pink Ladies that Hubby didn't care for. Both worked great and I couldn't tell much of a taste difference in the baked product. So I would venture, unless you have a color look you are aiming for (these are gorgeous in the middle of a table, by the way), use whatever is cheap or laying about.

2. Prepare a bowl of water laced with lemon juice. I sliced the end off of a lemon and squeezed it in. We just want enough acid to inhibit browning while we wait for the batches to bake.

3. Since I'm not a big fan of chewing through the core, I turned my apples on their sides to slice on the mandoline. I preferred the look of the chips with the peel on, so I discarded the first slice that was mostly peel, then sliced until I reached the core. Give the apple a quarter turn, and continue slicing in this manner (discarding the first slice) until you reach the core. Continue turning and slicing until all you have left is a square core. Store slices in the lemon water.

4. Prepare a weak simple syrup mixture of 1 1/2 cups sugar to 4 cups water. Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Place your apple slices, one layer at a time into the softly boiling mix, reducing or increasing the heat as needed. Cook until slices are slightly transparent, 1-2 minutes for nice, thin slices, or 2-4 minutes for thicker slices.

*Note: For multiple batches, you are better to throw away (or store for cocktails) your syrup and start fresh. If you just keep adding water and sugar as needed to keep your pan full, by the end of your batches you will have made apple-flavored soft-ball sugar and candied apple slices, which aren't half-bad, by the way, but are completely different from what we are going for here. The soft-ball sugar I made by accident is so beautiful, in fact, that I can't bring myself to throw it out without finding something useful for it.

5. Blot the apple slices on a tea towel and space out on a cooling rack placed on a baking sheet. For proper drying, you want airflow all the way around the slices. This is the stage where you may opt for a sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, etc.

6. Bake at 300 degrees (convection if you've got it) for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, turn the rack around and bake for another 10-15 minutes. The slices change dramatically as they cool, much like granola and other sugared baked goods, so pull a slice out and cool it to test for doneness.

7. Allow to cool completely on cooling rack.

8. Store in an air-tight container.

Apples: 3 lbs assorted at $.89/lb
Sugar, water, slice of lemon or squeeze of lemon juice: pantry staples

Total: $2.67. I used up the rest of some apples I had in the house, but if I had been buying new just for this recipe, I would have bought the Granny Smith that were on sale. This price is just about what a bag of pre-made chips runs at the store, and you get 6-8 servings as opposed to 2.5 servings. To further illustrate, that comes out to $1.07 a serving for store-bought versus $.33 a serving for homemade, with the added benefit of smelling up your house with the wonderful smell of baking apples.

And this fall, that is a very welcome aroma.

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