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Don't let butter, spice overwhelm apple crisp
On baking
By Annie Overboe | Daily Herald Columnist

America's favorite treat, AppleCrisp and ice cream.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/21/2009 12:02 AM

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During the past month my husband and I spent a few weekends canvassing the apple orchards of Northern Illinois. Thanks to a great growing season, the trees were bursting with ripe fruit and I eagerly filled my basket at each stop.

No doubt Michael thought I'd gone a wee bit overboard at the orchards, but for me few fruits can compare to fresh apples. These juicy gems cover a spectrum of flavors, can be used across the menu and, if stored properly, will keep for quite a while.

While visions of warm apple pie filled my husband's head, I sought another path for our bounty. Not that I'm not a fan of pie, but in double-crusted pie recipes the top and bottom dough layers create a shell in which the apples bake and, essentially, steam. The filling may taste fabulous, but the golden crust tends to steal the show.

I wanted a dessert that showcased baked apple slices and allowed the fruit to take total control of the recipe.

I found that in a crisp. Baked in a glass dish without a bottom crust in the way, apples feel the direct heat of the oven, allowing the juices to reduce and concentrate flavors. The juices percolate up and around the crumble topping infusing the entire dish with autumnal notes.

It had been a while since I tried my hand at fruit crisps and my online research revealed recipes that tended toward highly sweetened desserts and a few with oats tossed in the crumble topping. Other recipes relied too heavily on spices for bold flavor. None of these met with my taste expectations of apple crisp.

I turned off the computer and pulled out my vintage cookbooks. Amid the fall harvest section I found a crisp recipe that piqued my interest. No bottom crust, very heavy on the apples, light on added sweetness and just a touch of spices. This offered serious potential.

The first crisp I baked stayed true to the original recipe. Even though I winced at the 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter tossed with the apples I forged ahead. As I suspected, the excess butter muted the apple's natural sweetness. My first move was to drastically cut the butter.

Then I tackled the crumble topping. The vintage recipe called for soft butter and a mix of ground spices. I didn't want the topping to compete with the fruit in flavor, texture or stature. I wanted a topping that baked into a gentle crisp, not one that provided a protective helmet for the fruit.

I dropped all spices from the topping recipe and used melted butter to meld the dry ingredients into a workable crumble. Chopped toasted walnuts introduced a subtle savory note that also crunched up the texture.

The most important piece of today's recipe remains the apples. For this crisp I wanted a variety suited for baking, like Jonagolds, Golden Delicious, Gala or Empire. You're likely to come across many different varieties of apples at area grocers and farmers markets; when in doubt, ask about the best use for a particular apple.

Don't be alarmed by the amount of apples in this recipe - the fruit reduces as it bakes.

And be on guard for the irresistible aroma of apples, with just a hint of cinnamon, baking - it will leave you eager for next year's harvest.

• Annie Overboe, a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at