It's our favorite fruit and American as, well, its most popular baked good.
A new apple season is here, offering a crisp, sweet edge to fall meals plus the promise of lots of pie and pie-inspired dishes.
What makes apples and apple pie so all-American?
"It brings people together," said Ken Haedrich, author of "Apple Pie: 100 Delicious and Decidedly Different Recipes for America's Favorite Pie" (Harvard Common Press, 250 pages, $14.95). "It's the closest thing we have, food-wise, to a universal symbol of goodness and contentment.
"It manages to do this with unabashed honesty and not an ounce of pretense. It's an edible reflection of America's best character traits."
And, lucky us, a bountiful apple supply is close by and ready for the picking on Apple Hill near Placerville.
"Right now, we've got the early varieties: Gala, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious," said Scott Larsen of Larsen Apple Barn in Camino. "We're starting to see the Jonathans and Braeburns, then it will be one after another."
With 20 varieties in cultivation, the Larsen family has grown apples on its Sierra foothill ranch since the 1870s, making it the longest continually family-run operation on Apple Hill.
"We still have one tree a Rhode Island Green that was here when we started," Larsen said. "It's huge and still growing strong."
Love of apples and apple pie seem eternal. The sweet scent of baking apples, mixed with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg, automatically brings back memories.
"It reminds me of my mom and dad, who are gone now," Haedrich said. "I grew up watching them make apple pies together, and it's probably my fondest childhood memory."
In honor of 2011 as the "Year of the Pie," Haedrich's "Apple Pie" was re-released this month just in time for the new apple crop.
Haedrich loves all sorts of apple pies, particularly those with a brown sugar crumb topping.
For pies, he prefers Winesap apples.
"It's hard to find but worth looking for in an area where they're grown. It's the perfect blend of sweet, tart and juicy, with wonderfully complex flavor. Among the more common varieties, I like Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Jonathan.
"My best advice: If you find an apple that makes a great pie, stick with it," he said, "but don't be afraid to experiment."
The flavor of apple pie inspires variations such as apple-pie cookies, apple-pie salad and apple-pie soup.
Baked in a pie plate, an apple-pie cake looks, smells and tastes like its namesake. An apple stack cake piles up pie-like apple butter filling (using dried apples) between fluffy layers.
Bake shops dot Apple Hill, offering plenty of take-home treats. Some bakers use Fuji apples because of their sweetness. Others stick to tart Granny Smith. Pink Lady and Honeycrisp varieties have their fans.
"We use Jonathans," said Alyssa Larsen, who manages the Larsen Apple Barn bake shop. "They hold their crispness. They're really flavorful and don't get mushy. They're a good apple to cook with."
Her bake shop makes about 30 kinds of pastries, breads and other goodies, including several pies.
"We make sour cream berry apple pie and French apple," she said. "What we're known for is our cream cheese apple pie it's delicious."
Apple Hill's crop is just beginning to roll in. Despite weather complications, the plentiful harvest will continue well into November.
"Normally, we would be a lot farther along," Scott Larsen said. "Now is a good time to come up and visit." Apple tips
The skinny: Apples are mostly fiber, water and sugar, which makes them a great fat-free energy booster. They also contain a moderate amount of vitamin C and several antioxidants. One cup of sliced apples has 65 calories. Apples also are 25 percent air; that's why they float.
Varieties: Apples are a truly ancient fruit, dating back millennia. More than 7,500 varieties are grown worldwide, but only about 100 commercially in the United States. The top 5: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith. California ranks fourth among apple-producing states, behind Washington, New York and Michigan. Our local apple season peaks from late September through Thanksgiving.
How to choose a good apple: The best are fresh, crisp and juicy. A fresh apple feels firm and heavy for its size. The skin should show no dents or bruises. Avoid those that smell musty.
Older apples tend to be dry and soft. Why? Apples are still a living organism after they're picked. Apples "breathe," taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide and ethylene. After the apple is picked, it has to rely on its own starchy pulp for food and moisture. As it uses up those resources, the pulp softens, dries and eventually withers away.
When picking apples off the tree (at Apple Hill or in your own yard), choose mature, firm fruit that is slightly underripe; it will last longer when stored. Look for crispness and a sweet-tart taste, depending on variety. Overripe fruit are softer, often with a very yellow skin tone, and more mellow than tart flavor.
Storage: Apples will keep months in cold storage. According to university research, apples are best stored at 30 to 32 degrees, making the refrigerator crisper a good choice at home.
Apples also need high humidity (90 percent if possible) and some air circulation. Store fresh apples in plastic bags with several small holes. The bag retains moisture but not so much as to make the apples mushy. Put the bagged apples in the crisper drawer, but keep the drawer only three-quarters full. That allows space for air circulation.
Apples also can be stored in a cool, dark place (such as a cellar) for several weeks. Some varieties actually taste better with age.
Before eating: Wash apples well and scrub as needed. Commercial apples may have a light wax coating or pesticide residue.
Keep flesh white: Cut or peeled apples rapidly turn brown. Prevent this by dipping slices in an ascorbic mixture, such as 2 tablespoons lemon juice combined with 1 cup water. Pineapple juice, orange juice and white wine also work. Yellow Delicious slices tend to stay whiter without treatment.
If processing a large amount of apple slices (such as for freezing), use 1/2 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid or Fruit Fresh mixed with 3 tablespoons water. Toss with slices.
Freezing: Apples freeze well. Slices will keep up to a year, although they lose their crispness when thawed. To dry pack, choose firm fruit. Peel, core and slice. Dip slices in lemon-water or toss with ascorbic acid mixture. Spread slices on cookie sheets lined with waxed paper or parchment. Freeze. Once frozen, transfer slices to zippered bags or containers. The slices can be used in pies or other dishes as needed.
Apple Hill is open for business on weekends
Like everything else, the apple crop is about two to three weeks late this year, due to an unusually cold spring and cool summer.
"People forget that when apples ripen is really affected by what the weather was like when the apples first formed," explained Ann Wofford, executive director of the Apple Hill Growers Association. "The week before Memorial Day, we had snow!"
But recent warm weather has coaxed the apples along.
"We're having some lovely warm days, so the apples are catching up right now," Wofford added. "The apples are getting ripe, but we also have tons of pears and beautiful blackberries. So, you get some variety, too."
About 30 apple varieties are grown in the Apple Hill region, between Placerville and Pollock Pines.
"You'll find different ones at different times," Wofford said. "They all ripen at their own pace."
All the ranches are open now, at least on weekends, and will continue to host visitors through mid-November. For details, directions and listings of which farms grow what, click on www.applehill.com.
For an interactive map of Apple Hill ranches, click on www.sacbee.com/foodwine.