We are two peas in a pod, cooking and I. It started when I first moved out on my own and realized my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, travel hundreds of miles to cook for me. It came as quite a shock after a lifetime of eating her sumptuously prepared homemade meals.
I was clearly spoiled and equally hungry. So I put on an apron, sharpened an old hand-me-down kitchen knife and got crackling at the stove. It’s been quite an adventure ever since.
I didn’t stray far from my native Italian heritage at first. After all, my passion for food started in the Piedmont region of northern Italy where I was born. Like most Italians, the life of my family seemed to revolve around growing, preparing and eating food. My parents were close friends with nearby farmers and I spent my childhood weekends gathering eggs from their sassy chickens, biting into baby carrots I had just pulled from the ground and helping to stomp grapes into wine with galoshes twice my size.
I even remember the shiny silver handgun that my dad’s friend Gianni used every year to kill an unsuspecting pig. I always felt sad when I heard the shot but somehow still found a way to enjoy the delicious sausages in which the poor fellow played the starring role.
Even after my father’s job as an engineer moved us to rural Pennsylvania, we continued to live and eat as if we had never left our motherland. Walking through the door of our home was like entering Italian sovereign territory. Our beloved dishes, in a sense, became our home. This cultural imprint runs deep.
Throughout the years, I lived in and traveled to various cities and countries, and this growing passion led me to experiment with French, Japanese, Thai, Southern, Indian, and vegetarian cuisines, among many others. Eventually I realized that cooking is really an art project for adults. The stove is the canvas. Then, with some inspiration from a cookbook or magazine and a few fresh ingredients, creativity takes over. I dabble with colors. I experiment with textures. I draw out aromas. And in the end, I create something delicious and sometimes downright magical. It’s my favorite way to spend some time.
I also learned that no matter what food region of the world I explored, I was especially drawn to a common style of cooking that can be found in any cuisine. Rustic cooking.
Call it country, soul, comfort or peasant food, it is a cuisine designed to celebrate flavors and to wrap its arms tightly around us with love. Even with more and more access to specialized ingredients and complex recipes, simple and rustic fare continues to appeal to my soul. Its deep flavors are visceral and grounding and its colors and scents transport me to a place where smiles are brighter and laughs are deeper. Its earthiness draws me closer to the kitchen, to the table, to the cooks and to those gathered there to take pleasure in the bounty.
To create this magic, all that’s needed are a few ingredients, a wooden spoon, and a stove.
I hope you enjoy this recipe. It’s just perfect for autumn…and reminds me of all the flavorful, colorful food that comes with freshly-picked apples, like pumpkins, root vegetables or apples. This recipe can be made with apple cider, by the way, but I like to turn it up a notch by using red wine. Either way, it makes for a light and satisfying end to any dinner party. I recommend doubling the recipe, as you will love having leftovers.
Of course, you can also have a deconstructed baked apple, as Wendy from Wenderly shows us in this delicious looking recipe. I love the simplicity of the recipe. You also don’t have to worry about the risk of the apple skins exploding (gently exploding, folks, so no worries! It’s really more of a tearing of the skin. It happens when the moisture in the apples looks for a way to escape the heat and so the resulting pressure creates a break in the skin).
Now, I’ve baked apples and it’s never happened to me in a dramatic sense. Once or twice, I’ve had a small tear right up at the top of the apple, but nothing that would prevent me from serving it proudly to loved ones. Maybe those who had the issues baked it at too high a heat and so the moisture pressure became too much, splitting the apples in half. We’ll never know. But since these things happen, I have looked into it and learned that if you peel part of the skin of the apple off, like in this The Kitchn recipe, you can avoid the situation all together, because then the moisture escapes through the exposed part of the apple flesh. I would try it myself, except that I really like how the unpeeled apples look. By the way, the quintessential kitchen and cooking resource, The Kitchn also offers some super helpful information on baking with apples. I absolutely love that site and have learned so much from the good folks that run it.
making spiced baked apples
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a Pyrex measuring cup, measure out 1 cup of full-bodied red wine or apple cider and then add 1 cup raisins. Stir in the ¼ teaspoon each of grated nutmeg and ground or grated cinnamon, spices, 4-5 heaping tablespoons (depending on preference) of sugar, and ½ teaspoon of lemon zest. Allow to stand for 2 hours.
Wash 6 apples of the same size (they can be Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Braeburn, or Granny Smith).
Using a corer, grapefruit knife or small sharp knife, remove their central cores. Be careful not to cut through to the bottom of the apples.
Arrange the apples in a buttered baking dish. Divide the raisin mixture between the 6 apples and spoon them into the hollowed-out cores. Add 1 tablespoon of the spiced wine or cider from the baking pan into each apple. Pour the remaining wine into the baking pan around the apples. Top each core hole with a knob of butter.
Place the baking dish in the oven and lower the temperature to 375°F. Bake for 40-50 minutes. The apples need to be soft but not overly mushy. Serve hot or at room temperature.