Autumn is quite probably my favourite time of the year for cooking. It’s that moment that I wait all year for. That immense relief, like a long sigh after a particularly hard day, when the stifling, stuffy, humid summer air cools and changes. I find relief not just in the temperature, but in being able to cook, and therefore eat, differently, too.
For the long summer months, I live mostly off fresh produce, chopped into salads, and simple things that only require quick cooking (at most, I’ll boil water for pasta!). Even fruit becomes a meal in its own during those hot days. Now, I can finally make big batches of thick, hearty soups again, most of which goes into the freezer for those days when I just don’t get time to prepare much before I realise it’s dinner time. The cooler mornings and evenings means I can’t wait to turn the oven on, and suddenly all the things I’ve been avoiding cooking because of the heat, are the things I find myself craving. Oven-roasted vegetables. Baked fruit. Cakes. I like baking cakes even when there’s no reason to have cake.
Every season has their produce that shines — I love spring for its snappy peas and mountains of artichokes (which, thankfully, we will get to see again soon, in the winter), and summer for its melons and peaches and delicate, just-picked zucchini flowers, and winter for its sturdy vegetables and sweet kale, autumn has the best apples and pears, but there are also fleeting things that urge you to pick them up and cook with them, taste them, for the short moment that you can — grapes, proper, sweet grapes with seeds and mouth-puckering skins, wild mushrooms that taste of the forest trees they grew under and heavy, juicy figs that have spent all summer ripening.
There are things that you haven’t seen all summer, that you’re now happy to trade in the eggplants and peppers for — cauliflower and radicchio, quince, chestnuts and fresh walnuts. Soon there’s be thick, bright green, new olive oil to accompany all those lovely new flavours to cook with and life will feel complete.
I stopped by my favourite fruit stall in Santo Spirito market and the sweet old lady who is there every morning handed my three year old an apple — a tiny apple, about the size of a walnut in its shell (see the top photo, look at them compared to the pomegranates and persimmons).
“Go on, try it! It’s so sweet, I just picked them from my trees yesterday!”
Francesca apples, she said they’re called, an heirloom, an ancient Tuscan variety that even the Medici family loved and had immortalised by their favourite still life painter, Bartolomeo Bimbi. They’re named for the via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route, where it’s not unusual to find wild edible plants.
As I filled a brown paper bag with the tiny apples, some larger than others but none of them larger than my daughter’s fist, she noted, “These will keep well until February!” I looked at them thinking, I don’t think they’ll last a week in my house. But the tradition of these particularly Florentine apples is to pick them in October, leave them until November to fully mature and, if kept well (they were once stored under straw in drawers or kept in wardrobes to perfume clothes) they could last until spring. For good measure, I also grabbed a handful of the sweet old lady’s almonds — by far and beyond the most delicious almonds I’ve ever tasted — right off her trees in Impruneta, just outside of Florence.
We couldn’t help but eat a number of the apples on the way home. The rest I wanted to bake. Just as an excuse to turn on the oven, really. I had just that day been given a beautiful book by a wonderful historian friend, Molly, brought back from a trip to California. A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini, a poet and professor of Italian at the University of California. She knows me well — it combines history, stories and food. It’s not only a recipe collection but a “literary guide to foraging and cooking wild edible plants.” And as if by magic, I opened it on the recipe for “Baked apples with pine nuts.”
His recipe calls for a traditional Italian approach to baked apples, where they are cored and stuffed with butter, pine nuts and then sprinkled with sugar. Admittedly, I used a lot more butter and also added some dried currants. More like the amount of butter Rachel Roddy uses in her baked apples with dates. More than anything, though, I loved the introduction to the chapter where Ballerini’s baked apples feature. It’s about pine nuts, that famous Tuscan story of Pinocchio (which is actually the old, forgotten Italian word for a pine nut) and the way that pinolo became the new word for pine nut in the Italian language. How could I not like it?
Baked apples with pine nuts
Mele al Forno
- 8 small Francesca apples (or 4 normal sized apples, try Gala or Fuji)
- 60 grams of butter
- 3 teaspoons of pine nuts
- 2 teaspoons of dried currants (optional)
- 50 grams of sugar (raw or brown sugar is also nice for this)
- a splash of olive oil
Wash and pat dry the apples then carefully core them with a sharp knife, so that you have a deep hole in each apple. Divide the butter, pine nuts and currants (if using) in each hole. Place them in a baking dish lined with baking paper and sprinkle over the sugar, followed by a drizzle of olive oil. Bake for about 30 minutes (40 if larger apples), or until a knife easily slips into them.
I like these warm, but Ballerini instructs to eat them cool. Let cool about 10 minutes, then enjoy as they are, with some thick cream, custard or gelato alla crema.