Food is redemptive. Of this, I am sure. Even in the middle of this seemingly endless pandemic, as most of us stay inside our own homes with only our immediate families, the act of sharing good food redeems the soul. It brings a little cheer, even when the world outside feels dark and foreboding.
Over the past few weeks, I had let myself become a little too dependent on the quick and easy, sandwiches and the like — or on the convenience of all the takeout and delivery services around Clarkston, Georgia, where Stacy and I live. But Stacy came home last week with half a peck of Winesap apples from Ellijay, my hometown, that her mother had fetched for me on a recent trip through. I saw the little bag of goodness, and it spoke one word to me.
I love apple cobbler as much as I love anything in this world. When you grow up in the Apple Capital of Georgia, as I did, you feast on all kinds of things made from apples, and I love each and every one — the fried pies, the baked pies, apple bread, apple cider, apple butter, you name it. But I love apple cobbler best of all.
And I find the Winesap ideally suited for cobbler making. Most recipes for cobblers call for a mix of sweet and tart apples — say, half Red Delicious and half Granny Smith. But a Winesap gives you both in one. It’s an old cultivar dating back to colonial times, but it’s grown harder and harder to find: Apple growing has changed the fit the needs of the supermarket, which wants only a few varieties. Occasionally in the late fall, I can find Winesaps at a massive farmer's market we’re lucky enough to live only two miles from, but I prefer my Winesaps to come from my hometown. There are always plenty of them there.
The first time I lived in New York City, I started asking my dad to ship me a small box full of them every year. This was in the early 1980s, at a time when good Southern food was ridiculously hard to find in New York, except in the soul-food institutions of Harlem. So I began buying cookbooks and asking my aunts over the telephone for recipes, so I could eat a little of what I’d grown up on in my new northern home. And the first time I asked Daddy to ship me apples, it was with the express purpose of making myself an apple cobbler for the first time.
One of the first cookbooks I bought in New York City was a little trade paperback called The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, and its recipe for apple cobbler has been my stand-by ever since. I have to admit that folks of good will may argue over whether that book’s recipe actually qualifies as a proper cobbler, because, according to many, a cobbler is a fruit dessert topped with a biscuit-like dough. The way I cook a cobbler, which I will share with you here, requires no making of “biscuit-like dough.”
That old recipe I’ve always used is more of a magical mixture where the dough rises from the bottom. Let me explain.
Last Saturday, with that bag of Winesaps sitting on the kitchen counter, I decided to make my first apple cobbler in years. So I pulled out the old recipe — which I’ve always altered by substituting pecans for the raisins it calls for, in the interest of adding some nuttiness to the whole affair.
Here’s what you need to pull it off. First, peel and slice thinly enough Winesaps (or the aforementioned mixture) to leave you with two pounds of apples. If you’d like, you can sprinkle them with a little lemon juice to keep them from oxidizing while you pull together the other ingredients, but the truth is, a little oxidization won’t hurt the final product.
Next, take a really big saucier or braising pan or even a wok, because you’re going to need a lot of room to hold all those apples. Your standard skillet just isn’t big enough. Put it over medium heat, and melt three tablespoons of butter in it. When the butter melts, take all the apples — plus half a cup of pecans — and sauté them. Keep them moving around the pan and pulling the ones from the bottom up to the top until they get tender. It usually takes me about five to seven minutes. Then, pull the apples and pecans off the heat and stir in a quarter-cup of sugar, a quarter-teaspoon of ground cinnamon and about an eighth of a teaspoon of fresh ground nutmeg.
Then, just set them aside while you move onto what comes next.
Get your oven going at 350 degrees, and it will likely be preheated by the time you finish the rest.
Get yourself a Pyrex baking dish. The one I use is about eight inches in diameter and about three inches deep. Make absolutely sure not to scrimp on the size of the dish. With this recipe, a too-small dish will leave you with cobbler on the bottom of your oven. You don’t want that. Cobbler should go in your stomach.
Put a whole stick (a quarter-pound) of butter into your baking dish and microwave it on high for about a minute, just long enough to melt all that butter.
Next, take a mixing bowl and put into one cup of sugar, one cup of all-purpose flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, and one teaspoon of salt. Take a whisk and stir those dry ingredients around until you’ve got an even mixture. Finally, whisk half a cup of whole milk into those dry ingredients, and you’ll wind up with a thinnish batter.
Now, pull your baking dish with melted butter out of the microwave and slowly pour the batter into the butter, moving the batter all around the baking dish in swirls. Under NO circumstances should you stir this batter into the butter. You’ll see an abstract painting of melted butter and batter in that dish. This is as it should be. Do not worry.
Next, take that big pan of sautéed apples and pecans and start spooning them into your dish of butter and batter. Again, do NOT stir at any time. Just keep spooning them all over the pan until all the apples are in there. You will see some of the butter and batter begin to rise up through the apples, and that is as it should be. Again, do not worry. You’re making magic.
Finally, put the whole assembly into your oven, and set a timer for 50 minutes. When the timer goes off, pull it out of the oven, set it on something heatproof (like a folded-up Down South House & Home dishtowel) and let it cool for at least an hour.
It’s probably obvious to you by now that I’m not much of a recipe writer, at least not by professional cookbook standards. Consider me more of an instruction-giver. I’ve talked you through my favorite apple cobbler just as I would if you were in the kitchen with me.
This recipe serves eight, allegedly, but I think Stacy and I stretched it only over three nights, factoring in all the spoonfuls nabbed in passing from beneath the plastic wrap.
Make this apple cobbler and you will find joy — something that’s in very short supply these days. Its taste will amaze you.
And I’m not exactly sure why or how this happens, but it will also bring some peace to your soul. Y’all know I have no greater wish for you than that.
The Proper Recipe
- 3 tbsp. butter for sautéing apples
- 2 pounds cored, peeled, and sliced apples
- ½ cup pecans
- 1¼ cups sugar
- ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ⅛ tsp. ground nutmeg
- ¼ pound butter, melted
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ cup whole milk
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add the butter for sautéing the apples. Put the apples and pecans in the pan and sauté for a five to seven minutes until tender. Add ¼ cup of the sugar and the spices. Stir and set aside.
Melt the remaining stick of butter into a baking dish.
Mix the remaining sugar with the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix well and then stir in the milk. Drizzle this batter into the butter.
Pour the apple mixture over the batter and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 50 minutes, or until the crust is a golden brown.