Published January 1, 2010.
Switching from a baking dish to a skillet was just one step toward ridding this famously frumpy dish of wan flavor and mushy texture.
This dowdy dessert, plagued with mushy texture and one-dimensional, cloyingly sweet flavor, is often the under-appreciated runner-up to a fresh-baked apple pie.
We wanted apples that were tender and firm and a filling that perfectly complemented their sweet, tart flavor.
We knew picking the right variety of apple was paramount to our success, and after extensive testing, we arrived at a surprising winner: Granny Smith was the best apple for the job, with its firm flesh and tart, fruity flavor.
To ensure our fruit avoided even the occasional collapse, we peeled the entire apple after cutting off the top. The skin was trapping steam from the extra moisture released by the breakdown of the apples’ interior cells, and removing it allowed the steam to escape and the apple to retain its tender-firm texture.
With the baking technique settled, we turned our attention to upping the apple flavor. Apple cider seemed like a natural choice for a sauce, and it thickened considerably when reduced with rich, nutty maple syrup.
Our filling base of tangy dried cranberries, brown sugar, and pecans benefited from some finessing by way of cinnamon, orange zest, and a pat of creamy butter. To punch up the flavor even more, we intensified the nuttiness with chewy rolled oats⎯and diced apple was an obvious addition. A melon baller helped us to scoop out a spacious cavity that accommodated plenty of filling.
Though we were pleased with our sauce and filling, the apples themselves lacked the concentrated, rich flavor of other cooked fruit desserts. We found inspiration in the classic French dessert tarte Tatin, for which peeled, sliced apples are sautéed in butter and sugar to coax an intense, candylike caramelized flavor from the fruit. We sliced off the tops of our apples, then sautéed them, top side down, in butter on the stovetop. After the tops had turned golden brown, we flipped them and added the filling. Instead of transferring the stuffed fruit from the large nonstick skillet back to the baking dish we had used in our tests, we simply added our sauce and transferred the entire skillet to the oven. The skillet proved to be the ideal container for baking, providing ample room to baste and a handle for easy maneuvering. As a final step, we used a natural covering to ensure the tops of apples didn’t burn: the slices we had lopped off.list of recipes