Winter. Finally. {And a Recipe for Dried-Apple Slab Pie}

Winter has finally found its way to Georgia.  After weeks upon weeks of unseasonably warm weather, sub-freezing temperatures have arrived with a vengeance. 

I can’t say I’m sorry.  I enjoy the warmth, but I also relish a cup of coffee by the fire, clear cold days and nights curled up under layers of blankets.  The fourth season is often a short one in Georgia, but I’d miss it if it chose to bypass us altogether.

The warm temperatures we’ve experienced up until now have led to some confusion in the garden.  I went out yesterday to cut back the asparagus ferns, brown and dry except for a few red and green berries that are still hanging around.  As I cut the stalks off close to the ground, and pulled weeds from around the bed, I noticed a couple of tender, fresh spears poking up through the dirt.  One of them was nearly white from having been covered over by a patch of chickweed, while the other was bright green tipped in purple.  I carefully cleared the space around them and left them to bask in the bright January sun.  I’m not sure they’ll survive the hard freezes we’re having overnight, but hopefully this bodes well for our spring asparagus crop.

The true onset of winter is signaled by a dearth of fresh fruits at the market.  There are still some varieties of storage apples available locally, but for the most part we’re seeing fruit that’s been flown in from far-flung places. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to dry a bunch of apples back in October.  When we received an invitation to dinner from some friends the other day, I knew just what I wanted to take as my dessert offering.

I had seen a recipe from the King Arthur Flour Baking Banter Blog for an Apple Slab.  I was intrigued by this combination pie/bar/cookie concoction, so I pinned it on one of my Pinterest boards.   I used it for inspiration, but as usual I also made the recipe my own.  The original calls for fresh apples that you layer with bread crumbs and sugar and cinnamon between two pie crusts.  This appears to result in a firmer textured filling.  I was looking for something slightly more pie-like, but that could still be sliced into neat little squares.  Enter the dried apple.

  Dried-Apple Slab Pie with Caramel Glaze

prep time: 1 1/2 hours (allows for filling to cool and crust to rest)
bake time: 1 hour
serves: 12

Ingredients

  • 2 pie crusts (you can use store bought, or your favorite double-crust pie dough recipe)
  • 2 quarts dried apples
  • Apple cider to cover apples (approximately 1 quart)
  • 2 tablespoons sucanat (can use brown sugar)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with 2 tablespoons water (to form a slurry)
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cup honey granules (can use granulated sugar)
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Place dried apples in a large saucepan and cover with cider
  2. Cover and bring to a boil, allowing apples to rehydrate.
  3. Remove apples from the pan and place in a heat-proof bowl, leaving the cider behind in the saucepan.  Add the sucanat and cinnamon to the cider and return to a boil.  Slowly pour the corn starch slurry into the boiling cider mixture, whisking to avoid lumps.
  4. Boil to reduce slightly and thicken.  Remove from heat and pour over apples.  Refrigerate to cool.
  5. While the filling cools, make your pie crust dough.
  6. Preheat your oven to 350F
  7. Roll 1/2 of the pie dough out to a 9×13 inch rectangle.  Place it in the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan.
  8. Pour the cooled apple filling into the pan.
  9. Roll the second 1/2 of the dough out to a 9×13-inch rectangle and place on top of the apple filling
  10. Bake for 1 hour.
  11. While pie is baking, make the caramel.
  12. Combine the evaporated milk and honey granules in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Allow to boil until it reaches the firm ball stage.
  13. Remove from heat, add the butter and vanilla, whisking to combine.  Continue whisking until it begins to thicken and loose its sheen
  14. When pie has finished baking, remove it from the oven and pour the caramel over the top.  Use an offset spatula to spread it evenly.
  15. Allow to cool, then slice into 12 squares.

What results is a juicy, tart filling between two flaky layers of pastry, and a creamy rich caramel glaze on top.  The fact that there’s only two tablespoons of sugar in the filling means the true flavor of the apples really comes through.  I had dried a combination of Granny Smith, Pink Lady and Arkansas Black, so the apples were all quite tart.  They balanced quite well with the sweet, buttery caramel. We ate ours plain, but I imagine it would be especially delicious topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

Or maybe even for breakfast with a piping hot cup of coffee.  Curled up with a good book in front of the fire, that sounds like an excellent way to spend a cold winter morning.

Streusel-topped Cranberry Orange Muffins

Friends, I just can’t accept the fact that it’s the middle of December.  I just. can. not.  How is it that there are fewer than two weeks until Christmas?  Where has the month gone?  I need for time to just slow down. Take a breather. Relax.

Seriously.

For one thing, it just doesn’t feel like December.  It was 65 degrees outside today.  There I was, out in the garden, picking collards and broccoli and lettuce.  Relishing the warmth. Feeling slightly off kilter because it IS December, after all, and my garden is still offering up all sorts of goodies.

December.  Last year it snowed on Christmas.

I’m kind of torn.  I love the fact that the kids can still play outside in the afternoons, but I miss having a fire every night in the fireplace.  I love the lovely greens still coming out of the garden, but I would also love it if it snowed one day soon.  I want the best of both worlds.  I guess I just need to learn to be thankful for what I’ve got.

I had a meeting the other morning at the school where I used to work.  I was supposed to be there at 8 a.m., but Atlanta traffic had other plans for me.  As I was sitting there, surrounded by every commuter in the metropolitan area, I praised the fact that my new job is three miles from my house.  I used to drive 50 miles round-trip.  Every day.  Now it’s ten at the most – and that’s because I have to drop the little one off at day-care beforehand.  I know I’m thankful for that.

Because it was an 8 o’clock meeting, I wanted to provide some goodies that we could munch while we chatted.  I had recently dried a bunch of cranberries in my dehydrator, and candied some orange zest using honey in place of the granulated sugar.  I love the combination of orange and cranberry, so I decided to bake a variation on this crumb cake I made last year, but making muffins instead.

Streusel-topped Cranberry Orange Muffins
adapted from the Tate’s Bake Shop Cookbook
prep time: 15 minutes
cook time: 35-45 minutes
yields: 1 9-inch square cake
Ingredients
For the topping:
1/2 cup sucanat (or firmly packed dark brown sugar))
1 cup old fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
generous pinch of salt
For the batter:
2 cups freshly ground flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup plus honey granules (or granulated sugar)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup half and half
2 large eggs
1/4 cup coconut oil
4 large pieces candied orange peel, chopped

1 cup unsweetened dried cranberries, reconstituted in 1/2-cup of  apple cider

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
  2. In the bowl of your food processor, combine the brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, and butter.  Pulse the it until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Set the mixture aside in the refrigerator.
  3. Add the reconstituted cranberries, along with the liquid, and the candied zest to the food processor.  Process until the berries and zest are chopped
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  5. In a large bowl, co tmbinehe sour cream, half and half, eggs,  and oil
  6. Add the flour mixture to the sour cream mixture and stir just to combine.  Fold in the cranberry mixture.
  7. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin.  Sprinkle the topping evenly over the batter.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.

What’s nice about these is that the muffins themselves are not too sweet (the tart cranberries take care of that), so the sweet streusel topping really contrasts nicely with them.  The original recipe called for using fresh cranberries that have been chopped in the food processor, but I think the dried ones work equally as well.  I definitely like the addition of the candied zest.  They were a big hit with my kids, and with my fellow meeting attendees.  I think they would also be a delightful addition to your holiday breakfast or brunch table, if you do that sort of thing.

Holiday gift ideas: Pink Peppercorn Sea Salt Caramels

Every year, I try to come up with interesting and flavorful homemade holiday gifts to give my friends, colleagues and family.  I usually bake a variety of cookies, cakes, shortbread and crackers, package them up and give them away in decorative tins and boxes.

This year, I wanted to try something new.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m still baking (as is evidenced by the 80 or so cookies cooling on my kitchen counter right now), but I thought it might be fun to try my hand at something different and unique. I looked through cookbooks, websites and magazines, and the one recipe I kept coming back to was for Salt and Pink Peppercorn Caramels from Better Homes and Gardens‘ December issue.  The photo in the magazine was so beautiful, and the description that accompanied the photo was equally as lovely.  I just knew I had to try this flavor combination.

I decided, though, that I would make my own caramel recipe, and just add the pink peppercorns and salt at the end.  The BHG recipe was fine, but it used brown sugar, and I prefer my caramel made with white sugar.  I know that this is one of those super-refined ingredients, and I would love to experiment with candy-making using unrefined cane sugar, but at this point I’m comfortable with the familiar.  And I just don’t make candy all that often, so when I do, familiar is important.  Candy-making is a fickle art, and I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to be totally experimental, especially since I need these to give as a secret-Santa gift tomorrow.

According to Serious Eats:

Pink peppercorns lend foods a different kind of heat, closer to chiles than black pepper. They have the same peppery bite, but it’s wrapped in a sweet fruity flavor reminiscent of a berry with an attitude. The peppercorns have a thin, fragile skin that can easily be rubbed off (a great lightly-flavored colorful garnish for fish or chicken).

Based on this description, it only makes sense that you’d pair them with something sweet, and when you enhance the whole thing with some French Celtic sea salt, you’ve got a perfectly balanced bite.

Pink Peppercorn Sea Salt Caramels
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 40 minutes
rest time: 2 hours
yields: 60 pieces
Ingredients
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 cup salted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 teaspoon crushed pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon French Celtic sea salt
  1. Prepare a rectangular baking pan by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying with oil or greasing with butter.  Set aside.
  2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter and 1 cup cream in a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat.
  3. Stir until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes, then wash down sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in warm water.
  4. Place a warmed candy thermometer in the pan and cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil. 
  5. Wash down any crystals that form on the sides.
  6. Continue to cook until the mixture reaches 244F, or Firm Ball stage.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and with a clean wooden spoon, gradually stir in the 2nd cup of cream.
  8. Return to the heat, bring back to Firm Ball stage, or at least 245F.
  9. Remove from the heat and pour into your prepared baking pan.
  10. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. 
  11. Sprinkle crushed peppercorns and salt evenly over the surface.
  12. Allow to cool completely – you may want to put it in the fridge to speed this process.
  13. Once cool, remove the caramel from the pan by lifting the foil liner.  
  14. Peel off the foil, and cut into pieces.
  15. Wrap with waxed paper.

Aren’t they pretty?  And I can tell you, the flavor is just as nice.  These are a great little holiday treat for your friends and family.  The pink peppercorns add a unique dimension to the flavor profile, while also adding a touch of holiday color to an otherwise ordinary salted caramel.  Try them and let me know what you think.

Enjoy!