Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Apple-y Dapple-y (Baked apples with walnuts, honey, and spiced mascarpone)

Mono no aware is the Japanese concept of "Awareness of Things." It refers to the poignancy of ephemeral beauty: the single night of the moon at its zenith, spring blossoms that scatter to the winds, autumn leaves changing colors, only to fade, and fall. I fancy I've always had a certain affinity for the melancholy of evanescence. This reached its peak in high school, when I'd craft intricate designs below the tideline, using stones, shells, and beach roses. I knew that, in a few hours, they'd be devoured by the waves, but the action of creating the art, and its destruction, and the pathos of those fleeting moments in between was part of the beauty. As I walk in the park every day, with that welcome new tang of autumn chill to the air, I feel just a little blue as I notice the season turn and sunlight slip away. This is why, in my opinion, the Autumnal Equinox was a festival for ancient Europeans. It doesn't just coincide with the harvest, it also helps to kick away that sense of autumnal doldrums. Like with  honey-baked apples, roasted walnuts, and spiced mascarpone cheese.

Quick pick-me-up
Celebrating in these modern times can be daunting, though, as various friends and coworkers adopt different diets. This one's gluten-free, that one's cutting all refined sugars... The quest for a "healthy" dessert can be tough. Even just fresh fruit, while low in calories, is still mostly sugar and thus might not be great for those watching their carbs. In my quest for sweetness, some concessions had to be made. Even I, for example, refuse to use artificial sweeteners. So for us to celebrate the Autumnal Equinox, I settled on baked apples. Even though studies have shown that gluten-free is of no particular benefit to those who don't have celiac disease, and that honey is of no notable nutritional benefit over table sugar, baked apples made with honey satisfy the requirements of being both gluten-free and free of refined sugars.

Now, honey may still essentially, calorically, be sugar (as my high school bio teacher said "it's like pure energy!"), but it absolutely, inarguably, has other characteristics to recommend it. The most important aspect of this is terroir (pronounced "tare-whar?"), a French loanword for the intrinsic flavor, color, texture, and aroma characteristics that certain foods acquire from their peculiar locality. Terroir is why certain meats, cheeses, yogurts, and so forth (and, yes: honey) have Protected Designation of Origin, because of particular geographic and/or cultural features of a region that pass on recognizable traits. These can still vary from season to season and year to year, somewhat like vintages of wine, and this makes the pursuit, acquisition, and delectation of both local and exotic imported honeys especially enjoyable.

Honey time!
While bees are generally considered domesticated, honey is ultimately the result of forage. Bees range far and wide in the pursuit of nectar and also acquire a variety of pollen and propolis (plant resins, waxes), which serve to give honey distinctive flavors, colors, scents, and consistencies. Bees can forage from agriculturally raised plants, of course, and this is how various delightful mono-floral varieties of honey are cultivated, fortified with the ephemeral essence of certain herbs and fruits, but that particular melange of wild forage will always bear out in the terroir of an artisanal beekeeper's wares.

Gratuitous apple shot
That rustic forage spirit is carried out in an elemental pairing of honey with just apples and walnuts, topped off with a lazy swirl of barely-sweetened and discretely spiced mascarpone cream. These baked apples hit all the right spots that apple pie a la mode or warm apple crumble would, but with distinctly fewer carbs and fat. There's still butter, mascarpone, and honey, though, so it's not all bad. A perfect seasonal and reasonably healthy offering (though still not appropriate for vegans or those with nut allergies) this simple dessert allows you to enjoy the awareness of things, while easy prep and baking keep you blissfully unaware of others.

Pictured: bliss
Baked apples with walnuts, honey and spiced mascarpone

The two parts of this recipe are also equally good separately. The baked apples are delicious and even healthier without the mascarpone accompaniment, and the mascarpone pairs wonderfully with things like pumpkin pancakes or warm cinnamon rolls. Serves 4-8.

4 apples, ideally pink lady or honeycrisp (for a sweet-tart flavor)
1 lemon, freshly juiced
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cubed
1 cup raw walnuts, chopped
4 tablespoons honey

For the spiced mascarpone:

4 ounces mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Halve the apples and core them with a spoon, trimming any stem at the edges.

Arrange apples, hollow side up, in a shallow baking dish, then splash with lemon juice and sprinkle with the butter and walnuts. Drizzle judiciously with honey.

Bake the apples 35-40 minutes, until moist, gilded, and just beginning to slump.

Slumping slightly
While the apples are baking, whisk together the mascarpone, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Spicing things up

Serve apples hot from the oven, topped with spoonfuls of drippings from the pan and generous dollops of mascarpone.


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