From tree to plate, apples are a treat this time of year

Caramel Apples are best when homemade.
Caramel Apples are best when homemade. TNS

Winter is coming, as you know if you look at a calendar or have seen any episode of Game of Thrones.

You can also sense a change of seasons by the number and variety of apples available in markets now.

Apples’ success as a doctor-repellent is legendary. You can’t make all-American pies without them. And they can be a vital component in anybody’s eye.

Best of all, they are crispy, sweet and delicious. Except the tart ones. Those are crispy, tart and delicious.

Even Delicious apples are delicious.

For apple lovers, this is the best time of the year. You can find just about everything from Pink Lady to Braeburn, from Idared to Empire, from Criterion to SweeTango to Grimes Golden.

You can just bite into them all, if you want. But apples are too good to be solely eaten out of hand. They should be cooked, too, or at least used uncooked as part of a treat that is even better than plain apples.

Caramel delight

I am speaking here about caramel apples, one of the most glorious delights of the season.

You can make caramel apples by taking those cellophane-wrapped caramels, melting them and dunking apples into them, but that’s not really satisfying — and it’s not nearly as good as making them yourself.

The caramel is the key, and making it is not hard, but you do need a candy thermometer. An accurate candy thermometer. A few degrees off and you get caramel that either slides off the apple or a crispy — not chewy — caramelized shell.

The secret is to calibrate your candy thermometer. Just boil water and see what it registers on your thermometer. If it reads 212 degrees, you’re fine. If it reads 206 degrees, you’ll know to add 6 degrees to every temperature it says.

Do this simple trick, and you will be rewarded with chewy, delicious caramel apples that are a perfect autumnal treat.

Entrees, too

For an apple-related entree, I made one of my favorite recipes. It combines chicken, apples, onions and Dijon mustard, and I agree with you: It sounds awful.

It sounded awful to me 25 years ago when I first discovered it in a Glamour magazine cookbook, and it still sounded awful to me every single time I have made it since then, and there have been many.

These are four ingredients that should not play well together. And yet, I keep coming back to it because the recipe is so good. I have no idea why the ingredients blend together with such harmony, but they do.

Best of all, it is simple and fast to make.

Have patience

Apple butter takes considerably longer to create, but patience while cooking is often a virtue.

Apple butter is one of those pleasures I came to appreciate only as an adult. When I was a child, I didn’t understand why anyone would bother with apple butter when they could have jam. But with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes apple butter.

Homemade apple butter is glorious, but it takes a keen sense of proportion to keep all the flavors in balance. You begin with tart apples, Granny Smiths, which must be peeled, cored and sliced. These are initially simmered in a lightly sweet mixture of apple cider and water until they are soft enough to be passed through a sieve.

Plenty of brown sugar is added, along with lemon juice and zest. But the tricky part comes from the proportion of spices — cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Too much spice makes the butter bitter, but a light hand with them will turn these common ingredients into something spectacular.

Don’t forget the English muffin. For some reason, apple butter always tastes best on an English muffin.

For an apple-based dessert, I paged through a cookbook by Jacques Pépin and found a recipe for caramelized apple timbales that couldn’t fail.

It failed.

Pépin is a star in the culinary world, a celebrity chef before there were celebrity chefs. He and his friend Julia Child are largely responsible for popularizing French cuisine in America. If he had a recipe that I couldn’t get to work, I figured the fault was not in the culinary star but in myself.

So I tried to make it again. And again. And again. Each time it came out tasting like mushy baked apples. After four tries I decided to throw in the apple-stained towel. This is simply a dish to forget.

Which leads us to another bit of wisdom:

One bad apple recipe doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.

Apple Butter

Adapted from Washington State Apple Commission

4 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 cup water

1 cup apple cider

Brown sugar as needed, around 2 1/2 cups

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon allspice

Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons

Cook the apples in the water and cider over medium-high heat until soft. Pass through a food mill or force through a sieve. Measure the purée and add 1/2 cup brown sugar for each cup of purée. Add the cinnamon, cloves, allspice, rind and lemon juice and cook over very low heat until thick and dark brown, stirring occasionally. To test if it is thick enough, put some in a mound on a spoon and move the spoon away from the heat. If it is still in a mound after 2 minutes, the apple butter is done. This may take 3 to 4 hours or more.

If apple butter is not to be used within 1 week or so, boil canning jars with 2-part lids, completely covered with water, for at least 5 minutes. Remove from the water without touching them on the rims or inside, and allow to dry. Fill these jars up to 1/4 inch below the top with the apple butter and seal with the two-part lids. Return jars to boiling water that covers them by at least 1 inch, and boil for 5 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. If the lid is not sucked down a bit by a vacuum, refrigerate and use the apple butter inside within a week or so.

Per tablespoon: 33 calories, no fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, no protein, 9 g carbohydrate, 8 g sugar, no fiber, 2 mg sodium, 7 mg calcium

Yield: About 5 1/2 cups

Chicken in Apple-Mustard Sauce

Recipe from “Glamour’s Gourmet on the Run,” by Jane Kirby

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup apple juice

1 medium onion, sliced

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

4 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 apple, cored and sliced

1. Place each chicken breast between 2 sheets of waxed paper. With dull side of a heavy knife or the bottom of a heavy skillet, pound chicken breasts to flatten to about 1/2-inch thick.

2. Over medium-high heat, heat butter in a large skillet. Sauté chicken about 3 minutes on each side until golden. Add apple juice, onion, garlic and thyme. Cover and cook 10 to 12 minutes or until chicken is tender.

3. Remove chicken; keep warm. Heat liquid to boiling. Add mustard to skillet. Stir until well blended. Add apple slices. Pour sauce over chicken.

Per serving: 261 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 88 mg cholesterol, 27 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 12 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 191 mg sodium, 27 mg calcium

Yield: 4 servings

Caramel Apples

Adapted from a recipe by Wayne Harley Brachman, via Food Network

8 apples, preferably Granny Smith

8 craft sticks or chopsticks

1 cup chopped pecans, peanuts or nuts of your choice

1 cup heavy cream, divided

3/4 cup light corn syrup

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

This requires an accurate candy thermometer. To check yours for accuracy, boil a small pot of water and use your candy thermometer to find its temperature. If it reads above or below 212 degrees, you will have to adjust your reading accordingly. For instance, if your thermometer reads the temperature of boiling water as 217 degrees, you will have to remember that your thermometer reads 5 degrees higher than the actual temperature.

Wash and completely dry the apples. Insert a stick into the stem end of each. Pour nuts into a bowl and set aside.

Fit a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a candy thermometer. Over high heat, cook 3/4 cup of the cream, the corn syrup, butter and sugar to 246 degrees (this is the firm ball stage). At this point, the syrup will be golden. Remove from the heat and carefully swirl in the remaining 1/4 cup of the cream and the vanilla. Use caution; this is very hot and it may splatter.

After the bubbles have subsided but the caramel is still hot, dip and turn the apples into the caramel to coat and let the excess drip off. Dip the bottoms into the chopped nuts. Arrange the apples on a nonstick or waxed paper-lined cookie sheet and let cool. Note: If the caramel becomes too thick to dip the apples, reheat it over low heat, stirring, until it can again be poured.

Per serving: 621 calories, 32 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 72 mg cholesterol, 3 g protein, 87 g carbohydrate, 77 g sugar, 6 g fiber, 34 mg sodium, 57 mg calcium

Yield: 8 servings