3 apple desserts to wow family, friends and holiday guests

Ruth Reichl’s Apple Crisp starts with freshly picked heirloom apples and is served warm with a pour of cream.
Ruth Reichl’s Apple Crisp starts with freshly picked heirloom apples and is served warm with a pour of cream. Random House

I knew I had hit a home run when Gene Singletary, the legendary Miami caterer, sauntered over to me at a dinner party and asked for my pie recipe.

Knowing I was going to Singletary’s home for dinner — he is a fabulous cook — I scoured my cookbooks and food magazines for something that would delight but not take all day. I came across a scrumptious apple pie recipe in Best Fall Baking by Southern Living, a commemorative issue of the magazine now on newsstands.

“Try It,” tempted the cover blurb, pointing to a photo of Double Apple Pie with Cornmeal Crust. Mounds of apples — 4 1/2 pounds — stacked under a golden crust, layered like wooden slivers in a Jenga game.

With Christmas approaching and South Florida’s ever-so-slight autumnal chill in the air, I embarked on a baking frenzy. I gathered fall fruits — apples, pears, dried cherries — and let them fill my home with the aromas of my Northeast childhood, where bushels of apples like Honeycrisps, Idareds and dozens you never heard of flew from fruit stands and farmers markets.

Besides the Southern Living recipe, I tried two other apple desserts: an Apple-Pear-Cherry Pie from the October/November issue of Fine Cooking magazine, and an Apple Crisp from Ruth Reichl’s new book, Ruth Reichl, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (Random House, $35).

All three garnered rave reviews from friends and family, my eager testers.

Southern Living’s recipe was first published in September 2008 and came from the magazine’s former and longtime food editor, Shirley Harrington. The recipe was her mother’s, and included her “closely guarded, secret pie crust-making method,” said Jessica Thuston, the publication’s editor.

“It is one of our most popular and top-rated recipes ever,” Thuston said.

Among the recipe’s secrets: brushing the top crust with a tablespoon of the apple mixture’s juices, giving the crust a slight apple/cinnamon/nutmeg flavor and a rich, golden color. (The dough also is moistened with chilled apple cider.)

The pie crust dough doesn’t call for a lot of mixing. It’s more like a “mound, moisten, move and gather” technique, said Pam Lolley of Southern Living’s Test Kitchen. “I’m sold on the no-stir method for flaky pie crust that Shirley’s mother uses,” she said.

If you want to go beyond a traditional apple filling, you’ll love the Apple-Pear-Cherry Pie from Fine Cooking. The magazine’s editor, Jennifer Armentrout, took over the mantle as chief pie maker from her father, who always baked the family’s holiday pies until he passed away. She inherited his pie pans and rolling pin and soon began playing in the kitchen.

She came up with this recipe when trying to find a pie that could be assembled ahead and baked from the freezer — a godsend during the hyperbusy holiday season. The pears and cherries, which are plumped by poaching in a simple syrup, make for a fabulous filling, warmed with cinnamon and fresh nutmeg.

Best? You can assemble the pie ahead of time, freeze it, then pop it in the oven from the freezer.

“There are not that many recipes out there with pies that you can do this with,” Armentrout said. “And make sure you have some left over. I absolutely love this pie for breakfast.”


If making a pie crust from scratch scares you, Reichl’s Apple Crisp is the perfect antidote.

It’s simpler and melts in your mouth like warm applesauce touched with lemon, cinnamon and brown sugar.

Reichl, the former editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, now lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York, a land rich with farm stands and apple orchards whose roots go back hundreds of years.

Reichl moved up there after Conde Nast abruptly shuttered the famed culinary magazine in 2009, ending a 69-year run.

“I was so devastated when the magazine closed,” Reichl said. “I really had a sense of this really big failure, that nothing good was ever going to happen in my life again.”

Scared, she returned to the kitchen, where making meals for people she loved became her therapy. She explored the farmers markets and fields, touching, smelling, searching for the purest of foods and flavors.

At the Great Barrington Farmers Market in the Berkshires — just on the other side of the Hudson Valley — she stumbled upon heirloom apples she had never seen. Russet skinned, squat and round, with names like Esopus Spitzenbergs, Arkansas Blacks, Cox Orange Pippins and Ashmead’s Kernal.

She brought them home and decided to make the crisp.

“Peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug reluctantly out of their skins,” she writes in the recipe’s text.

If you can’t find heirloom apples, don’t fret. I used Braeburn and Granny Smiths, and the crisp was divine.

A nice touch: serving it warm with a pour of cream on top.

A simple pleasure, something Reichl has rediscovered.

“I found there were lots and lots of reasons to be happy, if only I opened up myself to them.”

Indeed, a Christmas message to remember.

Joan Chrissos:@joanchrissos

Double Apple Pie with Cornmeal Crust

Recipe from Southern Living. Don’t worry, the mounds of apples cook down from their tall stack. See associated recipes for cornmeal crust and brandy-caramel sauce.

2 1/4 pounds Granny Smith apples

2 1/4 pounds Braeburn apples

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons apple jelly

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/3 cup sugar

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Peel and core apples; cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges. Place apples in a large bowl. Stir in next 7 ingredients. Let stand 30 minutes, gently stirring occasionally.

Place 1 Cornmeal Crust Dough disk (see recipe) on a lightly floured piece of wax paper; sprinkle dough lightly with flour. Top with another sheet of wax paper. Roll dough to about 1/8-inch thickness (about 11 inches wide).

Remove and discard top sheet of wax paper. Starting at 1 edge of dough, wrap dough around rolling pin, separating dough from bottom sheet of wax paper as you roll. Discard bottom sheet of wax paper. Place rolling pin over a 9-inch glass pie plate, and unroll dough over pie plate. Gently press dough into pie plate.

Stir apple mixture; reserve 1 tablespoon juices. Spoon apples into crust, packing tightly and mounding in center. Pour remaining juices in bowl over apples. Sprinkle apples with 3 tablespoons sugar; dot with butter.

Roll remaining Cornmeal Crust Dough disk, rolling dough to about 1/8-inch thickness (13 inches wide). Remove and discard wax paper, and place dough over filling; fold edges under, sealing to bottom crust, and crimp. Brush top of pie, excluding fluted edges, lightly with reserved juices from apples; sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar. Place pie on a jelly-roll pan. Cut 4 to 5 slits in top of pie for steam to escape.

Bake on lower oven rack 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees; transfer pie to middle oven rack, and bake 35 minutes. Cover loosely with aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning, and bake 30 more minutes or until juices are thick and bubbly, crust is golden brown, and apples are tender when pierced with a long wooden pick through slits in crust. Remove to a wire rack. Cool 1 1/2 to 2 hours before serving. Serve with Brandy-Caramel Sauce (see recipe).

Yield: 8 servings

Apple Crisp

Recipe from Ruth Reichl’s “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” (Random House).

5-6 heirloom apples

Juice of 1 lemon

2/3 cup flour

2/3 cup brown sugar

Salt to taste

Cinnamon to taste

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug reluctantly out of their skins. Core, slice and layer the apples into a buttered pie plate or baking dish and toss them with the juice of the lemon.

Mix the flour with the brown sugar, and add a dash of salt and a grating of fresh cinnamon. Using two knives — or just your fingers — cut in the butter, then pat the mixture over the top of the fruit. The cooking time is forgiving; you can put your crisp into a 375-degree oven and pretty much forget it for 45 minutes to an hour. The juices should be bubbling a bit at the edges; the top should be crisp, golden and fragrant. Serve warm, with a pitcher of cream. It makes you feel grateful for fall.

Yield: 8 servings

Apple-Pear-Cherry Pie

Recipe by Jennifer Armentrout from Fine Cooking magazine. This pie is especially enticing because it can be assembled ahead of time and frozen, then popped directly into an oven to bake.


1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup dried tart cherries

2 pounds (about 4 large) firm, tart apples such as Braeburn, Jonagold or Pink Lady

1 pound (about 3 medium) firm-ripe pears such as Anjou

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pinch kosher salt


2 cups (9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

8 ounces (1 cup) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup ice-cold water


1 egg yolk, beaten

2 tablespoons heavy cream or milk

Make the filling: In a small saucepan, combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with 1/2 cup water; bring to a boil. Add the dried cherries and simmer for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Drain. (Save the liquid to drizzle on ice cream.) Peel, core and cut the apples and pears into 1/3-inch-thick slices. In a large bowl, toss the apples, pears and cherries with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

Make the dough: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, if mixing by hand). Mix for a second or two to blend. Add the butter, and with the mixer on low or by hand with a pastry cutter, work the mixture until it’s crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are no bigger than a pea, about 2 minutes. Test the butter to make sure it is still cold enough by collecting a small amount and molding it into a small cube. If after handling it your fingers are greasy, refrigerate the mixture for 15 minutes before proceeding. With the mixer still on low (or tossing with a fork if mixing by hand), sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the cold water evenly over the flour and butter. Work the dough until it just pulls together in a shaggy mass, adding more water, if needed, 1 teaspoon at a time. Divide the dough in half and pat each piece into a disk; refrigerate one piece.

Assemble and freeze the pie: On a floured work surface, roll the other piece of dough into a 12-inch circle, turning the dough and reflouring as necessary to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, fitting it into the plate without stretching. Trim so that there is 1 inch of dough hanging over the edge of the plate. Pour the filling into the pie shell and press down with your palms to arrange it evenly. (This will keep the apples from poking holes in the top crust.) Refrigerate while you roll out the other half of the dough. Roll out the other piece of dough the same way as the first half. Drape it over the pie and trim the edge of the top crust to the same size as the bottom. Roll the edges together and under so they rest on the rim of the pie plate and form a tall edge. Crimp the edge, making sure the crusts are sealed. Vent the top by poking the tip of a paring knife through it in a few places. Wrap the pie in plastic wrap and freeze for at least 1 day. (If freezing for more than 1 day, also wrap in foil.)

Bake the pie: Position a rack at the bottom of the oven. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and set it on the rack. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk with the milk or cream. Brush the top of the pie with the egg wash (you won’t need it all). The egg wash may freeze as you are applying it; re-pierce the steam vents if they become clogged. Bake on the heated baking sheet until the crust is deep golden and the juices are bubbling, about 1 hour and 45 minutes. If the edges start to get too dark, loosely drape foil around the sides or cover the edges with a pie guard. Cool on a rack to room temperature, about 4 hours, before serving.

Per serving: 400 calories, 17 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 4 g protein, 61 g carbohydrates, 55 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.

Yield: 8 servings

Cornmeal Crust Dough

Recipe from Southern Living. For a flaky crust, make sure the butter and shortening are cold.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup plain yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 cup chilled shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

8 to 10 tablespoons chilled apple cider

Stir together first 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Cut butter and shortening into flour mixture with a pastry blender until mixture resembles small peas. Mound mixture on one side of bowl.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon apple cider along edge of mixture in bowl. Using a fork, gently toss a small amount of flour mixture into cider just until dry ingredients are moistened; move mixture to other side of bowl. Repeat procedure with remaining cider and flour mixture.

Gently gather dough into two flat disks. Wrap in plastic wrap, and chill 1 to 24 hours.

Yield: 1 pie crust

Brandy-Caramel Sauce

Recipe from Southern Living. You can substitute apple cider for the brandy. Can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a week. To reheat, let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then microwave on high for 1 minute, stirring halfway through cooking time.

1 cup whipping cream

1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup butter

2 tablespoons brandy or apple cider

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Bring whipping cream to a light boil in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add sugar, and cook, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes or until sugar is dissolved and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, and stir in butter, brandy, and vanilla. Let cool 10 minutes.

Yield: About 1 cup