What I was missing

No matter what I say,
All that I really love
Is apples.

A secret thrill builds inside of me, in Victoria, when August winds to a close. Wherefore? Apples.

They start appearing everywhere: behemoths the size of 5-pin bowling balls; dignified russet varieties; puckery crab apples; tiny, green orbs camouflaged by leaves. Red, yellow, orange, no, not blue. Prospective trees will dangle branches, drooping with apples, tantalizingly over fences or sidewalks. When I spot such a tree, I stop, and very furtively, very sneakily slip as many apples into my backpack as I can, my eyes darting wildly, my breath baited.

The thing is I don't really need that many apples. I volunteer with the LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project and bring home boxes heaped full of them. I go to Dan's Market and buy every single kind for sale. It does seem silly to pay for apples when I can collect enough to last me until February. (I do not exaggerate). Last year, to cope with my windfall, I ate at least three every day, and that was just out of hand. Dozens more found themselves partnered with pork chopspancakes, sausage, or sweet potato. And let's not forget about dessert. Ooh-de-la-lay! Apple crisps, crumbles, cobblers. Did I mention cakes?

I also really love apple cake. My purported mission is to discover the pinnacle of all apple cakes. Actually, I've already found perfection, more or less, but that doesn't end my search. You'd be amazed at how many different renditions of apple cake there are: delicate, dainty, meringue-topped, cream-cheese frosted, caramel-glazed, rough-crumbed, rugged, nutty. 

Anyway, while I revelled in my apple bounty, there was one thing I never tried: baked apples. Yes, perhaps the simplest, the easiest, the purest of all apple desserts.

What was I thinking? I mean, I never doubted that baked apples were delicious. Stuffed with butter, sugar and cinnamon, how could they not be? But, people, I had no idea what I was missing.

First of all, the apples bake peacefully and slow, which leaves you with plenty of time to do the dishes or read a book. Whilst cooking they send out the most enticing aroma that all apples do. They emerge from the oven frothed at the edges, rosy and golden, in a pool of bubbling, cinnamon-scented juices. You add generous scoops of vanilla ice cream and the contrast between hot, sweet apple and cold, velvety ice cream is nothing short of sublime.

But wait! There's more. I  had the particular good fortune of using this recipe as my introduction to baked apples. Jennifer Danter writes a column called Local Kitchen for EAT Magazine, a Victoria-area food magazine, and while I've always drooled over her lovely looking menus I'd never actually tried one of her recipes. Well. Thankfully, that's been amended.

In this recipe standard baked apples are topped with shards of hazelnut-fennel brittle. Hazelnuts are, by far, my favourite nut but you could swap them for another, depending on your preference. The brittle uses a combination of sugar and honey - the latter contributes a complex but subtle sweetness. I used a golden clover honey but, again, you could choose another type - say a dark buckwheat honey - which would create a completely different flavour profile. The fennel provides a sophisticated black licorice taste while flaky sea salt makes everything pop. All in all, the brittle adds a necessary sharpness and crunch that would otherwise be missing in the gently yielding apples and melting ice cream. The final dessert is a delightful balance between sweet and savoury, sort of like a seductive, grown-up candied apple.

Baked Apples with Hazelnut-Fennel Brittle
Adapted from Jennifer Danter

I imagine you could do all kinds of things with this recipe. You might swap out the hazelnuts for your favourite nut or use a different variety of honey when making the brittle. I used fleur de sel (a flaky French sea salt) here and a bit more than the 1/4 tsp originally called for. Salt to your own taste. You could also experiment with different types of fancy salt as well.

Make sure you choose apples that hold their shape in the oven. I used Jonagolds which worked well but some apples, particularly ones you've simply picked from a tree (and don't know the variety of), can disintegrate as soon as heat is applied. Experiment to find a suitable candidate for baking.

I found that using 3/4 cup of brown sugar resulted in an overly sweet baked apple. I would use maybe 1/2 cup of brown sugar next time. But, sweeten to your own taste and, of course, depending on what apples you choose. You might also substitute maple syrup or honey for the brown sugar. Or you could tweak the apple stuffing as you please. I think that some orange juice and zest would be a good addition, especially when the fennel brittle enters the equation. Go wild!

For the brittle:
1 cup peeled hazelnuts, toasted and skinned (more or less)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp honey
1/4 tsp flaky salt, or more to taste
1 tbsp fennel seeds 

For the baked apples:
1/2 to 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 medium baking apples
8 tsp butter

For the brittle: Coarsely chop the hazelnuts; measure out 1/3 cup and set aside. Finely chop the remaining nuts and set aside for the apples.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. In a heavy, medium saucepan combine the sugar, water, honey and salt over low heat until dissolved. Try not to stir too much or crystals may develop. When the elements are one, increase the heat to medium. The mixture will start to boil and bubble. Occasionally swirl the pan to promote even cooking. When the mixture has turned a light amber, after 4 or 5 minutes, pour onto the prepared baking sheet. Tilt the baking sheet so as to spread out the caramel as thinly as possible. Sprinkle with the coarsely chopped nuts and fennel seeds. Let cool completely before breaking into shards.

For the apples: Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Mix the dark brown sugar, cinnamon and finely chopped nuts in a bowl. If the apples don’t sit flat, trim them so they do. Core the apples. This is easiest with a melon baller but you can make do with a paring knife and small spoon. Peel a 1/2-inch ring around the middle of the apples. Score this ring. Stuff the apples with the sugar mixture. Press 1 tsp of butter into the top of each.

Place in a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Pour in ¼ cup water, cover and bake for 40 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until very tender, 10 to 20 minutes more. Check with a sharp knife that they are soft all the way through. Serve with vanilla ice cream and the hazelnut-fennel brittle.

Serves 8.


  1. I have a brilliant idea for this blog of your, which I will soon reveal. Also, I have a plan for my pizza. It is an entirely original idea, based on my vast wealth of culinary knowledge, which consists of which foods I like.


  2. Ooh, my very first comment. How splendidly exciting! I can't wait to hear your plan and sample your pizza.

  3. I am ever so happy that you are blessed with the skills to write delightful prose! My life will be forever enriched