Archive for November, 2007

Apple Time: Golden Russets, a Minor Grumble and a Major Chunky Apple Cake

Shopping Alert: If you love apples, it’s smart to see Thanksgiving as the deadline. Many orchard farmstands make that closing day and many more close soon after, shutting the window on neat choices for most of us.

We went on the annual stock-up outing about 10 days ago – across the river to New Paltz, to Jenkins-Lueken’s, where we’ve been going for years. But we didn’t notice until we got home that the cider is UV treated. That means we’re still on the hunt; you need raw cider to get fizzy cider. Next stop, the listings at, a national orchard locator searchable by state.

Meanwhile, there is a big box in the barn containing about a bushel of apples and right here it should be admitted that the barn is our enabler. Apples MUST be stored very cold, nothing ruins quality as fast as warm temperatures. If all you have is a refrigerator, fill it with varieties that will not be found after the orchards close.

Representatives from our current stockpile. On the left of the handle, clockwise from green:(3)Rhode Island Greening, (2) Honeycrisp, (2) Cameo. Right of the handle, clockwise from red: (2) Stayman Winesap, (2) Northern Spy, (4) Golden Russet – in a line up the middle – and (2) Jonagold.

Golden Russet : Born in New York, already well known in 1848. Described by the invaluable Seed Savers Exchange Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory as “ The champagne of cider apples,” it’s delicious for just about any use except (unless you peel it) eating out of hand. An excellent apple to stock up on; it keeps very well.

Jonagold: A marriage performed by New York’s Geneva experiment station, introduced in 1968. The sweetness of Golden Delicious combined with Jonathan’s size, juiciness and slightly sharper flavor. Not always as tart as ideal for best flavor but usually yummy. Tough skin, though.

Rhode Island Greening: ! Pie ! And thus it has been for about 400 years. A tad on the sharp side for fresh eating but ideal in savory applications such as sautéed apples and onions to go with winter’s roast pork.

Northern Spy: Can’t say I grew up with this; it’s more popular in New England than in Pennsylvania. But it has that remembered from childhood quality, fuller flavored than modern fruit – or so it seems. Both crisp and tender, both sweet and tart, good both fresh and cooked. My desert island “if you could only have one.”

Honeycrisp: New kid on the block ( 1991) cross of Macoun and Honeygold, from the University of Minnesota. A good compromise for fresh eating if your family is, like mine, divided on the sweet vs. sharp question.

Cameo : Also recent (1987), a lucky find chance seedling from Washington state. Crisp and balanced in the manner of Honeycrisp but more aromatic and frequently huge.

Stayman Winesap – labeled “Stamen” at the stand where we got it, with no indication which of the 4 variations on Stayman Winesap it might be. And I’m actually guessing at the Winesap since there is also a Stayman apple, grown mostly in the south and considerably less red if its pictures are any indication. Assuming they are some kind of Winesap they should make dandy applesauce.

The grumble and cake part

is because the New York Times magazine recently addressed the subject of apple cake with, I suppose not surprisingly, the mandate to be as contemporary and hip as possible. Net result, no fault of the Times’ sensible Amanda Hesser?  A chef who was determined to improve an easy, tasty, but the recipe already exists cake, came up with a no doubt delicious but utterly uncakelike fruit-bottomed “soufflé crepe.” Shelf life of original cake, which could be eaten out of hand: a few days, and then toward the end you could probably toast it. Shelf life of chef’s goodie – several minutes; so be sure to have that plate and fork handy before you start.

Well ok, but was it really impossible to make an old fashioned everyday cake sort of cake that would be interesting to eat? And could one not make it with butter instead of oil?

Distantly remembered a long-ago struggle to find – and then when I couldn’t find, develop – a carrot cake based on butter instead of the usual oil. Checked out the recipe (it’s in Reading Between the Recipes). Unfortunately, it’s a layer cake, with frosting and other non-everyday aspects, and although the apple one could be a sheet cake something prettier would be nicer.
the experiment. Left to right: Cakes 2, 3 and 4

Four cakes ensued, one that we will not discuss and three that were different primarily because I kept screwing up. Cake # 2 was heavy and damp, because I couldn’t find the bundt pan and tried to bake it in a tube pan.

I know this was the problem because the bit of extra batter baked in a little glass bowl was very close to just fine. But did I pay attention? I did not. Cavalierly choosing to keep messing around I omitted the touch of oil, reduced the sugar, and upped the pecans for cake #3. And then, it being quite late by this time, just forged ahead after discovering the only white flour on hand was unbleached.

Commonly available unbleached flour makes tougher, heavier cakes than bleached flour. Simple fact. More nuts sat on the apple flavor; sugar and oil were both missed. Cake # 4 was back to formula #2, this time in the right pan with the right flour, for a long-keeping, velvety butter cake studded with apples and nuts. Big, too, so there’s plenty for all the relatives or you could freeze half and have it on hand for cake emergencies.

Chunky Apple Cake with Pecans

More like dice than chunks, truth be told, if you want the cake to resemble cake instead of steamed pudding. On the other hand, the rather steamed puddingy cake #2 was Bill’s favorite, so it’s hard to go completely wrong.

3 ½ cups roughly 1/2 inch dice or slightly larger chunks of peeled crisp tart cooking apple (see above for variety suggestions. Granny Smith will do in a pinch)

2 ¼ cups sugar

1 ½ tsp. kosher salt

3 1/4 cups bleached all purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

scant ½ tsp. baking powder

8 ounces unsalted high fat butter such as Plugra, at cool room temperature

3 eggs and 1 egg white

1 tbl. bland vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla

½ cup sour cream

1 cup chopped pecans

1. In a non-reactive bowl, mix the apple dice with 1 cup of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Set aside for an hour and a half. Stir when you think of it. (Pulling juice out ahead of time this way minimizes the holes-around-the-cooked-fruit effect that otherwise plagues these cakes.)

2. While apples sit, get everything else lined up. Let eggs and sour cream come to room temperature. Butter and flour a standard (10 cup) bundt pan. In a large bowl, thoroughly mix the flour with the remaining ½ tsp. salt, the soda and the baking powder, either by repeated siftings or much stirring with a wire whip. Heat the oven to 350.

3. When apple sitting time is about up, cream the butter, then add the remaining 1 ¼ cups sugar and cream again until pale and fluffy. Lightness of cake is directly related to whether you’re doing this with a stand mixer for about 8 minutes or your own personal arm ‘till you’ve had enough.

4. Beat in the eggs and white, one at a time, scraping the bowl from time to time. Beat in oil, vanilla and sour cream, again scraping right to the bottom of the bowl. Beat in free liquid from apples.

5. Make a well in the dry ingredients, scrape the wet mixture into it and stir together as gently and briefly as possible. Batter will be very thick. Stir in the apples and remaining juices and the pecans, then turn into the prepared pan. Thump the bottom of the pan on the work surface to reduce large air bubbles.

6. Bake until all the usual done signals: well risen, browned, pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick comes out clean, anywhere from 55 to 70 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out and cool completely before slicing. Cake will be most delicate and cakelike on the first day but still tender on days 2 and 3. Maybe more but I just made it 3 days ago so who knows?

Sweeping Up The Leaves

No doubt about it, backyard leaf blowers are powerful players in the anti-social sweepstakes. Although they’ll never be as good as ATVs at damaging land while abetting childhood obesity and shattering the public peace, pound for pound they’re unbeatable for noise pollution, noxious emissions, and the erosion of ordinary civility.

On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that raking is the yard work equivalent of ironing, possibly because it’s equally taxing on the back. Even people who love gardening hate raking, even my friend and helper Kristi, a woman up for ANY outdoor task that doesn’t involve chemicals or power tools.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when she looked at the leaf-covered Maine lawn, looked at me ( I was holding 2 rakes) and said “ I wish you had a leaf sweeper.”

“ A what?”

Next thing you know, she’d gone home and gotten hers. Turns out the hand powered leaf sweeper is the autumnal third way: a leaf gathering machine that taxes neither the body nor the environment. It looks and works about like a lawn mower except that instead of blades it has brushes. Push it along and the brushes sweep leaves up and back into a collecting sling that holds about 7 cubic feet and is very easy to empty.

Kristi’s is a 26 inch Agri-Fab which sells for around 135 bucks. There are other, ostensibly sturdier, brands but differences – except in price – appear to be pretty minor.

Good Things about hand powered leaf sweepers:

* Easy to use, after you practice for a while and learn best adjustments of brush height and handle-angle.

* Quiet, only a gentle whirr and the whoosh of leaves headed for the sling.

* Useful for other kinds of picking-up. Kristi takes hers onto the drive through her pine woods to collect the needles we use to mulch strawberries and pack dahlias.

* Comparatively inexpensive, even the deluxe 31 inch model sold by People Powered Machines is only $270.00 ( I know, I know; but it’s 2 or 3 times faster than raking and far less ache-producing.)

The Nothing is Perfect part:

* Forget it if your lawn is mostly uneven, with many little hills and minor undulations. Kristi’s works great at her place, which is more or less flat. Not great at our place, a festival of irregularity.

* Seven cubic feet is not a lot if you have a lot of leaves. Kristi puts a sheet at the edge of each lawn section and empties the collector into it several times before gathering the sheet edges and hauling the contents to the leaf pile.

Just a bit of autumnal eye candy; the leaf sweeper is on view at the sales sites and is not a thing of beauty. Chrysanthemums like these are easy to grow, about which more next spring when it’s time to order rooted cuttings.

Changing Times

Spring forward; fall back, say phooey to the whole probably doesn’t save energy thing. Gardeners always know what’s what, daylight-wise, and no amount of fiddling with the clock can make any more of it.

We’re already hardwired to natural seasons. Winter – finally! – is for taking a break, though it’s work to resist catalogs in which every flower is blemish-free and every fruit delicious. Spring is for doing the monster sprint: move the stuff that wasn’t divided last fall, plant and plant, weed and weed and prune and pinch andthenthenextthingyou know, it’s harvest. Roast the summer tomatoes; freeze the succotash; move the tender plants indoors and get ready to get your jollies from things that grow in pots.

Only one problem: Whether you have the above hot-cold version, the western dry-wet or the tropical wet and more wet, seasons appear to be headed toward Hades in a globally warmed handbasket. Familiar rituals need adjustment.


What’s wrong with this picture ( other than the fact that real autumn leaves, having been hard at work all summer, don’t look as though they’ve had work done)?

Until this year, our record late date for nasturtium killing frost was October 6th, two days later than the previous record. This year, it was the 28th. Authorities quibble about how much longer the northern growing season lasts, but nobody has any trouble tacking a week or more on each end. And nobody ( unless you count the USDA) has any trouble seeing that most northern climate zones should have higher numbers than they did a decade ago.

Coping: Don’t assume this means you’ve been promoted. Zones measure only the lowest average winter low. That means little if there is also a 6 week warm spell that starts in mid-February and plunges to a frigid end after persuading your peach trees to start blooming. In the north, planting fruit trees on north-facing slopes is more important than ever. In the south, remember the zone range has a high end as well as a low one. Cold-loving plants like sugar maples and rhododendrons are now an unwise bet at the hotter end of their range.


Warmer weather means earlier leaf-out for many trees. That means spring ephemerals like this bloodroot – and crocus, narcissus and bluebells – may not get as much sun as they need to come back strongly year after year.

Coping: plant spring bulbs closer to tree’s drip lines, or out in the open. Consider limbing up – winter is a great time to look at the shapes of deciduous trees and think sculptural thoughts.


This Magnolia soulangeana was planted by an optimist, probably about 50 years ago, and was already huge when we bought the Hudson Valley house. In the old days, it was like Charlie Brown and the football, blossoms would start to unfold, a pink cloud on the horizon and then BAM! browned by frost, year after year. Not any more.

Coping: Fine to plant trees that were once marginal but do bear in mind that fruit-free male trees aren’t problem free. They don’t bear messy or smelly fruits, but they do add to the pollen burden, and allergy sufferers are already going to take a hit: increased carbon dioxide does great things for ragweed as well as poison ivy.

(The pruner is there to show how long the spears are; they were cut in the standard way: with a knife, under ground, to deny any passing beetles a place to land.)

Bill grew up knowing that “if the patch is strong, you can cut asparagus until the 4th of July.” Not true when you start cutting 2 or 3 weeks earlier than formerly. Going by the calendar instead of the size of the spears was never a completely wise idea, but now it would be a recipe for greatly diminished production if not outright death.

Coping: Stop cutting when new shoots start being thinner and fewer. Warm winters mean more asparagus beetles ( as well as every other wretched bug I can think of at the moment). Be sure to clean away old stalks and all surrounding debris; that’s where the eggs winter over.


What’s wrong with THIS picture? We don’t have that all many delphiniums. The bouquet is a consequence of a brutal rainstorm.

Coping: Delphiniums are famous for this, regardless of climate doings, but there’s no question summer storms are becoming stronger. Think carefully before planting things that are vulnerable to wind. Fertilize modestly; encouraging plants to be as tall as possible is no longer a good idea unless you’re fond of the staked-up look.


Storms are also a problem for brittle plants like tender fuchsias. The one on the left is inconspicuously anchored to the wall so strong winds won’t bust it.


This eye-catching fall display is pure genius on the part of the farmer. Not only does it announce abundance to passers-by on the busy highway, it’s also easy to cover on cold nights. Winter squash that is blemished by frost won’t keep. The grand assortment of squash that’s available at farmstands right now won’t keep either, btw; be sure to buy soon and store at home for the best flavor assortment.


It’s tempting to leave houseplants out as long as possible, especially when they’re protected by being close to the house. But if you plan to enjoy them indoors they need time to get adjusted to low light and dry air. Bringing them in when it’s still warm and bright enough to put them in an unheated sunroom or other transitional space will increase the chances that they stay strong, for when you need them most.



inside. Our friend from the window box. Passionflowers are particularly willing to do the in- and – out dance. Logee’s and Brushwood Nursery are among the many sellers with tempting assortments.


Daylight saving thought to live by: Every roasted or dried or frozen tomato you put by is saved daylight; as is every flower on winter’s amaryllis, there because the bulb was nourished by sun on last summer’s leaves.