Appetite for apples

Why stop with pie? Celebrate the fall harvest with a full meal.

Apples in autumn. It's a twosome we never tire of. In fact, the weekend ritual of picking your own fruit at a nearby orchard has almost become a fall sport. Between watching the Patriots, Seahawks, or 49ers grapple on the gridiron, Americans pile into minivans, head to apple country, and pluck Pippins, Jonathans, and Macs off trees. Perhaps people are craving a more direct connection to the source of their food and those who grow it. But most likely, apple picking is popular simply because it's good, wholesome fun that brings big rewards.

With more than 500 varieties to choose from and an infinite number of ways to prepare them, it's no wonder apples are America's favorite fruit. Although this year's crop is expected to be the smallest since 1988, according to the United States Apple Association, more varieties are available than ever before. As consumers demand more choices, new names such as Cameo, Fuji, Honeycrisp, and Pink Lady are joining old favorites in the 36 states where apples are grown commercially. In all, this first harvest of the millennium is likely to produce 25 million bushels, or roughly 90 apples per US resident.

With patriotism at an all-time high, many of those apples will surely find their way into fresh-baked apple pie, that most quintessential of American desserts. But, of course, that's just a start. Or, rather, a finish. Why not honor this year's harvest with a taste of apple in every course, from appetizer to dessert, and not just wedged between crusts? The following recipes, chosen and tested from the latest crop of cookbooks, will flaunt the fruit's amazing versatility as well as your own skill at making the most of a Sunday in the country.

Butternut-Apple Soup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 medium butternut squash (1-3/4 pounds each), peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4-inch pieces

3/4 pound Golden Delicious apples (2 medium), peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped

1-3/4 ounces vegetable broth

1-1/2 cups water

1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 cup half-and-half or light cream

In a 4-quart saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in squash, apples, broth, water, thyme, salt, and pepper; heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat; cover and simmer, stirring often, until squash is very tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Spoon one-third of squash mixture into a blender; cover, with center part of cover removed to let steam escape, and purée until smooth. Pour purée into bowl. Repeat with remaining mixture.

Return purée to saucepan; stir in half-and-half. Warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally (do not boil). Makes about 9 cups or 8 first-course servings.

- From 'The All New Good Housekeeping Cookbook' (Hearst Communications, $30)

Skillet Chicken With Apples and Cranberries

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1-1/2 pounds total)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 shallots, chopped

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, halved, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen, thawed

1/3 cup chicken broth

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Chopped toasted pecans, walnuts, almonds, or macadamia nuts, for garnish (optional)

In a large skillet, heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Season the chicken with the salt and white pepper. Add chicken to skillet and sauté until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Turn breasts over and sauté another 6 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through, covering skillet for the last 2 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat in the skillet. Add the shallots and sauté 1 minute. Add the apple wedges and cranberries and sauté 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and scrape up any browned bits from bottom of skillet. Cover skillet with foil and cook for 1 to 2 minutes or until apple wedges are slightly tender. Uncover and continue to cook until liquid begins to become syrupy. Pour in the cream and gently boil until liquid thickens and a wooden spoon dragged across bottom of skillet leaves a track. Stir in the orange zest and mustard. Return chicken to skillet and gently heat, if needed. To garnish, scatter nuts over the top, if using, and serve. Serves 4. Accompany with couscous, white rice, or wild pecan rice.

- From 'Home Cooking Around the World,' by David Ricketts (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35)

Sunken Apple Cake

1 lemon

4 Granny Smith apples

3-1/2 ounces almond paste (1/2 of a 7-ounce tube)

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

6 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

3 tablespoons milk

1-1/3 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Grate the lemon for zest, cut it in two, and squeeze the juice of one half, saving the other half for another use. Peel the apples, cut them into eighths, and remove the cores. Mix the apple eighths with the lemon juice. Cut the almond paste into cubes and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 10- or 11-inch springform pan. In a mixer, mix the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest until the mixture is light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each time until no trace of egg can be seen. Stir in the milk. In another bowl, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder; if the mixture's lumpy, it should be sifted. Stir the flour mixture and the almond-paste cubes into the butter mixture until the new mixture is smooth - except for the cubes of almond paste.

Spoon the batter into the pan. Place the apples on the batter in a decorative, spiral pattern; they will sink into the cake while baking. Bake the cake on the middle rack of the oven for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

For a crisp top, turn up the oven to broil and let it heat up. Mix the sliced almonds and powdered sugar, sprinkle the mixture evenly on the cake, and put the whole thing under the hot broiler for 1 to 2 minutes - only until the sugar melts and carmelizes. Keep an eye on it, because it can quickly burn. Remove cake from oven and let sit for about 10 minutes. Unhook the springform edge and let the cake cool on a rack. Sift more powdered sugar on the cake before eating.

Makes 12 slices.

- From 'Basic Baking,' by Sebastian Dickhaut, Jennifer Newens, and Cornelia Schinharl (Silverback, $20)

Eat out Oct. 11:

The Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, started by the owner of Windows on the World restaurant, is providing aid to families of restaurant workers lost when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. On Oct. 11, restaurants around the world will donate at least 10 percent of their evening proceeds to the fund. To support this important project, you may wish to eat out tomorrow night. For more information, check

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