It's apple season again, one of the few times of the year I'm sorry I live in the city, without a car. If only I lived near an orchard, I'd pick my own apples and be happy.
I console myself with the varieties now gracing the city's farmers markets. It used to be that we'd have to be content with a strictly limited roster: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Macintosh. The end. These days, thanks to adventurous farmers and the resurgence of all kinds of apple varieties, there's a ton of exciting choices.
This abundance practically begs you to assemble the filling for this baked apple treat from a mix of different apples rather than from a single type. Just be sure to taste the candidates before you start cooking to get a fix on what each one will bring to the table. Is it honey-like? Puckery-tart? Intense? Wine-y? Once you know, you can compose your own line-up.
Actually, if by chance you have a little extra time, you should try cooking each variety separately, then tasting it, because the taste and texture of a given apple can change significantly when cooked.
I added dried apricots to the apples for contrast. I love the tartness of dried apricots, particularly California apricots. Turkish apricots, the other choice, are quite sweet, not as bright and sunny. Or, if you'd prefer some other kind of dried fruit — cherries, raisins, cranberries or dried plums (otherwise known as prunes) — swap out the apricots for your favourite.
The only other flavours in the filling are sugar and lemon juice. You may need to adjust the amounts of these two ingredients slightly depending on the sweetness of the apples.
This kind of dessert — baked fruit with some kind of crust — happens to be my favourite. But crusts can be tricky, particularly pie dough. So this recipe is for the pastry-impaired. Instead of pie dough, we use French toast. Everyone can make French toast, even little kids.
Testing this recipe was a real learning experience for me. I discovered that if I didn't bake the apple/apricot mixture long enough before adding the French toast topping, the apples wouldn't become tender and give up their juice. I was suddenly reminded of cooking with mushrooms, which are so dry that they stick to the skillet when you first throw them in. A couple minutes later, though, the floodgates open and out pours the liquid.
For this filling, then, you should test the tenderness of the baked apples by piercing them with a paring knife, and check to see if there's juice in the pan. Then you can top it off with the soaked bread.
Finally, I've billed this beauty as a dessert, but it would shine just as brightly as brunch on Saturday or Sunday.
BAKED APPLES AND APRICOTS WITH FRENCH TOAST CRUST
Start to finish: 1 hour 25 minutes (20 minutes active)
3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored, quartered and sliced 1/4-inch thick (6 cups)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup low-fat milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 slices whole-wheat bread, crusts discarded, cut in half
Low-fat frozen vanilla yogurt (optional)
Heat the oven to 400 F.
In an 8-inch square baking dish, toss the apples with 1/3 cup of the sugar, the apricots and lemon juice. Cover with foil and bake on the oven's middle shelf for 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla extract.
When the apples have baked, remove the foil. Dip the bread halves in the egg mixture and arrange them in a single layer over the apples, cutting the bread as necessary to cover all of the apples. If there is any egg mixture left, pour it over the bread. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar, then bake for another 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve right away, topped with a small scoop of the vanilla frozen yogurt, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 190 calories; 20 calories from fat (11 per cent of total calories); 2.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 60 mg cholesterol; 40 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 29 g sugar; 6 g protein; 120 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."