During the height of pie-making season (read: now), you'll find plenty of apples tucked into buttery crusts. But there's another easy technique that amps up the fruit's flavor. Poaching—simmering apples (or pears) in spiced liquid until they're soft and aromatic—helps round out the texture and flavor of the fruit and makes for a beautiful presentation.
It's a favored method for Kelly Fields, pastry chef at August in New Orleans. She simmers a variety of apples in cranberry juice, then serves them with gingerbread-like pain d'épices, persimmon and pink peppercorn ice cream. Even if your version isn't quite so refined, fruit poaching is still easy to execute at home: In a pot or deep saucepan, bring your poaching liquid (anything from juice to wine) to a boil, then reduce the heat and flavor the liquid with sugar and earthy spices like nutmeg and clove to taste.
Plop in firm peeled apples and let them simmer in the covered pot. They're ready when a fork goes in easily, but the fruit isn't soggy, about half an hour. Remove the apples with a slotted spoon and top them with ice cream and candied nuts, or just go at them with a spoon. Here are a few more words of wisdom from Fields on the matter.
What kinds of apples do you use? "Pink Ladies and Honeycrisps from Georgia and Granny Smiths from Appalachia. I don't like the one-dimensional approach. Even if the apple flavors are pretty similar, their varying levels of tartness and sweetness can balance each other out in an interesting way when poached."
What do you like about poaching apples? "I approach my desserts as salad: I want every bite to have as many textures as possible. Apples have different personalities and do different things under different circumstances, so I like to show that off—they can be so much more than the fresh, crispy version most people expect. The poaching liquid also gives you an opportunity to make the fruit taste sweeter or add a bit of citrus or spice to the finished product. The technique works just as well in savory dishes—we also poach apples for our goat cheese salad, and it's a great vehicle for new flavor combinations."
Why go with cranberry juice for the poaching liquid? "It gives them such a beautiful color. You always see pears poached in red wine. For me, apples taking on the same bright color is an unexpected twist. They look elegant, but mostly it's playful. Even if they're fancy, I always want to have fun with my desserts."
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