Looking for something new to do with the family this fall? Try apple picking. Picture yourself surrounded by a crown of leafy branches, with crisp fall air cooling your face. Just near your arm is a perfect apple, still green near its stem but blushing red across its cheeks. You pick this apple, then another, and another, picking until your basket is full. Now is it time for a picnic lunch? For more apple picking? Or maybe a hayride or a stop at the cider press?
All of these joys and more are available this month on farms across the country. Armed with your own ladder and basket, you and your family can enjoy hunting for the very best snacking apples -- golden and red Delicious, Macintosh, Gravensteins, Winesaps, and Jonagolds. Snack on these as they are, or send them through the farm's press for cider. Sweet, tart apples are full of crunch, evoking the true magic of fall.
If you're planning a day of apple picking, be sure to call local farms in advance to be sure the fruit is ripe and that conditions are good. Local cold snaps, unusual fall weather, and farm-specific issues could change the timing of your trip. This is also a good time to learn if your local farm offers any extra adventures, such as hay rides or tractor rides, animal viewing and feeding, cider pressing, pumpkin picking, or picnic areas.
Many serious and amateur bakers enjoy turning the fruits of their labor into apple pie. If you're in an apple-pie frame of mind, pick a basket of Granny Smiths, Empires, Cortlands, or Rome Beauties to fold inside your crust. As a tasty alternative, use them in apple crisp, apple cake, or as plain baked apples stuffed with brown sugar and raisins. Keep your apples cool if you want them to retain their sweet freshness, but don't let them freeze.
Historically, apple pie comes to us from England, where it was enjoyed in the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King Charles II. Early Colonists brought their pie-baking knowledge across the Atlantic with them and began to refine their technique. In one early variation, the upper pie crust was simply draped across the fruit filling during cooking, so that sugar and spices could be added to the fruit right before serving. In the days before microwave ovens, apple pie wedges were often enjoyed cold with a large mug of fresh milk or cider.
Apples have a long tradition in this country. Pioneers and explorers brought apple seedlings with them from the Old World and planted them near their new homes. The trees flourished under North American growing conditions, spawning an apple boom and an increase in the number of apple varieties. These fruits were a staple of the Colonial diet, in part because they kept so well over the winter. In a very cool cellar that does not freeze, such as a Dutch cellar, apples buried in sand or straw could be kept for up to six months.
Hundreds of apple varieties are grown today. Frontiersman John Chapman, also called Johnny Appleseed, carried apple seedlings into the Midwest and helped propagate the trees across the country. Today you can find farms growing antique varieties that hearken back to old apple lines, as well as the Delicious varieties available in your local supermarket.