After almost five years of researching, developing and testing recipes food writer Amy Traverso knows her apples. Thousands of apples peeled, cored, chopped, baked.
The result is "The Apple Lover's Cookbook," a 300-page near-encyclopedia about the fruit that surely holds a special place in the American psyche.
"It was hard to let go of the book. There was so much to discover," said Traverso, who is based in Brookline, Massachusetts -- within striking distance of many of New England's best apple orchards.
Geared to the home cook, the book contains 100 recipes, from appetizers and sandwiches through meat dishes to familiar pies and cobblers.
"I found that apples were well suited to so many types of dishes, more than I imagined," Traverso said. "Apples are the most accessible food for many people, and there are so many varieties that are unique to a particular place."
The book delves into the history of apples in the United States, from the seeds and cuttings brought by the Jamestown, Virginia, settlers to the New World in the early 1600s. Adaptability and versatility meant apples became a staple for Pilgrims in New England and settlers as they moved west and south.
"They performed so many roles in early American cooking and were spread by the government," Traverso explained. "When people took land, they promised to stay until the apple trees grew," helping to build a stable society.
Traverso profiles 59 varieties of apple, from familiar grocery store favorites to exotic offerings like Arkansas Black and Westfield Seek-No-Further. The apples are cataloged into four subgroups (tender-tart, firm-tart, tender-sweet and firm-sweet), and Traverso suggests the best usage and ideal taste for each variety.
Traverso developed her recipes through various sources. One favorite is the crisp inspired by a 1947 magazine article originally clipped by her grandmother. The dessert, with its cakey, biscuity topping, was "absolutely the flavor of my childhood," she said.
Other dishes came from further afield, including a pork and apple pie inspired by a dish eaten in Cornwall, England -- "sweet, savory and incredible."
Salads with apples are well known, but developing a brisket with apples and hard cider recipe surprised the author, as did apple risotto.
Recent decades have seen rising interest in breeding and the release of new varieties, as well as a renewed appreciation of heirloom apples. At one point, said Traverso, almost every town in Maine had its own apple variety.
Breeding has brought on apples such as the Honeycrisp, developed at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s and released commercially in 1991. Tasting notes suggest the firm-sweet fruit is "incredibly crisp, and so juicy that it seems nearly effervescent."
"Growers have figured out what the modern palate wants from apples, and have a tool to deliver it," said Traverso.
The rarest apple profiled is the Pink Pearl, developed in Humboldt County in Northern California in the 1940s, tasting of raspberries and with distinctive pink flesh. And the best eating apple, Traverso said, may be Cox's Orange Pippin, beloved in Britain but now showing up at farmers' markets in the United States.
Traverso appreciates the rarest of apples but says she is no snob.
"There are definitely times in my life when I eat sliced apples from McDonalds," she said.
Grandma's Apple Crisp (makes 8 servings
For the filling
5 large tender-tart apples (about 2 1/2 pounds total); peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch thick rings or slices
5 large firm-sweet apples (about 2 1/2 pounds total); peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rings or slices
For the topping
2 cups (290g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup (210g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 tablespoons (1 stick; 120g) salted butter, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1. Preheat the oven to 350F, and set a rack to the middle position. Arrange the sliced apples in an even layer in an 9 X 13 inch baking dish (no need to grease it); set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add the eggs and, using a fork or a pastry cutter, work in until crumbly. The mixture will look like streusel, with a mix of wet and dry bits. Have no fear; the eggs will provide enough liquid.
3. Spread the topping evenly over the apples, then drizzle all over with the melted butter. Sprinkle the cinnamon and bake until the topping is golden brown and apple juices are bubbling, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes, then serve warm from the pan.