Excerpted from Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare, by Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla.
“Queen of Autumn” Sweet Potato-Apple Bake
With its layers of raisin-studded sweet potatoes, sautéed apples, caramelized onions, and spot-on spices, this dish is a bright orange holiday celebration unto itself. The Queen of Autumn would embrace it almost as a birthday cake, one that could share pride of place right beside the main course. Amazingly, this bake contains no sweeteners. The casserole also stores and slices easily, making it perfect for a holiday meal. Use your favorite autumn varieties among the humble apples, with names that evoke the sumptuous heights of imperial extravagance, such as Jonagold, Cameo, Northern Spy, Empire, or Mutzu (see the Poet’s Note).
Makes one 8-inch square dish
3 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, (5 to 7, depending on the size)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cups thin sauté-sliced onions
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds apples (4 medium-large)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup apple cider or juice
1. Place the sweet potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until almost tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and let cool slightly.
2. While the potatoes are simmering, warm the oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until thoroughly browned. Set aside.
3. Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2-inch-thick rings (5 slices per apple). Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet until bubbling. Add the apples and sauté in a single layer (you’ll have to do this in batches rather than crowd the pan) until colored on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Let them really cook undisturbed while you savor the homey and heavenly aroma of apples sizzling in butter. The apples should be tender, but not mushy.
4. Mix the salt with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom—that secret Viceroy of the East—in a small bowl and set aside.
5. Peel the potatoes and cut them lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Arrange one-third of the slices in a single layer in an 8-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle half of the raisins evenly over the potatoes, then really press them into the potatoes with your fingers–like little studs– to anchor them in place. You want there to be juicy raisins sweetening every bite of the bake.
6. Spread half of the apples in one layer over the sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with one-third of the salt-spice mixture.
7. Add another layer of sweet potatoes, and press the remaining raisins into the potatoes. Add the remaining apples and half of the remaining salt-spice mixture.
8. Add the last layer of sweet potatoes and sprinkle with the remaining spices. Top with the caramelized onions in an even layer. Pour the cider over the casserole and cover with foil. (At this point, you can refrigerate the casserole until you are ready to bake it.)
9. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake covered for 50 minutes, until the flavors have married and the bake is tender.
10. Let the casserole rest for 10 minutes to absorb the juices, then slice and serve.
One of the pleasures of a brisk fall day is surveying the unusual and plentiful array of apples in the green market. Since they’re slow to brown once they’ve been sliced, Cameos are good raw, but with their firm flesh and sweet-tart finish, they’re also excellent for baking. The Jonagolds combine the mix of sweet-tartness from the Jonathans with the juicy crispness found in Goldens, making them exceptionally fine baking apples. The Idareds taste a bit like the Jonathans, but have crisp juicy white flesh. The Empire is another crisp, white-fleshed, sweet-tart apple—a good choice for baking. The Mutsu, aka Crispin—which happens to be Wallace Stevens’s autobiographical name in his long poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C”—is always crisp, sweet, and refreshing. It can also grow to be quite large.
A Short History of the Apple
“The crunch is the thing, a certain joy in crashing through
living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days.”
—Edward Bunyard, The Anatomy of Dessert, 1929
Teeth at the skin. Anticipation.
Then flesh. Grain on the tongue.
Eve’s knees ground in the dirt
of paradise. Newton watching
gravity happen. The history
of apples in each starry core,
every papery chamber’s bright
bitter seed. Woody stem
an infant tree. William Tell
and his lucky arrow. Orchards
of the Fertile Crescent. Bushels.
Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew.
Cedar apple rust. The apple endures.
Born of the wild rose, of crab ancestors.
The first pip raised in Kazakhstan.
Snow White with poison on her lips.
The buried blades of Halloween.
Budding and grafting. John Chapman
in his tin pot hat. Oh Westward
Expansion. Apple pie. American
as. Hard cider. Winter banana.
Melt-in-the-mouth made sweet
by hives of Britain’s honeybees:
white man’s flies. O eat. O eat.