Heirloom Apples

These uncommon heirloom apple varieties are rich with flavors that intrigue and delight.

August 30, 2011

A few years ago, I saw an ad that showed a grid of apples. Their varied shapes and colors made them intriguing but, according to the ad, problematic. One was too square, another too lumpy, a third too long, and a fourth too dull looking. The way to solve all these "problems" was to turn them into juice, the product being advertised. That way, one would completely bypass their quirky personalities. The goal was to eradicate difference in favor of sameness.

But it's the differences among apples that we should value, especially the old, late-season varieties for which high praise is due. There have been passionate fans and growers of apples for generations. For example, The Apples of New York, published in 1905, lists hundreds of varieties, with full descriptions and illustrations of the fruit documented. One looks at all these age-old heirloom varieties with their wildly differing shapes and colors, stripes and spots and unfamiliar names, and wonders, where did they go? Mostly, they died out, the victims of changes of taste and mass marketing. But some fine apples remain, which is why we must support antique-apple orchardists, who continue to grow and propagate the heirloom apples varieties, and who might even ship them to us to taste or to grow in our own gardens.


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This past apple season, I had the good fortune to have a surfeit of exceptionally fine apples. Each time I bit into one, I was reminded what a luscious, complex fruit the apple can be, well worthy of its iconic status in America. Unfamiliar to me (though common to friends on the East Coast) were some of the earlier apples:

'Cortland', 'Empire', and 'Macoun'. Later, other varieties arrived from apple farms around the United States, treasures that included 'Esopus Spitzenburg', 'Ashmead's Kernel', 'Calville Blanc d'Hiver', 'Maiden Blush', 'Cox's Orange Pippin', 'Grimes Golden', and the very small 'Pitmaston Pineapple'.

They were too special to enjoy alone, so I hosted a small apple tasting. We sliced the apples into wedges, thoughtfully nibbled, and then gave our impressions. Later, we enjoyed the remains with cheeses and roasted nuts. You might organize a similar gathering with friends and family, or for your local community garden.

Tasting Notes

'Pitmaston Pineapple' is not a pretty apple—small and with leathery dull green skin. But after a few bites, the words "floral, sweet smelling, with a hint of pineapple" were being spoken. A sweet, juicy little apple, perfectly lovely for dessert.

'Calville Blanc d'Hiver', a 16th-century French dessert apple, is a winter apple, one that doesn't ripen until October. It's smooth-skinned, pale yellow, but with tiny red dots and an oddly lumpy shape that reminded me of a 'Wolf River', one of my favorite pie apples. Our group determined that it had an earthier nose than 'Pitmaston' but with a hint of spice. Its faint tartness was appreciated, the acidity balancing its rather full sweetness. Yet it was early in its season and so may not have been at its best. After harvest, it should rest until it develops a gorgeous aroma before being eaten.

'Maiden Blush' was a lovely-looking apple with a rich perfume, but its texture had not held up in shipping. Putting that aside, it was admired for being not only pretty but very fruity, highly perfumed, with complexity and a fleeting tartness.

'Ashmead's Kernel' drew the comment "Now we're talking apple!" Here was another dull-looking, russeted apple that one might easily pass over, but its rough exterior concealed complex flavors that were lively with a tart, acidic edge. This is a famous old English apple that, like the 'Pitmaston Pineapple', is considered one of the finest dessert and cider apples.

'Cox's Orange Pippin', a 19th-century English apple, is another classic dessert apple best enjoyed a few weeks after picking. Handsome with yellowish-orange skin and an underlying blush, it has fine-grained and firm flesh, full of juice and richly flavored. "Floral" was a descriptor the tasters used, but the scent had spicy and nutty tones—almost, but not quite, like a quince. 'Cox's Orange Pippin' also ripens late and keeps through the end of the year.

While 'Newtown Pippin' was Washington and Jefferson's favorite apple, 'Esopus Spitzenburg' also grew in Jefferson's garden. Originally a New York apple with deep red-orange fruit, 'Esopus Spitzenburg' might be recommended on looks alone. The flesh is aromatic, crisp, more yellow than white, and firm; tastes a bit tart; and ripens about a month before the other apples we tasted. It's floral, and layers of flavor made it extremely well liked, certainly more so than 'Grimes Golden', which came off as delicate (or insipid) and not as great as we had hoped, but it's a late apple and we were eating it before harvest time. This pretty apple hails from 18th-century West Virginia and was long considered one of our finest. An oblong fruit with yellow-green skin and russet patches, it's a parent of 'Golden Delicious'.

Less exotic apples, ones often found in grocery stores and farmers' markets, were sampled, too. 'Cortland', with tart, white flesh, had a solid "appley" flavor; 'Macoun' was honeyed, with warm-spiced flesh; 'Empire', a pretty round, red apple with white flesh, boasted a lively flavor, honeyed but also a little tart. I used these to make free-form tarts, using just a little sugar and melted butter and no cinnamon or spice at all so that they could be truly tasted. Tarts made from these flavorful apples were preferred to those made with supermarket apples.

The exquisite, late-season dessert apples we sampled need not be limited to eating out of hand. Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook (Norton, 2011), reminded me that 'Calville Blanc d'Hiver' is the traditional apple for making tarte Tatin and claimed that 'Esopus Spitzenburg' holds up well in baking. Traverso has even used 'Ashmead's Kernel' for baking, but says its tartness is better suited to cider than sweets. 'Grimes Golden', on the other hand, is terrific in buttery cakes, and 'Cox's Orange Pippin' does show up in English apple desserts when the tarter 'Bramley' isn't called for. All of these apples make great applesauce—something I make frequently, often with mixed varieties but always including some with red skins for their color. They can also be quartered, cooked in a pan with a little butter and apple juice, and served as a very straightforward but aromatic dessert.

Biting into a crisp apple right off the tree, one that snaps in your teeth and sprays juice everywhere, is a wonderful experience. But some apples continue to develop once they're picked, losing acidity and gaining perfume and complexity. Some apples need this time to come into their own, while others degrade to some degree, yielding crispness to softness, smooth flesh to grainy. Late-season apples benefit from sitting around for weeks (or more) before eating. Apples that ripen late have hard flesh and are likely to store well, which is why they can be enjoyed during the very last months of the year. Early-ripening apples have softer flesh and do not store well. The lovely 'Yellow Transparent' apples that appear in my farmers' market in July are there for a short time for this reason.

Apples behave differently depending on where they are grown. For example, 'Northern Spy' is crisp when grown in its New York home but turns out mealy when grown in southern states. But there are apples well suited to warmer southern temperatures. Their names give them away: 'North Carolina Keeper', 'Ozark Gold', 'Arkansas Black'. And while you might savor an apple by itself for dessert, apples are famously good paired with aged cheeses, sometimes to the benefit of the apple. Although 'Grimes Golden' was on the weak side when tasted alone, its flavor became more aromatic when accompanied by a slice of aged Gouda cheese.

Very fast, very good applesauce
There's nothing easier than making applesauce with a pressure cooker and a food mill. Simply quarter the apples without bothering to peel them or remove the cores; then cook them on high pressure for 15 minutes. That's all it takes for the apples to soften. Then run everything through a food mill to separate the skins and seeds from the pulp. Add seasoning later, and sugar or honey if needed, but this will make a delicious basic sauce to freeze or can for the winter, or eat immediately. This is a great place to use a mixture of apples, odds and ends, and windfalls. But be sure to use some apples with deep red skins, such as 'Empire' and 'Arkansas Black', which will give the applesauce a rosy color, and if possible, include some that are on the tart side.

  • 3 pounds apples (see above)
  • 1⁄2 cup apple juice (optional)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Honey or sugar to taste, starting with a few tablespoons only
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • Pinch of ground clove (optional)
  • Fresh lemon juice, if needed

1. Rinse the apples and cut into quarters or big chunks, leaving skins and seeds intact. Put them in a pressure cooker and add the apple juice (1/2 cup water may be substituted). Lock the lid in place, bring the pressure to high, and then reduce the heat to maintain an even pressure for 15 minutes. Release the pressure or let it fall by itself.

2. Pass the apples through a food mill into a clean saucepan.* Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pressure cooker—the apples may have stuck and caramelized, which adds flavor.

3. Add the salt. Stir in the honey, sugar, or other sweetener (such as agave syrup) to taste as well as the cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and clove. If the sauce is too thin, cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Taste again. If it seems a little too sweet and on the dull side, add a few drops of fresh lemon juice to sharpen the flavor.

Makes about 4 cups

*For a plain sauce that tastes just of apples, you can skip the final step and go straight to eating!

Rustic braised apple quarters with raisins & toasted almonds

This dessert is simple to make, but pay attention, because the type of apple used will determine cooking time. 'Cortland' apples tend to fall apart in this dish, but 'Empire', 'Macoun', 'Jonathan', and 'Gala' will hold their shape. For a really rustic look, leave the skins on, especially of red apples--the color will tint the flesh. Serve with creamy yogurt or a slice of local Cheddar.

  • 4 to 5 large apples (about 6 ounces each), rinsed and quartered, or cut in sixths if the apples are very large
  • 1 1⁄2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons golden raisins
  • 1 to 1 1⁄2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1⁄3 cup fresh apple juice or water
  • 1⁄4 cup sherry or Calvados
  • 3 tablespoons toasted slivered or cut almonds (or pine nuts)

1. Juice one apple; set juice aside. Peel (or not) and core remaining apples. Over medium heat, melt butter in a 10-inch pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add apples and raisins and sprinkle with sugar, using an extra 1/2 tablespoon for tart varieties. Raise heat and slide apples back and forth in melted butter and sugar. After about 4 minutes, add apple juice or water. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Pierce with a knife point to check if apples are tender. If tender, remove lid and reduce until syrupy and apples begin to color.

2. Add sherry, swirl apples in pan, and let it reduce, leaving just a little sauce. Turn apples and raisins out onto a serving dish. Garnish with toasted almonds and serve, warm, with yogurt, ice cream, or cheese.

Serves 4

Plain-Jane freeform apple tart
The dough includes a portion of whole-wheat flour and the apples are not gussied up with cream or caramel, which means this tart is quite plain looking, but it is delicious. When using a rare apple, why cover it with a lot of other flavors? The secret to tender apples is to slice them thinly. I've made this with 'Cortland', 'Macoun', and 'Empire' apples. One sampler responded to the 'Empire' version by saying, "This tastes like a real American pie!"

For the dough:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1⁄2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 12 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons ice water


1. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flours, salt, and sugar. Cut in the butter by hand or use a stand mixer with paddle attachment, leaving some chunks slightly larger than pea-sized.

2. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolk and vinegar together with 4 tablespoons of the ice water. Drizzle into the flour-butter mixture, tossing with a fork (or using the paddle attachment) until you can bring the dough together with your hands. If the dough is too dry, add the last tablespoon of ice water.

3. Divide into two pieces weighing about 9 ounces each. Wrap each one in plastic film, then gently press each into a round disk. (If you wish, freeze one disk for later.) Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, as a chilled dough is easier to roll out, easier to handle, and absorbs less extra flour, keeping the texture as it should be.

Makes enough for 2 (10-inch) tarts (if planning to make only one tart, you can freeze the other portion of dough for later use)

For the apple tart:

  • 1 round of dough, opposite (1⁄2 recipe)
  • 4 apples ('Macoun', 'Cortland', or 'Empire'), about 1 1⁄4 pounds peeled and sliced 1⁄8 inch thick
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • About 1 tablespoon sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Roll the dough into a circle 11 to 12 inches across, then transfer it to the parchment paper. Arrange the apples on the dough, overlapping the slices and leaving a one-inch rim. Fold the rim over, making pleats to create a circle.

2. Brush melted butter over the dough and apples, then scatter the sugar over the apples. Bake in the top third of the oven until the apples are soft and the crust is golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove, and cool slightly before serving.

Makes 1 (10-inch) tart