An unusually mild winter and a vicious spring freeze made 2012 the worst year ever for Michigan’s fruit crops.
The state produces 80 percent of the tart cherries in the U.S., and 2012’s freak weather patterns destroyed most of the Michigan cherry crops.
Apples suffered a similar fate that year. I paid top dollar for a shopping bag full of apples that I felt lucky to find during a trip to an orchard on the west side of the state during what should have been the height of the harvest.
But what a difference a year makes.
A short trip to the west side of the state this year to celebrate my sister’s birthday was blessedly fruitful.
An early morning drive found us winding along gorgeously rolling roads to an apple orchard located a hill away from Lake Michigan. The full force of nature was at work that morning — Hollywood could not have created a more beautiful setting. The colors were just beginning to peak, a light mist rose from dew-soaked ground and the sun sliced and shimmered through the trees. Mesmerized by the exquisite, sparkling start to the day, I had to pinch myself.
“Now you know why I love it here so much,” my sister said.
The “here” is just north of Manistee, about an hour south of Traverse City. It’s free of TC’s tourists and traffic, full instead of great fishing spots and lots and lots of farms. When I visit, we spend a day “shopping” the area farms. I buy cream from an Amish dairy that I freeze and use throughout the year for soups. In the spring, there is asparagus galore, and later, organic blueberries and corn. And in the fall are the apples.
The farms and dairies and orchards all work on the honor system. Prices for the various products are listed on boards, and we stuff payment for what we buy into coffee cans or boxes, and make our own change.
This year, the weather gods made possible a bumper crop of everything. I bought a half-bushel of mixed apples and a half-bushel of Honey Crisps for what I paid for a shopping bag full the year before.
The 3-1/2 hour drive home to Howell was full of the scent of the fresh apples in the back of my car. When I got home, I hunted down an Ina Garten recipe for apple crisp.
The first pan I made was good, but too sweet for my taste. The sugar worked against the natural sweetness of the apples, so I tweaked through a second and then a third batch.
Lucky for me, my family members graciously consumed the crisps over the next couple weeks until I got the recipe just right.
Family members reported eating cold crisp with a bit of milk, sort of like a fruity breakfast cereal. I enjoyed mine topped with yogurt.
It’s great plain, too.
Research shows that after baking, apple crisps can be frozen. What a great way to make a beautiful fall last all year long.
Here, in celebration of the best of this beautiful fall season, is my tested-and-true recipe that makes two big pans of lower-sugar apple crisp. :
About 10 pounds/30 apples, mixed variety (including some Honey Crisps)
Grated zest of 1 orange, plus its juice
Grated zest of 1 lemon, plus its juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3 cups flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups oatmeal
1 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 14 x 2-inch baking dishes.
Peel, core, and cut the apples. (I broke down and bought one of those hand-cranked peeler-corer-slicer machines, which made fast work of the apples.)
Toss the apples with the zests, juices, sugar, and spices. Divide between the two dishes.
To make the topping, combine the flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal, and cold butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until the mixture is crumbly and the butter is the size of peas. (Be careful not to mix the topping too much, or it will become clumpy and difficult to spread evenly over the apples.)
Scatter evenly over the apples.
Put the crisps on sheet pans to catch any bubble-overs, and bake for 1 hour until the top is brown and the apples are bubbly.
You can eat the apple crisp warm, but it’s just as delicious refrigerated.