First bite

Author: Brigitte Hafner
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

The first spell of brisk weather sends me into my kitchen, eager to fill the house with warmth and delicious smells. I like to celebrate the change in season and produce by spending an entire day preparing for a long Sunday lunch with friends. Even wine takes on a renewed appeal; at last, a deep hearty red makes sense.

It's about this time of year that my Uncle Wilfried appears with a big box of apples from his property in Victoria's Strzelecki Ranges. A cross between the Granny Smith and the golden delicious, these apples are beautiful to eat and especially good for baking. I am prompted to hunt through my old recipes, searching for different ways of cooking with these gorgeous apples. They'll spend weeks perfuming my kitchen until I've worked my way through them.

I also enjoy buying up bags of Cox's orange pippin and reinette apples from the farmers' markets - since they appear only briefly and are the finest apples for baking - as well as some of the lesser-known varieties that make particularly good eating, such as the Rome beauty, the Mutsu and Gravenstein.

Throughout most of the year, particularly in the summer months, I see the same old apple varieties sitting on the supermarket shelves, having been in cold storage for who knows how long. I confess, I don't get very excited about them. It's difficult to believe that the 2000 varieties of interesting and wonderful apples that have come to Australia have been ruthlessly culled to a mere four in general production.

In contrast, when apples arrive in the markets in the peak of their season, freshly picked, they are quite simply stunning. And now there's even greater choice in varieties that come from orchards still producing heirloom apples. So right now, I am really inspired to bake with apples, whether it's a simple apple tea cake with cinnamon and walnuts, or one of my favourite apple cakes from an old Joël Robuchon recipe.

Robuchon's recipe calls for lightly caramelised Cox's orange pippins with sugar, butter and almond flakes, covered with a batter enriched with crème fraîche. It's essentially an upside-down cake - the apples are all golden and gooey, and you top them with a syrup made with a splash of Calvados. It's well worth hunting down the recipe because it's one of those incredibly simple yet entirely delicious and satisfying desserts, especially if eaten while still warm with homemade crème Anglaise.

I also like to make spiced apple fritters for a Sunday afternoon treat. I spice the apple slices in either an eau de vie of prunes, a Poire Williams, or the Spanish liqueur Anís del Mono, allowing them to soak up the liqueur for at least an hour before coating them lightly in batter. For the batter, I use 2 eggs, 110gm caster sugar, 125ml milk, 60ml extra-virgin olive oil, 225gm self-raising flour. Then I dip the scented apple slices in the batter and shallow-fry them in a combination of olive oil and butter. They come out all puffy and golden-brown and are just perfect eaten with nothing more than a sprinkling of caster sugar.

There is a beautiful German apple cake I make that always reminds me of my mother. I remember her stretching the strudel pastry out over the dining table until it was so thin you could see her hands through it. Shop-bought filo just cannot compare with a homemade strudel pastry, which, when turned into freshly baked apple strudel with vanilla ice-cream, is a delicious winter dessert.

When I have a surplus of apples, I like to make an apple compote. This can be as simple as throwing peeled, cored and quartered apples in a pot to simmer with some sugar, a cinnamon quill and a little water and lemon juice, or it can be a little more refined if I want to use it as a dessert. Then I make a poaching syrup of 1 part sugar to 1 part water with a little lemon rind, a cinnamon quill, 3 cloves and a vanilla bean. Bring this to the boil, then add peeled, cored and quartered apples. Simmer gently, topped with baking paper and a saucer to weight the fruit, until the apples are only just soft. Remove from the heat immediately and cool. Refrain from stirring unless you want your poached apples to become a purée. This is the perfect filling for crêpes, sprinkled with icing sugar, or for the bottom of a rice pudding. It also makes a delicious partner to roast game or pork. At Easter, for example, I served a roast goose and the soft-poached apples were perfect with the rich, fragrant red meat.

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