Los Angeles is notorious for having a complete lack of seasons. A sudden drop in temperature to about 60 degrees and a blustery rainstorm a couple of weeks ago quickly lead to thick sweaters and Ugg boots as far as the eye could see. And I include myself in that group, much to the chagrin of my Midwestern roots. But what can I do? I long for a true autumn in this beachy town–leaves falling and swirling in the wind, temperatures dropping, chilly evening mist every night. But no snow. I don’t miss snow at all, sorry.
Here in L.A., I’ve realized, one needs to make her own seasons as best as she can. And so, this past weekend, the husband and I took a drive to an orchard village so different from where we live our everyday lives that the mere 90 minute drive felt like a real road trip, and we commenced to apple pickin’. Since I keep a blog strictly about baking, it’s difficult to participate in all the farmer’s market hubbub with other, more general food bloggers, as it’s tough to make dessert out of, say, heirloom potatoes. Apple picking at the height of the harvest is one of my few opportunties to bake seasonally. Locally. Sustainably. Whatever.
The Oak Glen area of Yucaipa, California is only 94 miles due east from our beach apartment, but the winding roads and sprawling mountainous countryside suggest a New England lifestyle that only J. Crew could bring us. Except in the desert. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear and just enough of a fall nip in the air to call for a light sweater when in the shade of the apple trees. Oak Glen reminded us of touring Santa Ynez wine country outside Santa Barbara, but not drunk. You can drive down Oak Glen Road for miles, stopping at different orchards and kitschy shops along the way. And that’s exactly what we did.
Our first stop was the Parrish Ranch, where the goal was lunch. They had dramatic red signage leading up to the entrance, like the one touting “Yodeling Merle!”, and another one with hanging planks naming all the varieties that were good for the picking. But it was the sign advertising the Apple Dumplin’s Restaurant that sold us. Anything with an apostrophe in lieu of a “g” was sure to serve the kind of food we were in the mood for. Like a grilled cheddar, smoked bacon and Granny Smith apple sandwich. Oh, my.
After that lunch, how could we not be in the apple picking spirit? Before heading onto the next orchard, we quickly ducked into the Parris Ranch shop to browse, passing an alluring Kettle Corn stand on the way. Someone’s been reading my blog! I kid.
Our next stop was Riley’s Log Cabin and Farm just a short drive down the road. We walked up a dirt path to find a sweet teenage girl standing at her post, doling out advice on how to best pick the apples (use your thumb to separate the fruit’s stem from the branch, making it easier for blossoms to grown in its place next year) and paper bags for loading up our loot.
Visiting Riley’s is kind of like traveling back in time, and not just because it makes you feel like you’re on a school field trip or at camp, what with all the archery, pressing your own cider and corn husk doll and rope making classes. No, farther back in time than that. Riley’s has been a real working farm since 1877, and many of the huge seedling trees have been around since the beginning. It was really charming.
We scored some beautiful Rome, Fuji and Red Delicious for eating out of hand, and plenty of Winesaps and Northern Spy apples for baking. We figured that the last time we went apple picking was before we were married, at least six years ago. It’s nice to know that the exhilarating feeling of searching for buried treasure on a tree never goes away. When we first started picking, we laughed at some of the little munchkins running around screaming, “I found a a really pretty one, Mom!!!”. Half an hour later, WE were the nerds jogging between the trees when we spotted a winner from several feet away and saying, “Check it out!” to each other after pulling a beauty from the branches. We decided that our $33 tab was a charge for half apples, half good times.
After piling into the car with our finds, we made one more stop in Oak Glen. I was NOT leaving without a chilly jug of cider and a proper cider donut. And really, how could we resist Snow-Line Orchard, with its cheery sign bragging about their mini-cider donuts “As Seen on TV”?! We were at a Southern California orchard, after all. And you know what? If I was a TV producer, I would definitely be insanely proud to say I “discovered” these doughnuts. Especially after putting in our order and then waiting in a crowd of dozens for nearly 20 minutes of torture as the smell of spicy, sweet fried dough filled the air. Good thing we also bought a slice of pie at the counter when we put in our order. There will be no photo of said pie because, well, we scarfed it while waiting for the donuts. But I will tell you that it was amazing, especially when the bites were chased with sips of hot cider, and the filling was unlike any other apple pie filling I’d seen before: a rich maple color (Generous cinnamon? Dark brown sugar?) rather than the blondish golden filling we’re used to seeing. And then our name was called, and the donuts came forth:
I really don’t know quite how to describe this mini-cider donut experience, other than to say that there was a lot of eye-closing and deep exhaling while chewing. Not that these remarkably light fried wonders, exemplifying the perfect balance of crisp exterior meeting fluffy interior, required much chewing at all. They nearly dissolved on the tongue along with their cinnamon sugar coating, the chewing was just to sort of make the whole experience last longer. And when followed by a long drink of cold, freshly pressed cider, well, it really doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?
With our bellies full of donuts and cider and our Midwestern spirits satiated by a day spent in a sleepy town, walking in the dirt and the shade of apple trees and plucking their fruit, we fell into the car for a two-hour drive back home in very L.A.-style traffic.
After dinner that night, despite the happy exhaustion and consumption of many, many calories already that day, I just had to eek out a quick apple crisp. With a lack of vanilla ice cream in the house, there was nothing to do but whip up a wacky original recipe for a sweet, spicy cream cheese glaze to help celebrate the gorgeous Winesaps we picked up. And you know this won’t be the only post with an apple recipe, right?
Apple Crisp with Sweet Cream Cheese Glaze
For the Topping:
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds (pecans work well too)
For the Filling:
6 medium apples (choose good, firm baking apples, I used a combination of Winesaps and McIntosh, about 2 1/2 pounds total)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (apple pie spice is nice, too)
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup granulated sugar
For the Cream Cheese Glaze:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons half and half
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set an oven rack to the lower-middle position.
For the crisp topping, place the flour, sugars, spices and salt in a blender or food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add in the cold butter and pulse about 10 times, until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the chopped nuts and process again, for about five seconds, until the topping looks like slightly clumpy, wet sand. Don’t overmix. Refrigerate the topping for 15 minutes while you prepare the fruit.
For the filling, peel, core and cut the apples into one-inch chunks. In a medium bowl, toss the fruit with the lemon juice, sugar and spices. Dump the filling into a 8×8-inch square baking dish or a similarly-sized casserole and evenly distribute the topping over the apples. Tap the dish on the countertop to get some of the topping to drop into the spaces between the fruit. Bake for 40 minutes, and then increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake 5 minutes more, until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling along the edges. Let cool briefly while you prepare the Cream Cheese Glaze.
For the glaze, beat together the cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar, sweetening to taste. Add the cinnamon and vanilla, and then begin adding the half and half until a drizzling consistency is reached, about two tablespoons. Spoon over big bowls of warm apple crisp and serve. Think autumnal thoughts.
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