I think it goes without saying here that I’ve resisted a rather strong urge to say “how d’ya like them apples?” several times throughout this post. So at least I’ve spared you that.
I didn’t intentionally make these Thanksgiving-like; they started out life as a very simple idea for a savory baked apple, the likes of which I’ve seen here and there while perusing the internets and my cookbooks. They always look so lovely – all burnished skin and crispy top – pitch perfect for chilly evenings. I had my doubts about if they were like this in real life, or how easy they would be to accomplish in real life, so I tried it. The family was discussing our Thanksgiving ’13 plans at the time, so these are the physical manifestation of those conversations.
So I went about the business of these apples, fully aware that failure was not only a possibility, but a likelihood. I don’t have an apple corer or immense patience when it comes to certain things, so I knew I would mess these up. Turns out, I was wrong: these are actually quite simple to make, and you’d be surprised at the grace of a melon-baller when it comes to scooping apples. So don’t be daunted: pretty can indeed be easy, and these are living proof.
You could go crazy with these: i just chose to stuff them with the flavors I associate with the days leading up to Thanksgiving, when all of us are gathered in the kitchen getting ingredients prepped for the upcoming feast. Sausage, celery, and onion from the dressing we make, cranberries from my favorite side dish, a little fresh sage and parsley from the turkey seasoning, and a little parmesan and panko to mimic the toasty bread crunch from dressing, but without all the heaviness and guilt. And the apples? Of course the insides of the apples are in here too, because I would never scoop out gorgeous fall apples just to waste their insides. They add a sweetness and crisp autumnal flavor that would be difficult to get from anything else.
As I said, these are easy. You don’t like something? Leave it out. Vegetarian? Cool: maybe throw in some chopped Portobello mushrooms to get that meaty flavor. Everything is pretty flexible here, and can be added and subtracted as you see fit. Fear of carving apples got you down? I’ve given you pretty detailed instructions below as to how prepared the apples for filling, so get yourself a small, sharp knife and a melon baller and be prepared to wow your family and friends. You can do this.
These are great for a light dinner, or lunch on a cold day, rainy day (I speak from personal experience here). They’re not huge, so think about serving it alongside a green salad with a punchy dressing, perhaps a blue cheese. If you make them sans sausage, they would be lovely alongside pork or chicken, although I suppose serving two meat things on one plate isn’t unheard of.
Inspired by a few recipes I have in some of my cookbooks: Gordon Ramsey makes a sweet one, and Tyler Florence has a more savory one I saw during my research. Mostly, I used these guys for cooking times and a general feeling of how to accomplish all that is scooping out an apple; recipe is my own.
for the apple shells/filling:
- 1 pound italian sausage
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1 medium-large sweet yellow onion, diced
- 6 good-sized apples (I like Gala apples or Fuji for this, and I also like Granny Smiths for a slightly more firm, tart final result), cored and scooped, insides reserved*
- 5-6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup lightly packed fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 3/4 cup dried cranberries
- sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
for the topping:
- 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1/3 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
*obviously you don’t need to reserve the apple cores here: I’m talking the meat of the apples. You’ll need about 1 1/2 cups of apple insides, roughly chopped, for this recipe. I would have loved to use all the apples, but if you do the math, then there wouldn’t be any room for anything else. The extra is great to snack on as you’re putting these together.
Make the filling:
In a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausage, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks. Once it is brown all the way through, transfer it using a slotted spoon onto a plate covered in paper towels to drain off the grease. Set aside.
Remove the sausage fat from the skillet and add the olive oil and butter, reducing the heat to medium. Add the celery and onion and stir to coat, letting it cook for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Meanwhile…
Prepare your apples:
Not a difficult process, to be sure, but I’ll give you step by step instructions:
- Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, slice off the very top of the apples, right at where the stem hits the apple.
- Using a melon-baller, carefully scoop directly down the center, until the core and seeds are completely removed. Discard core and seeds before continuing.
- Use the knife to trim down the top until it’s the size you want it to be. I like my apples tall, so I made my “bowl” at the widest part of the apple. Pay attention also to how your apples sit: make adjustments to the tops accordingly.
- Carefully scoop out the insides of the apple with the melon baller, going slowly and paying attention. Keep your hand wrapped around the apple as you do this: it will help to stabilize things, but you’ll also feel if you begin to scoop too close to the skin. It doesn’t have to be perfect in there: leave maybe a 1/4 inch of apple, but don’t overthink it.
- As you finish each apple, set them open-side-down on your work surface; it helps keep the brown away.
- Take the leftover apple pieces and rough chop 1 1/2 cups of it to use in the stuffed apples. Eat the rest or save it for later by squeezing a bit of lemon over.
Back to the filling:
Once your onions and celery are finished, add the apples and sage and cook for another 5-6 minutes until apples are soft. Add parsley and cranberries, stirring to combine. This is where I want you to season, and season well; there are lots of things in here, and baked together without proper seasoning, all these lovely flavors could lose some of their luster if not properly seasoned. Don’t be skimpy, but work carefully, adding sea salt and ground pepper, stirring, then tasting. Repeat as needed until you love the flavor, then sprinkle a little salt and pepper over top your (currently empty) apples.
Let’s stuff those apples:
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Lightly butter the insides of a deep baking dish. I used a 1.5 quart oval dish for this, but use what fits your apples the best. If you’re not sure about what will work, test a few out pre-buttering to determine which works best for you.
Working one at a time, grab an apple and hold it firmly in your hand. Using a medium spoon (one which will be easy to work with and fit into the apple with no trouble), giving your filling a quick stir and start scooping it into the apple. Press firmly down as you go to send the filling to eliminate any pockets, and slightly heap the filling out of the top, making a small mound. Set in the prepared baking dish, and repeat with the rest of the apples.
Make the topping:
Stir together the parmesan and panko in a medium bowl until combined. Add melted butter and stir with a fork until ingredients are evenly coated. Using a small spoon and your fingers, lift heaping spoonfuls of the mixture up and carefully press it into the tops of your apples, pushing it gently but firmly on top of the filling; it should adhere well, but don’t be afraid to use your hands here. Once your topping has been evenly distributed, place in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 30-40 minutes, until crackly and heated. It’s a very forgiving recipe in that you’d have to basically forget about them for hours for them to be ruined, but check them at around the 30 minute mark. Your topping should be a deep golden and your filling should be hot all the way to the center.
Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
PS: Am I the only one who got a kick out of saying “baller” that many times? I know my spell check enjoyed it quite a bit.