It is hard to think of any pudding more suited to a chilly autumn day than baked apples. But in this day and age I can only justify them if the oven is on anyway – perhaps for after the Sunday roast. If hot, sweet apples it must be (and sometimes it really must be some sort of steaming apple pudding), then I cook them in thick slices in a shallow pan on the hob instead, leaving them to soften before adding enough sugar to give them a sticky, caramel coating. You get all of the flavour and comfort of a baked apple, but without the guilt of having put the oven on just for a couple of apples.
When I cook fruit in this way I avoid those apples that have a tendency to work themselves up into a lather. By which I mean the Bramleys and such like that leave you with a pan of (blissful) baby food if you turn your back for a minute or two. A slightly firmer apple is probably best here. This need not be a sweet apple – there are a few sharp "cookers" that keep their shape in the heat, or at least give you plenty of warning if they are about to turn into apple sauce. Any crisp, large apple with not-too-sweet a character will do.
The sudden cold snap has also seen me seeking out the sweet flesh of the pumpkin. 'Tis obviously the season for golden orbs. Just looking at them in the greengrocers or at the market puts a glow in my cheeks. The velvet quality of a puréed pumpkin soup rather suits the frosty weather, but I also think it's worth using its flesh in large pieces to add body to a soup. But squashes, like the apples with which they share a season, can be firm or watery depending on the variety. Anyone who cooks the squash family regularly will know that they, too, need a careful eye. The window between the flesh being tender and collapsing hopelessly into the soup is small. It is better to let it go too far than risk too toothsome a result. After 20 minutes' cooking, it is probably best to check it every five minutes or so just to make sure. The blue-skinned varieties often yield firmer flesh than the green and orange, and the older the pumpkin gets the less likely it is to collapse into the soup.
I find the sweetness of the pumpkin family to be a mixed blessing. It can be balanced by a careful use of spices, garlic or the more robust of herbs, such as rosemary and thyme. The resinous notes of these herbs take the sugary edge off in a way the sweeter herbs can't. I also find sweet-sharp tomatoes can work wonders, introducing some much-needed contrast. The best supper I have had this week involved both a medium-sized "onion" squash and the last of the tomatoes. A warming bowl to greet the first of the early frosts.
PUMPKIN, TOMATO AND CANNELLINI SOUP
This is quite a substantial soup and could double as a main dish. Any of the red-fleshed squashes will do for this. Butternut is probably the most user friendly. To make a quick version, use canned beans. Drain them of their canning liquid and rinse them thoroughly. Add them to the soup once the tomatoes have simmered down to a slush. You could use any bean, but the cannellini type has a good contrast of texture to the soft vegetables and tends to stay quite firm during cooking. The soup can be kept for several days in the fridge.
dried cannellini beans 250g
onions 2 medium-sized
olive or rapeseed oil 2 tbsp
garlic 2 or 3 cloves
rosemary a small sprig
water 750ml or so
parsley a small bunch
extra-virgin olive oil a little
pumpkin 800g (about 650g of prepared weight)
Soak the dried beans in cold water overnight. Drain, tip into a large, deep pan and cover them with water. Bring to the boil, partially cover with a lid, then turn down the heat so they cook at an enthusiastic simmer. Don't be tempted to add any salt at this point, as it will toughen the beans. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface as they cook, and occasionally check the water level and top up from the kettle if necessary. Test for doneness after 45 minutes or so; they should be tender, but not soft. Drain, and set aside.
Peel and roughly chop the onions. Warm the olive or rapeseed oil in a deep pan, add the chopped onion and cook for about 10 minutes until soft. While the onions cook, peel and slice the garlic and add to the pan together, with the rosemary needles, roughly chopped.
Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes in half and stir into the onions. Continue cooking for five minutes then pour in 750ml of water and bring to the boil. Add the pumpkin pieces to the pan, season with salt and black pepper and leave to simmer gently for 30-40 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender to the point of a knife.
Tip the drained beans into the pan and continue cooking for 10 minutes. (If you want to cool everything and put the soup in the fridge overnight, it will be all the better for it.) Remove the leaves from the parsley and chop roughly then stir into the soup.
Ladle into deep bowls, trickle a little extra virgin olive oil over the top and serve.
FRIED APPLES WITH BROWN SUGAR AND CRèME FRAîCHE
The apples should be cooked over a fairly low heat so they soften but don't colour too much before you add the sugar. Once the sugar is added things happen quite quickly, so don't be tempted to take your eye off the pan. The Calvados is a suggestion; you can add a straightforward cognac if you prefer, or leave it out altogether. If there is no crème fraîche around, use ordinary double cream – though the result will be a little sweeter.
cooking apple 1 large
lemon juice a little
light muscovado sugar 2 tbsp
Calvados 1 tbsp
crème fraîche 2 or 3 tbsp
Cut the apple into quarters and remove and discard the core and pips. I don't peel my apples for this recipe, but it is up to you. Cut the apple quarters into thick slices then put them in a basin and squeeze over just enough lemon juice to stop them browning.
Melt the butter in shallow, non-stick pan. Add the apples and let them cook over a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, turning them as necessary and lowering the heat if they colour too quickly. When they are soft and golden, scatter over the sugar and let it melt in the butter. As it starts to turn to caramel in the pan add the crème fraîche. Once the cream has melted around the apples, serve immediately.