There is nothing I like better this time of year than a good, crisp Macoun. Others I know stand by their favorite snack apples: Northern Spies, Honeycrisps, Fujis.
But which one to choose if you're making applesauce? Cider? Apple pie? The other day I talked with Paul Crowell, whose family runs Crow Farm in Sandwich. They have several acres of apples, and he talked me through which varieties he grows, and why. Here goes:
BALDWIN: Baldwins are hands down Paul's favorite variety for baking. They are very hard, somewhat tart apples, which means they both stand up well and can take a bit of sugar. The variety comes from Wilmington, Massachusetts where they were discovered on a family farm around 1740. Apparently they were originally called "woodpecker apples" because the birds liked the tree trunks so much, but later the name was changed to honor a Colonel Baldwin of Cambridge who especially liked them.
CORTLAND: Cortlands are excellent for eating fresh. They were developed in Geneva, New York in 1898 in an attempt to make the Macintosh even better. I'd say it was a success: the apples are crisp and juicy and sweet with a nice white flesh. And they're also good for slicing up for fruit plates and salads, because they don't turn brown for a while.
EMPIRE: Empires are newer than most of the classics; they weren't developed until 1945. These are another Geneva, New York apple, developed from a cross between Macintosh and Red Delicious. They ripen up this time of year and are good keepers—they'll last until Christmas or even later. They're a good all-purpose apple—you can toss them into cider, eat them fresh, or throw them into sauce or a pie.
GINGER GOLD: This is a summer apple, very early. It won't keep past the few weeks when it's available, usually in August. It's best for eating fresh off the tree.
GRAVENSTEIN: A very old variety, and Paul says his sister's favorite. This is another summer apple, discovered in 1669 in Denmark. It usually ripens in August and is a good cooking apple—good for cider and applesauce in particular. It's tart and soft and does not keep long past picking.
HONEYCRISP: A favorite eating apple for many. Crisp, sweet, juicy, red...a commercial growers' dream. It was released in 1991 and has been a popular snack apple ever since.
LODI: Yet another Geneva apple. An early summer apple that ripens in August and won't keep, so you've either got to eat it fresh or turn it into cider or sauce. It's green skinned with a white, juicy flesh.
MACINTOSH: The classic! Red, tart, and tender. They're delicious for eating when fresh, but they don't stay crispy for long. Older Macs are best for sauce or cider. Not so good for pie, since they don't hold up well.
MACOUN: My personal favorite for eating fresh. So sweet! So juicy! So red! Also good for cider and sauce, and ok for pie, though a bit on the sweet side. They're so good that here they rarely make it past the fridge. Named for a Canadian farmer, J.T. Macoun, but developed in Geneva, New York.
MILTON: A crisp, early summer apple. It doesn't keep well, but it's delicious fresh off the tree. Also developed in Geneva at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, apparently a very productive place.
ROXBURY RUSSET: These are believed to be the oldest commercially produced American apples. They were discovered and named by Joseph Warren of Roxbury, Mass in the mid-1600s and later were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. They're named for their potato-like skin, which is rough and brownish (see below). For some people that's a turn-off, but Paul says they're his favorite apple. They're good for eating fresh well into the winter as they keep well, and they're also tasty in cider or juice.
SANSA: These are another early apple. They don't keep but are great for eating fresh, and are yellow with crisp, white flesh.
SPENCER: Spencers are a cross between Yellow Delicious and Macintosh. Paul says they don't color around here, he thinks because our falls are so warm and apples need cool, crisp nights or even days to turn that nice red. They're good keepers and excellent in cider.
APPLESAUCE LACED WITH ORANGE
This recipe, my favorite for sauce, comes from the beautiful (and informative) Apple Lover's Cookbook by Amy Traverso. It's a nice variation on tradition. For the apples I like to use a mix of Macintosh, Macoun, and Cortland, but as you know from the list above, many different kinds can work.
3 pounds apples, all tender, half tart and half sweet
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of cloves
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Core the apples; don't peel them. Cut them into large chunks and put them in a large pot with the orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, and 3 tablespoons of water. Cook over medium high heat, covered, until the liquid begins to simmer. Then turn the heat down, and cook another 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the apples are very tender.
Put the mixture through a food mill. Add the orange juice, stir well, and put into jars. This sauce freezes well but is not for canning.