The signs of fall are showing up on produce stands and porches around the South
The signs of fall are showing up on produce stands and porches around the South. Smooth, fat orange pumpkins, “Welcome, harvest” wreaths, and silly-looking scarecrows announce that autumn, even though it’s still 88 degrees in the South, is upon us.
Fall baking is one of the best pleasures of the season, in my opinion. It reminds me of my earliest years when my family lived in North Carolina. I recall the comfort there was on a chilly day, sitting on the big oval braided rug in the living room in our home, watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, while mom baked an apple pie or some fluffy buttermilk biscuits to smear with apple butter when they came out of the oven.
I remember taking walks in the autumn-splashed woods behind our house on Ivanhoe Place in Charlotte, woods which I’m sure aren’t there anymore, what with the growth of that city. The neighborhood kids and I would bundle up and walk through the paths that had been trampled down over the years, as we explored and made up games. There were dairy farmers and blue-collar workers in little old houses back there, on the other side of the woods, and I would look at their little wooden houses with trails of smoke ribboning out of the chimneys with great curiosity, wondering about the people who lived there as they lived their lives. I could see a few them through the clearings in the woods as we played, and I’d always stop and watch when one couple nearest us came outside.
I liked watching Ms. Annie; she was an older woman, almost always in an apron and a dress, and she and her husband, Mr. Henry, had a mule for work and transportation. Dad says that I told him once that the mule’s name was “Whoa,” because I’d always hear Mr. Henry call out, “Whoa, mule!” I can’t actually remember that mule’s real name, but I recall how Annie would holler for her husband to come out and hitch the mule to the buggy, and he would, and they’d go clomping down the street to market or church or wherever Ms. Annie wanted to go that day.
I always wanted to visit Ms. Annie’s house. She seemed nice and I liked her safe-looking little wooden home with its metal roof. Looking at her life through the woods was, to me, like looking into another world. My world was about suburban school and little brick houses, Big Wheels and Barbies, station wagons and steaks on the grill. Annie’s was about working with her hands, hanging her clothes on the line after soaping them up in a wash pot, growing her own food, and riding behind a big, ornery mule in a buggy. Less than half a mile, I guess, separated us, but we were worlds apart. The falling of the leaves was like the opening of a window between our two worlds, and I loved the escapism of peeking through it, until I heard mom’s or dad’s voice calling me to come home.
Those were the evenings I was happy to come away from the woods and get inside the warmth of the house, watch some fun shows on PBS, and smell whatever yummy thing mom had baking in the oven. That was the comfort of home.
I think those happy memories are the reason I love autumn, and I love baking things that are quintessentially fall, like apple pies and pumpkin bread.
But mom had one special and easy dessert she’d make on weeknights in the fall that required very little work on her part, and there is nothing that I can imagine that smelled better as they baked: sweet cinnamon baked apples. Mom would drop butter inside cored apples that she had nestled into a baking dish, then sprinkle lots of cinnamon sugar inside them, and bake them until they were tender and steaming hot. What a simple and delicious treat! What a glorious fragrance!
I hope you’ll enjoy my recipe for baked apples, which I’ve dressed up a little bit, but which will always remind me of the comforting scent and taste of mom’s fall baking. I’ll also share a no-bake recipe with you, just in case you’re not ready for baking just yet.
Fruit and nut-stuffed baked apples
• 6 medium to large baking apples (Fuji, Granny Smith, Gala, etc.)
• 1/4 cup brown sugar
• 3 tablespoons butter, chopped into six pieces
• 3 tablespoons chopped dates
• 3 tablespoons dried cranberries, cherries, or raisins (or a mixture of any of them)
• 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (if you have apple pie spice, you could use that here)
• 3 tablespoons chopped pecans or walnuts
1. Wash and core apples, leaving the bottom intact. Do not peel.
2. In a small mixing bowl, combine all other ingredients using a wooden spoon or a spatula, stirring to coat all ingredients with cinnamon and brown sugar.
3. Place apples in a 9″x13″ glass baking dish. Stuff each apple with the fruit and nut filling, pressing down to rid the apples of air pockets.
4. Bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour and fifteen minutes. (this may vary by oven; test for tenderness with a fork).
5. Alternatively, place apples in large slow cooker, and cook at low for 4 to 5 hours, or on high for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. When ready, apples should be very tender, but should hold their shape.
Feel free to customize the filling with your favorite nuts and dried fruits!
Bonus recipe: If you’d prefer not to heat up your kitchen yet, I've got a tasty treat for you that will satisfy your sweet tooth with its nice crunch of oats and its smooth chocolate-peanut butter one-two punch of flavor. This recipe is a super simple way to get a snack on the table for your family or friends, using six ingredients you probably have in your kitchen right now!
No-bake chocolate-peanut butter bars
2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups uncooked quick oatmeal
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips
1. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed 2 or 3-quart saucepan. Add to it the brown sugar, then whisk it in until sugar dissolves. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Stir everything together until oats are completely covered by the butter mixture. Keep over very low heat while doing the next step, stirring frequently.
2. Melt together the chocolate chips and peanut butter in another saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. When melted and combined, take off heat.
3. Take 2/3 of the oat mixture, and press into a 9x9-inch or 7x11-inch baking dish that you have sprayed with cooking spray. Use the back of a spoon, spatula,etc., to press into the bottom well.
4. Pour the chocolate-peanut butter mixture over the oat crust, and smooth with a spatula across the whole crust.
5. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup of oat mixture over the melted chocolate, pressing in slightly to ensure it adheres.
6. Refrigerate for several hours to overnight. When ready to serve, take out of the refrigerator and soften slightly to make cutting easier.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.