Today felt like I've finally settled into winter after all these months of practice. Around here, there is usually much hand wringing about fitting in as much as humanly possible on the weekend. I had big plans for today -- big plans. Then the snow started coming down, another log went into the fire and the urgency of getting out and going melted into puttering around and staying, so I decided to be brave and go with it, and that's when good things started to happen.
The first good thing: slow-roasted walnuts with sea salt and maple syrup. The second: cinnamon- and sugar-dusted apples, laced with bourbon and pan sautéed in butter until golden brown. Bring these two small miracles together, add in some vanilla ice cream and, well, let me just say, it was what this Sunday really needed.
What started me down this road of midday decadence was this post inspired by a favorite food writer of mine: Nigel Slater. The man knows how to keep things unpretentious and delicious. In short, the post discussed a recipe for apple crumble, where the apples are sautéed first before being baked with a traditional crumble topping (flour, sugar, oats, butter, etc.). The extra time in the pan before the oven gets you some nice pre-game caramelization, which is really what it's all about.
A traditional-ish crumble sounded boring to me, though, and my thoughts turned to nuts, glorious, rich, tasty, salty-sweet nuts. Why mess with flour if you can have straight-up nutty flavor! And walnuts have always been a personal favorite. I love a good walnut tart even above pecan pie (a close runner-up in my fantasy dessert lineup). But tarts and pies require extra work in the form of dough rolling, chilling, crimping, and the whole idea of today was about not doing those kinds of things to myself.
So instead, my "crumble" consisted of walnuts (as prepared below) pounded into a paste with warming spices and a bit of walnut oil. Add to apple slices browned in butter and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and you've created a deconstructed dessert of sorts, combining the best parts of apple pie: spicy/sweet, deeply perfumed cinnamon-kissed warm apples with the richness of unadulterated nut goodness that you typically only get in a pecan/walnut pie. Add the cold ice cream to the warm apples and nuts, and it is nothing short of lovely perfection -- and once the nuts are roasted (which you can do in advance), it comes together fast! With options like these, I can stand winter sticking around for a few more weeks.
- 1 cup shelled walnuts
- Salt and sugar to taste for brine
- Maple syrup
- Flaky sea salt (I like Maldon)
- A few pinches of nutmeg
- 1-2 teaspoons of walnut or canola oil
- 1 cooking apple (I used a Gala)
- 1-2 tablespoons of butter
- 1-2 tablespoons of cinnamon and sugar
- Splash of bourbon or brandy (optional)
- Vanilla ice cream (not optional)
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
- Boil walnuts in water for 2 minutes (to help remove skins).
- Simmer walnuts in brine of sugar and salt water for 15 minutes, drain nuts and set aside.
- Line a baking sheet with tin foil, evenly distribute nuts onto the sheet, cover nuts with a few good glugs of maple syrup and sprinkle with sea salt.
- Place sheet in the oven and slow roast for one to two hours.
- Remove nuts from oven and place in a large mortar and pestle, add 1 tablespoon (or so) of cinnamon and a few pinches of nutmeg. Pound the nuts and spices together. This can also be done in a food processor, but by hand is more fun and the nuts release more of their natural oils. You should now have a nut paste. Add 1-2 teaspoons of walnut or canola oil if the mixture seems dry.
- Cut up your cooking apple in half moons, toss with cinnamon, sugar and a splash of bourbon or brandy (optional).
- Warm a knob of butter in a sauté pan; toss the apple slices in butter over medium heat until caramelized to your liking.
- Turn onto a plate while still hot, liberally cover with the walnut topping, and finish it all off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.