Reimagine your favorite apple desserts with these cozy new takes on the classics

Pastry chef Meghan McGarry maintains the integrity of nostalgic desserts while sending them soaring to new heights

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published November 21, 2020 4:30PM (EST)

Apple Crisp Cheesecake Bars (Photo courtesy of Meghan McGarry)
Apple Crisp Cheesecake Bars (Photo courtesy of Meghan McGarry)

You can find pumpkin-flavored everything on dessert menus every time that the weather starts to cool, but the fresh fruits you should bake throughout the fall and winter months are apples. If Salon's resident pastry chef Meghan McGarry of Buttercream Blondie had her way, apples would have the spotlight all to themselves.

"The quintessential fall dessert is the apple crisp, because it is so cozy and so inviting," McGarry told Salon in a recent interview. "It's the one desert that everyone loves."

This apple dessert is only one from an entire collection of apple desserts which McGarry has curated over the years for Salon Food. The classically-trained pastry chef is known for giving timeless desserts makeovers, and each of these five apple desserts speak to the core of her popular Buttercream Blondie brand. She maintains the integrity of classic desserts while sending them soaring to new heights.

All five of these pastries, which have real apple in every bite, don't only taste like a warm hug. Within 10 minutes of turning on your oven, your entire house is guaranteed to smell like a trip to your local apple orchard. If they're not already, that's why these cozy bakes will soon become staples in your recipe wardrobe for years to come.

Option 1: Apple Crumb Cake

If there's one dessert that reminds Salon's resident pastry chef Meghan McGarry of home, it's crumb cake.

"Crumb cake has a certain nostalgia to it, because there was always a crumb cake in my house growing up," McGarry, the owner of the beloved Buttercream Blondie brand, tells Salon. "Whenever a guest would stop by, we would cut off a slice of crumb cake to ensure a warm welcome."

When McGarry developed her recipe for apple crumb cake, her goal was to recreate that same nostalgia factor. Cinnamon, ground cloves, light brown sugar and freshly-grated nutmeg work together to create a depth of warmth and flavor.

This is arguably the easiest recipe on this list to make, and it's guaranteed to deliver a satisfying crumb every single time. You'll want to bake it immediately, but also file it away to make again throughout Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season.

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"It's the recipe I make every year when I'm prepping for Turkey Day," McGarry says of her beautiful dessert. "And it's what we snack on Thanksgiving morning while we're making dinner."

McGarry's favorite part of a crumb cake growing up was the actual crumb, and she has fond memories of eating it off of the top off the cake. A key objective when developing this recipe was to yield a cake that her inner child would want to eat as much as the crumb. Her technique yields a moist cake, and she levels things up with a few special ingredients. 

"I'm still definitely a crumb girl. There's got to be an excellent crumb," McGarry says. "But I wanted to make a cake that had as much flavor as the crumb topping does."

Option 2: Apple Crisp Cheesecake Bars

A brown sugar shortbread provides the foundation of these bars, which were a viral hit when they first appeared on Salon Food last year. Next comes a fluffy cheesecake spiked with whiskey for an extra punch of fall comfort. For the fruit layer that follows, McGarry prefers to use Granny Smith apples, because their tartness creates a perfect contrast to the sweetness of the cheesecake and the warmth of the spices. Mouth-watering on their own, each layer is tucked under a blanket of crisp topping.

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Made in a 13" x 9" pan, this treat transports easily to Thanksgiving or any fall potluck on your calendar. After you cut it up into equal portions, everyone can help themselves to a treat they'll request over and over again. So follow McGarry's lead and keep some crisp topping frozen in your freezer all season long.

"I always keep crisp topping in the freezer around the holidays," the pastry chef says. "Whether you have last-minute company or you need a warm pick-me up from the dropping temperatures, a crisp is a quick and easy dessert to prepare. But it bakes best when the butter is ice cold. Keep some frozen, and you're halfway to your goal."

Option 3: Original Apple Crisp Bars

Now it's time to turn back the clock to the OG Apple Crisp Bars. They're one of the most popular recipes ever viewed on Buttercream Blondie, and that's because all of the ingredients in this pastry work together to magnify the star of this dessert: ripe apples. 

"Warm brown sugar and spices are made for chilly fall mornings, and you taste the apple in every single bite," McGarry says of her dessert. "I recommend using granny smith apples for this recipe, because their tartness adds a brightness of flavor, which contrasts perfectly with the warmth of the fall flavors you expect in a seasonal dessert."

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This is the traditional fruit crisp you know and love, except once again in bar form. These bars are three layers of fall bliss, each of which magnifies the flavor of the apples as they bake. We begin with a brown sugar shortbread base, which is like a beautifully buttery and flaky cookie crust. Pouring in an optional splash of whiskey adds an extra punch of fall coziness — and the opportunity to create hand-held boozy treats. 

Yes, this technically a dessert. But you can have a little piece for breakfast or a square for a snack. It's totally acceptable to eat dessert all day if it's in bar form, right? While these bars taste perfect on their own, they're also excellent served warm with a scoop of ice cream or dollop of fresh whipped cream on top. 

Option 4: Apple Spice Loaf Cake

This loaf cake conjures up memories of some of our favorite quick bakes from McGarry's library, which include her Meyer Lemon Blueberry Loaf and her Roasted Strawberry Banana Bread. By definition it is a cake, but it's perfectly acceptable to eat a slice for breakfast or as a snack.

"This is my favorite fall Sunday bake. It's one of those desserts that you throw in the oven on Sunday morning, and slice off a piece for brunch," McGarry says. "Later in the day, it'll turn into an afternoon pick-me-up, and the leftovers will make a great dessert when you don't feel like turning on the oven again come Monday."

The star of this loaf cake is the Granny Smith apple, which McGarry prefers to use because of its crispness. The remainder of the ingredients enhance the flavor of this fresh fall fruit. Spices, including cinnamon and cloves, provide a hint of coziness. Walnuts lend a nice crunch to every bite. And a splash of bourbon cuts the sweetness while adding a sophisticated layer of warmth. 

Option 5: Apple Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Oatmeal cookies are the classic dessert inspiration for these cookies, which use the flavors of fall to reimagine a favorite childhood treat. Fall is all about cozy, and that's the simplest way to describe McGarry's Apple Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies. Loaded with apple, cranberries and a splash of cinnamon whiskey, the combination of seasonal ingredients and spices tastes like a warm hug on a crisp autumn day. 

One thing that these cookies apart from traditional oatmeal cookies is the texture. By adding unsweetened apple sauce to the batter, McGarry brings Salon Food reader's favorite fall fruit into the mix. Apple sauce ensures your cookies will come out of the oven soft and chewy in the middle with crisp edges. Whether you're a fan of chewy or crunchy cookies, you won't be divided about these cookies, which offer the best of both worlds. 

While apple is the star ingredient in this cookie, the fall upgrade is rounded out by a cast of supporting players. Cinnamon, cinnamon whiskey and nutmeg deliver the spicy quality of a traditional oatmeal cookie. Meanwhile, opting for cranberries instead of raisins provides a seasonal swap with the holidays around the corner. The sweetness of the cranberries contrasts perfectly with the walnuts, which add a crunch to every bite. Dark chocolate brings the lush that rounds out this flavor parade.

Don't forget to follow @ButtercreamBlondie on Instagram for more ways to bake through the holidays.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Apples Baking Buttercream Blondie Cheesecake Cookies Crisps Fall Food Holidays Meghan Mcgarry Recipe