The Oak Park Farmers Market’s 45th season is underway from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through October. Vendor stalls are moved from the usual Pilgrim Church parking lot site on Lake Street to nearby streets to allow room for safe social distancing and preorders offered via an online app as part of a pilot program.

Before I talk about apples, there is one fruit I’ve been eating over the past few weeks that I believe deserves a mention. When you buy grapes from a farmers market, it is almost like buying a different fruit. The flavor and aroma is so intense and complex, unlike a lot of grocery store grapes that are sugary but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, I love grapes in general, but the grapes that have naturally sun-ripened on the vine, been picked a few days before, and then sold locally are a different experience. I have been buying concord grapes from Harden Farms. Concord grapes are excellent for making grape jelly and grape juice, but in my house they never make it that far. I tend to snack on them and eat them skin, seeds and all. I know, it is a lot of work to remove the seeds in order to eat the grape. But, did you know you don’t really have to? Not only are the seeds not harmful, but they have health benefits. So, if you are too lazy to remove them like I am, you may actually be doing your body a favor by eating them. If you hate the texture and taste of the seeds by all means remove them, and I still think these grapes are worth it!

Now on to the main attraction this week…the apples. The Oak Park Farmers Market Commission had decided to create a Heritage Apple Festival for the fall of 2020. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came along and shelved all of our plans for extra market activities. However, in the spirit of the Apple Festival, I want to call out some of our vendors’ special apple varieties and share some of my tasting notes with all of you. This week, I had the opportunity to sample apples from several vendors; I thought it would be fun to share the results of my “taste test” with you! These are just a few of the vendors who sell apples, so be sure to check out the full apple selection at the market and find your own new favorites!

The varieties I tasted were Sweet Sixteen, Cox Orange Pippen, Hawaii, and Frostbite from Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, IL; Macintosh and Northern Spy from Skibbe Farms in Eau Claire, MI; and Mutzu from Stovers Farm in Berrien, MI. Keep in mind that this is a very small sampling of all of the unique varieties sold at the farmers market, far more than you will find in your typical grocery store. For example, Nichols farm alone has over 200 varieties listed on their website! Every week at the farmers market you can discover new varieties of apples as they come into season. Here’s what I discovered when I sampled each variety and then turned the rest into vegan caramel apples (recipe below).

Cox’s Orange Pippin  This heirloom eating apple has a distinctive taste and aroma. The tangy flavor tastes best when eaten fresh. To me, It had a rich, strong taste, a good balance of tart and sweet and a citrus undertone. It was the smallest apple of the bunch with a smooth, shiny skin that was gold/tan with streaks of russet. It had a yellowish inside and softer flesh with a softer crunch when I took a bite. It was good for fresh eating, and it also made really cute caramel apples that were a good portion size. Some of the bigger caramel apples are hard to eat in one sitting, but these were a perfect snack size.

Frostbite This is a small round deep red apple with yellow & green streaks, and on the inside, it has off-white flesh. Upon biting into it, the texture is moderately soft with a bit of chalky texture and a “soft crunch”. It has a low, sort of neutral scent. The taste is deliciously sweet with a tart aftertaste and a hint of grape.

Sweet 16 This apple is another that is typically rated as “good for eating fresh” The apple is small, shiny, and red with yellow streaks. The flesh inside is white and it has a little scent. Upon biting into it, there is a moderate crunch and crispness. The taste is sweet with a melon or mango undertones, a hint of cinnamon, and overall bright flavor.

Hawaii Another gourmet apple for eating fresh, Hawaii is said to taste and smell a bit like pineapple when grown on the West Coast. To me, the apple was very sweet with low acidity, a rich mouthfeel, and a nice snap. It was a yellow/green apple with a blush of pink and it was yellowish inside, with very firm, dense flesh that was slightly chalky…in a good way. It has a “green apple” scent.

Macintosh This one is rated as being good for fresh eating and for applesauce. It is a medium to large, squat, russet red to green apple with very white flesh. Of all the apples, this had the most pleasing aroma that was strong and sweet with earthy undertones. The delicious taste was a nice balance of tart and sweet, low acidity and it had a “berry” aftertaste. The only downside was I found the flesh to be slightly mealy and on the softer side. Since I really don’t like that texture in a fresh apple, I would probably want to make a big batch of applesauce with this one.

Northern Spy The Northern Spy Apple is known as one of the best cooking apples. It is a small, round green apple with a blush of russet and it has greenish-white flesh. Judging from its smooth, firm crisp flesh and the tart, sour, acidic taste, I would say it would hold up really well in an apple pie and add a nice depth of flavor to applesauce. It has a very distinct “green apple” smell, and the taste and smell reminded me of sour apple candies. It had a nice snap when I bit into it. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of green, tart, firm apples and I tend to prefer baking apples for eating fresh. So this one was pretty close to my favorite apple overall and it made a fantastic caramel apple. In fact, I will go ahead and say this was my favorite of the bunch for cooking with.

Mutsu  The Mutsu is highly rated for ciders and sauces. It is a tart crisp apple and is great eaten fresh. This was, hands down, my favorite apple out of the bunch because it ticked all of the boxes (for me). This large green apple with crisp white flesh is firm, crunchy, and chalky. While it has very little smell, the taste is sour with a slightly floral aftertaste. While it is quite tart, it has just enough sweetness to round it out. If you are a fan of the sweeter apples this might not be your favorite, but to me this was perfect! Like the Northern Spy, it made an amazing caramel apple. Granted, this was probably the largest apple of the bunch and so you might want to share that caramel apple with a friend unless you’re really hungry. Or, cut it up into pieces and dip them into caramel sauce!

So to conclude my homage to Malus Domestica, I will leave you with my recipe for vegan caramel apples. I actually have a couple of recipes but since I don’t want to give away all of my secrets at once, you’ll just have to come back to this blog another time to find out what those are.

Vegan Caramel Apples

Ingredients:

*There is room for substitutions here. You can add some maple syrup, experiment with dark corn syrup, or even work with granulated sugar (although you need to make sure it gets thoroughly dissolved). Or, you can use all corn syrup. I have found this recipe works best if you use at least 1/2 cup of corn syrup. You may even be able to use 100% agave syrup but I haven’t tried it. I suppose honey could be used, but I wouldn’t use raw farmers market honey for this; the high heat used to cook the caramel would destroy any benefits of raw honey.

This recipe will make about a half dozen medium-sized apples, and you can double the recipe

First, wash the apples and dry them thoroughly. Remove the stem, and on the stem end, stick your wooden apple sticks through until they are at least halfway through the apple. Set your apples aside. Then, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper OR have paper cupcake cups ready. Then, add the coconut milk, salt, and coconut oil to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Then, add the corn syrup/agave syrup, and, if you are using, add the coffee at this time. Insert the candy thermometer and boil the mixture on high heat until the thermometer says “soft ball”, or around 240 F. This will take 10-15 min, depending on your stove. It is very important to monitor this process closely, turning the heat down if it looks like it will boil over, but keeping a steady boil going. This mixture must be stirred constantly to prevent burning. Getting the caramel just right may take a bit of practice, but using the thermometer is key to getting it just right. If it gets too hot, you will end up with rock candy. If it doesn’t get hot enough or boil long enough, your caramel will remain a syrup and not set well. After about 10 minutes, your mixture will begin to thicken and the temperature will creep up to 240 F. Once it hits that temp, turn the heat off and continue to stir. Add the vanilla at this time. You will be tempted to taste your creation but BE CAREFUL, it is very hot. Don’t ask me how I know this. After about 20 minutes or so, your caramel will start to thicken and cool a bit. Then, take each of your caramel apples and dip into the caramel, allowing the excess to drip off. You can place them on parchment paper to cool and set if you want to dip your apples in chocolate from the bottom, or, if you want to drizzle your chocolate on from the top, go ahead and put your caramel apples in paper cupcake cups. Put your apples in the refrigerator and give the caramel time to set, an hour or so. At this point, take your chocolate morsels and melt them in the microwave for about a minute or so until all the chocolate melts. Then, either take your apples off of the parchment paper and dip them in the chocolate, replacing them into paper cupcake cups when you are finished. Or, drizzle your chocolate over the top like I did (because I forgot I wanted to dip them in chocolate before putting them in the baking cups, tbh.) To be fancy, I also sprinkled mini chocolate chips into the still-soft chocolate. You can drizzle white chocolate, add peanuts or other nuts, push small candies into the soft chocolate, and basically embellish your apples to your heart’s desire. Put them in the refrigerator and for best results, let them set overnight. It is perfectly acceptable to have caramel apples for breakfast the next morning with a cup of coffee.

Last of all, I want to give you some tips about getting the caramel to set properly. I went through a lot of trial and error trying to get this right. One thing I discovered is that if the caramel doesn’t start to thicken after cooling for a bit, you can reheat to the appropriate temperature and re-harden them. I made two batches of this recipe, the first turned out perfectly and the second was a bit too gooey. While you are just learning, it might make sense to dip one apple, allow it to cool and see if it sets properly, and then proceed with the rest of the batch. If that first one fails to set properly, you can reheat your caramel to get it to harden properly. Once you get the hand of this, though, the results are well worth the effort!

To me, caramel apples are a favorite fall dessert and I was really excited to learn you can make delicious non-dairy caramel that tastes just like regular caramel. Using gourmet apples from the farmers market makes these an extra special treat. Give it a try!

*Guest blogger Laura Lencioni is the chair of the Oak Park Farmers Market Commission.

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