Caramelized Apple Slices with Armagnac

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If you have ever attempted the Chinese restaurant dessert of caramelized apple wedges, whereby the already-tired cook runs to the stove, batters and deep-fries the apples, simultaneously caramelizes the sugar, coats the apples, prepares ice water, and sprints to the table before the apples cool and the water warms, then you will doubly appreciate this luxurious, leisurely alternative. It is the recipe of my French-cooking friend, Michael James, whose desserts have always impressed me with their elegance and their clean, unsweet flavors. In my opinion, it is better than the original, which if done in authentic Chinese-style must be made with starchy yams!

  • Armagnac is a district in southwest France, which like Cognac to the north gives its name to a distinctive type of brandy. For lack of a high-quality Armagnac (the cheaper blends can be harsh), substitute a good-quality Cognac or Calvados.
  • The apples may be caramelized a full day in advance. The dessert can then be finished in 15 minutes once the meal has ended, if you wish to eat it hot, or several hours in advance if it is more convenient to serve it warm.

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Ingredients

  • 4 pounds firm, crisp, well-flavored apples that will hold their shape during baking—Greening, Granny Smith, Pippin recommended
  • ¼ pound sweet butter
  • cup sugar
  • ½ cup highest quality Armagnac, Cognac, or a good Calvados
  • ¾ cup heavy (whipping) cream

To garnish

  • powdered confectioners’ sugar in a shaker or sieve

Method

Cutting and caramelizing the apples

Preheat the oven to 400°. Adjust 2 racks to divide the oven evenly into thirds. Grease 2 large baking sheets with half the butter.

Peel the apples, halve them lengthwise, then remove the stems and cores. Slice neatly into wedges ¼ inch thick. Arrange the slices on the baking sheets in a single layer. Sprinkle evenly with the sugar, then dot with the remaining butter.

Bake the apples for 20–30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender and nicely caramelized. Rotate the sheets back to front and top to bottom in the oven once midway through baking to insure even browning. Do not worry if some of the bits become quite dark; they will inspire a rich flavor. Do not, however, let the sugar bum.

Deglazing the pan

Remove the apples to a large oval gratin dish (you may substitute a 9 × 13 rectangular pan), or to individual porcelain gratin dishes, spreading them in a not too thick layer. Put the baking sheets over low heat until the sugar softens, sprinkle with a few tablespoons of the Armagnac, then scrape up any good (that is, not blackened) caramel with a wooden spoon or spatula. The alcohol will evaporate while you scrape up the sugar. Pour the deglazing juices over the apples.

The apples may be kept at room temperature for 2–3 hours, loosely covered, before completing the dessert. Or, seal and refrigerate them once cool, for up to 24 hours. Bring to room temperature before finishing.

Flambéing the brandy and reducing the cream

As much as 2 hours before finishing the dessert, warm the Armagnac in a small heavy saucepan over low heat. Do not let it boil. When the brandy is well heated and fragrant, avert your face and put a match near the surface to set it alight. When the flame is nearly out, signaling that most of the alcohol has evaporated, add the cream, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer over moderately low heat. Allow the cream to reduce to about ½ cup. Keep a close eye on it, and do not let it boil.

Finishing the dessert

To serve the apples hot, finish them just before serving. To serve warm, finish them just before sitting down to dinner, up to 2 hours in advance.

Preheat the oven to 450° and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Rewarm the cream, if necessary, and pour it over the apples. Bake 10–15 minutes, until the apples are hot. Remove the apples from the oven, raise the heat to ignite the broiler, and set the broiler rack close to the flame or coil.

Sprinkle the apples with 1–2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar, then run the dish under the broiler to brown it lightly. For a final touch, dust the edges of the dessert with a pretty hemline of powdered sugar.

Serve immediately, portioning the apples onto warm serving plates if you have baked them in the large dish.

Or, if you are serving them warm, remove the apples to a rack in a warm comer of the kitchen for up to 2 hours. Do not hold them longer; they are not good cold.

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