on cooking + roasted applesauce

I've been thinking a lot about cooking recently. Not just food (which is a topic I am forever thinking about), but I've really been pondering how we cook, how we learn to cook and why we cook.

Cooking, obviously, encapsulates a lot- from how we feed ourselves to how we take care of others and from what traditions we've inherited to which ones we decide to create on our own. Cooking is also a way of communicating. It speaks several languages - from the specific to the general - and it is the best way that I know to make someone feel welcome or to take care of myself. 

I learned how to cook by watching and by doing. I never recall being afraid of cooking or even making a conscious decision to learn how. I just cooked. There was a lot of trial and error. I remember eating undercooked eggs that I should have probably not eaten. And I remember learning the hard way that a knife should always be sharp (I once spent what felt like a whole afternoon cutting a baguette for crostini with a knife as sharp as a spoon and had blisters as proof). I also have memories of making a French onion soup in high school and wearing ski goggles - my ski goggles from childhood that were decorated with dinosaurs nonetheless - in the kitchen as I had not yet learned tricks to prevent tears while chopping onions. My father came home and of course asked me if everything was okay.

For years I was a master at assembling. I assembled more often that I cooked at first. I assembled salads of scallops, mango and avocado. I assembled salads of pear, greens, walnuts, and blue cheese. For a long time I was more of a salad maker than a cook. And I think that it is fine. In fact, I think that it is even great. Some of those salads were pretty tasty and they introduced me to making food without having to light an oven, or separate an egg's white from its yolk.

It always surprised me when I met someone who told me that they couldn't cook. If cooking isn't assembling then I don't know what is. I think that it is a shame that people are intimidated by their kitchens. Cooking need not be complicated. In fact, cooking does not have to be much more than assembling. I believe in honest foods and simple foods. Sure, something decadent is usually delicious, but most days I will choose a bowl of fresh yogurt with chunks of apple and honey (another example of assembling) over a layered cake. Unfortunately, a lot of recipes make cooking more complicated than it actually is.

Tamar Adler writes poetically and philosophically about exactly this. A good introduction to her take on food is summarized by the title of an article she wrote: "A Recipe is not Always the Place to Begin". She argues that recipes are too dominant. Cookbooks are more popular than ever it seems, yet they are not intended to teach people how to cook. They are regulated by the concept of following a recipe, of buying certain ingredients and following specific steps. Recipes do not teach one how to gaze at the contents of a fridge with the eyes of a chef. They do not instruct one on what to do with that half of a red pepper, left-overs of strong piece of mountain cheese and a day old loaf of bread. Recipes often encourage us to go buy groceries instead of using the ones that we might have on hand. They also do not tell us that some of the best meals are the ones without recipes.

That said, I do love recipes. I read them like poetry and I find them to be sources of inspiration for endless meals and endless flavor combinations. However, I am not overly obedient when it comes to following them. And I don't think that you should be either because it is through tweaking and experimenting that we learn how to cook. And learning how to cook is much different than just following a recipe and making dinner. Inspired by Tamar Adler I am trying to use the contents of my fridge or pantry more and more as a starting point for my meals as opposed to the recipes that I collect.

In addition to these thoughts I cannot ignore what time of year it is. I've already taken my Dirndl out of the closet and have found new ribbon to lace it up with. I've been lifting weights in preparation for drinking a Mass of Oktoberfest bier. Just kidding. I'm not yet that much of a convert (although I do confess to owning a Dirndl). Of course I'm referring to fall, or apple season more specifically. When life gives you apples then you should of course make apple sauce. And road trips across Southern Germany give you heaps and heaps of apples this time of year.

To bring up this topic in a space that I often fill with recipes and tales of food is of course ironic. That said, I can't think of a more humble ingredient than an apple or something that is as comforting or as simple as apple sauce. I learned how to make apple sauce before I probably even understood that it could be called cooking. Boil some apples until they are soft and then mash them into a sauce. Sweeten it if you want. Add some other fruit if you care. Maybe some spices. Apple sauce doesn't need a recipe. In fact, making it will even teaching you the basics of purees. The concept is as simple as simple gets and the technique is one of the pillars of cooking. Boil and then mash. Boil and then mash. Boil and then mash pears instead of apples. Or pears with strawberries. Or apples with plums. The same applies to vegetables. Instead of mashed potatoes, how about mashed turnip or parsnip or carrot, or all three? Add some good olive oil and salt. Or butter, or cream, or milk. And herbs. Or spices. This is cooking and not following a recipe. 

I think that recipes are more effective at getting us to get out of old habits as opposed to teaching us to cook. With one recipe we can think about an ingredient in a new light. For years and years I boiled apples to make sauce with and then last year I read about roasted apple sauce. Roasted! Yes, I thought. It make so much sense. I normally roast vegetables as opposed to boiling them as roasting always yields more flavour. So it just seemed right to start roasting apples for sauce.

The roasted apple sauce that I made went quite a different route than the original recipe. I try to skip white sugar when I can. I think that apples and maple syrup belong together so I added a bit of maple syrup to sweeten the sauce. I also find that a squeeze of lemon juice always helps to enhance flavors so I added just a tad. I omitted the butter as I don't think apple sauce really needs it. That said, if you like spices in your apple sauce add them. If you like it really sweet then add more maple syrup. If you are a firm believer in butter in apple sauce then go for it. Just remember to cook and not just to follow instructions. 

Roasted Maple Apple Sauce 

inspired by Judy Rodger's Roasted Apple Sauce via the Wednesday Chef

yields about 3 cups


3-4 pounds of crisp apples (about 9-10 medium apples)
2 tbsp lemon juice 
pinch of salt
1-3 tbsp maple syrup (this will depend on how sweet your apples are)

Preheat the oven to 375F / 190C / gas mark 5.

Peel, core and the cut the apples into chunks (about 8 chunks per apple) and place them in a baking dish. Taste the apples for sweetness and add maple syrup accordingly. Add the lemon juice, salt and toss well.

Roast the apples until slightly caramelized and soft, about 30-40 minutes and stir the apples once or twice in between.

Once the apples are cooked, remove them from the oven and let cool slightly. Puree them with a hand-blender (if you are going for smooth) or a potato masher or a fork (if you are going for chunky - my preference).

Transfer to a container and store covered in the fridge for up to a week.


Angela  – (November 11, 2013 at 2:21 AM)  

Loved this - easy and just as good as the applesauce I've made with sugar. I paired it with this Pork Tenderloin in Apple Maple Brine. Found both recipes on Pinterest.


Sasha  – (November 11, 2013 at 10:23 AM)  

So glad to hear that Angela!

That pairing sounds meant to be and I will certainly have to try it.

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