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A coating of melted butter, sugar and cinnamon becomes a golden jacket on the juicy apples as they bake. Photo by Sue Doeden

Warm up with baked apples

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One of the apple trees in my yard has been loaded with crisp, red apples, its branches forming a downward curve, straining with the weight of its fruit.

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When the deer started helping themselves to midnight apple snacks, I knew it was time to pick them. That means it's time to head to the drawer to pull out the apple peeler. And try to remember where I tucked away all my favorite apple recipes as the last apple season ended.

Thanks to Johnny Appleseed, a real person named John Chapman - who walked barefoot across an area of 100,000 square miles in the 1800s planting apple trees - we have plenty of apples in countless varieties available to us, whether there's an apple tree in our yard or not.

Despite the old "an apple a day" expression, apples are not a huge powerhouse of nutrients. With the skin on, they are a great source of fiber. The type of fiber apples contain, called pectin, has been associated with lowering blood cholesterol and possibly reducing the risk of heart disease. Each one of these portable snacks carries antioxidant nutrients and vitamin C and counts as a serving on your way to eating plenty of fruits and vegetables each day.

And, of course, they are free of fat, sodium and cholesterol, and a delicious low-calorie snack; one medium apple has about 80 calories.

Proper storage is an important step in keeping apples fresh and preserving their nutrients, texture and flavor. Apples continue to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide even after they've been harvested. The more carbon dioxide produced, the more quickly they will spoil. Refrigeration helps slow the whole process, allowing the apples to retain their vitamin content and increase their storage life, staying fresh for up to seven days.

For many, testing a new apple recipe is a fall ritual, just like raking leaves and washing windows. And because apples are so versatile, marrying well with sweet or savory, there's an abundance of ways to feast on them.

In Baked Apples with Cranberry-Maple Filling, the apples lose some of their fiber and nutrients when they are peeled. But the coating of melted butter, sugar and cinnamon becomes a golden jacket on the juicy apples as they bake.

Once baked, the warm apples are filled with dried cranberries that have been plumped up in maple syrup and apple cider. You'll have more Cranberry-Maple Filling than you'll need for four apples. And that's a good thing. This filling is delicious stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal. It can also be added to the apple mixture that you bake into pie. You'll discover all kinds of ways to enjoy Cranberry-Maple Filling.

Baked Apples with Cranberry-Maple Filling is a warm, satisfying dessert. It's an apple recipe you'll want to keep at the top of your stack of apple recipes season after season.

Baked Apples with Cranberry-Maple Filling

1-1/4 cups dried cranberries

1/3 cup pure maple syrup

1/4 cup apple cider

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 large baking apples

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, divided

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Make the Cranberry-Maple Filling by combining dried cranberries, pure maple syrup, apple cider and 1/4 cup sugar in a saucepot. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cranberries will absorb liquid and plump up. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside to cool. Once cool, the cranberry mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed container for up to a week.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 9- x 9-inch glass baking dish.

Peel the apples and remove their core. An apple corer works well for this, but if you don't have one, use a paring knife to cut out first around the stem and then down into the core. Use a grapefruit spoon to remove the seeds and any pieces of the core that remain.

Melt 1/4 cup butter. Mix 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon together in a shallow bowl. Roll each peeled and cored apple first in the melted butter and then in the sugar-cinnamon mixture. Set the apples in the prepared baking dish.

Divide the remaining 1/4 cup butter into 4 equal pieces. Push a knob of butter down into the hollow of each apple. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour or until the apples are very tender.

To serve, fill the hollow core of each warm apple with some of the cranberry mixture. If cranberries are coming out of the refrigerator, I like to warm them in the microwave a little bit before spooning them into the apples. Place a warm, filled apple on each dessert plate with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Drizzle some of the buttery sauce from the bottom of the baking dish over the ice cream. Makes 4 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Dried cherries are a delicious substitute for the dried cranberries.

--I like to use a fairly firm apple, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart for this recipe. A firm apple will hold its shape while baking. A softer apple will collapse.

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