If there is one dessert that I closely associate with Christmas in my memory, it has to be this. In my family, we take Christmas very seriously and I don't mean shopping bonanzas up and down the high streets and a fair amount of online purchases when the shops are closed, but the essence of it: what Christmas is really about. Now, you may not agree with me (and the annual reports of domestic violence over the festive season and seemingly interminable rows with the close family suggest that I might be fighting a losing battle here) but for me, Christmas is about spending time with the ones you love. Obvious, isn't it? Or is it?
I am not just talking about those two days towards the end of December, for us, Christmas (or advent, rather) is celebrated from the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, giving you a neat 4 weeks to get into the spirit of it all. Back home (and I try to follow this tradition as much as possible), it meant getting together every evening, lighting the candles on the advent wreath, singing songs, reading stories, writing Christmas cards, making festive decorations... and eating loads of nuts, clementines and cookies, of course.
On weekends, this would often be preceded by a brisk walk in the woods, snow-clad, if we were lucky, and on such occasions, we would warm up not only with some (alcohol-free) punch afterwards, but also some baked apples with a rich and frothy custard sauce. There's nothing that screams "wintertime" more than those fruits baking in the oven... a delicious smell of fruit and caramelised nuts, a sweet scent invading every corner of the house, and some home-made vanilla custard bubbling away on the stove.
Nowadays, I sometimes use those baked apples as an excuse to empty my over-flowing pantry - I tend to buy dried fruits and nuts at the odd chance that I might need them (especially in December when I always plan more baking than I can actually handle) and, once arrived home, more often than not discover that I've still got several packets left in the cupboard. There's no better way of ridding yourself of these old remnants and start the year afresh than combining whatever you have at hand for a delicious fruity & nutty apple stuffing... just play around a little, you'll see that almost everything works. My latest version even involved salted peanuts - and the fruit tasted all the better for it!
One thing I'll recommend is making your own custard sauce: I've only recently discovered just how easy and quick it is and it tastes so much better than anything you can buy in store ready-made or instant... promise you'll try it, will you!
Baked apples stuffed with fruit & nuts
4 large semi-sweet apples (I used Braeburn)
50 g pecan nuts
50 g almonds
50 g peanuts
50 g semi-dry prunes
50 g soft dried apricots
50 g dried cranberries
4 large prunes
2 tbsp thick jam (cranberry, redcurrant or raspberry)
For the custard:
6 large egg yolks
500 ml single cream
140 g sugar
2 vanilla pods
Preheat oven to 200 C.
Chop all the dried fruits and nuts in a food processor (reserving the 4 prunes) and combine well with the jam. Core the apples, removing all the pips and hard membranes, making sure you keep the fruit intact. Also keep the bottom hole as small as possible to prevent the stuffing from escaping in the baking process. Use one prune each to close the bottom hole as neatly as possible.
Stand on a baking tray or in an oven-proof dish, then stuff tightly with the fruit & nut mixture. Reserve any remaining stuffing for later.
Put into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until the apples are fragrant, their skin wrinkly (and quite possibly craked) and their flesh soft.
Meanwhile, prepare the custard.
Slice the two vanilla pods open lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add seeds and pods to the cream in a heavy-based pot and bring to a boil. Remove the pods (sieve if required).
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Pour over the cream, beating vigourously with a whisk.
Transfer the mixture into a non-stick pot and cook over medium heat until the custard has thickened to your liking - keep whisking and make sure it doesn't burn.
Serve the baked apples hot on individual plates, in a bed of warm custard sauce, topping with some of the remaining stuffing, if you like. You can also pour over some crème de cassis or fruit syrup.