One of the most popular desserts in any Irish household is apple pie. In fact, most restaurant menus in this country always have an apple pie, tart or crumble of some type on it! To be honest, no matter how accomplished a baker you are, if you can’t produce a noteworthy apple tart, you might as well give up! In Ireland your baking reputation stands or fails on the quality of the apple pie you can produce. When making my apple pie, I like to use two or three varieties of apple; Bramleys, because they break down to a purée-like consistency when cooked, Granny Smiths because they retain their shape and provide texture and I also sometimes use Pink Lady or Braeburn for their distinctive apple taste. I have always preferred using a pinch of ground cloves rather than ground cinnamon in my apple pies, but each to their own. I know some bakers who like to use ground ginger, but for me, the judicious use of ground cloves (only a pinch is required) really bring out the flavour of the apples.
So many people, even in suburban areas have their own apple trees and this can be a wonderful source of freshly picked fruit later on in the year. I have a number of apple trees growing in my garden, which have been planted for six or seven years at this stage and provide me with some wonderful fruit at the end of the summer. It is a source of great annoyance to me that my children love to go out into the garden after a windy night and use the fallen fruit as makeshift sliotars when practising their hurling and camogie! Windfall apples, provided they haven’t been lying on the ground too long, can still be used for making chutneys or in baking… so you can imagine my irritation at seeing the apples being hurled down the garden at force rather than for being used to make tasty treats!
The recipe that I’m giving here is my version of the Apple Shortcake Squares which are on sale in many Irish bakeries. At their simplest these are made with apples sandwiched between two layers of pastry and dredged with caster sugar. My version uses self-raising rather than plain flour which creates a pastry with a more shortcake-like consistency but without being spongy like a cake. The pastry dough is on the soft side so I don’t roll out the base but rather press it gently into the tin with the tips of my fingers to create an even layer. For the top I flour some non-stick baking parchment and place the pastry on this, flattening it out slightly with my hands. I then flour the slightly flattened pastry and place another layer of non-stick baking parchment on top. I then proceed to roll out the pastry into a thin layer, large enough to cover the top of the Apple Squares. This is such a handy way of rolling out any pastry, but particularly this one which is very soft and a little difficult to manage.
Finally, I should mention that I recommend using Granny Smith apples for making these squares. I find that cooking apples are too mealy and break down too much, but that the Granny Smiths retain some texture. Also unlike ‘normal’ pastry which should be given a chance to rest, you can roll out and use this pastry once you have made it.
5-6 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes
25g caster sugar
240g self-raising flour
125g butter, cubed
15g icing sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
30ml cold water
25g caster sugar for dredging
1. Place the apples, sugar and water into a medium sized saucepan over a moderate heat. Bring up to simmering point and allow to cook for 8-20 minutes until the apples have softened but not broken down. Remove from the heat, set aside and allow to cool completely.
2. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan oven 160C/Gas Mark 4. Line a 30cmx20cm traybake tin with non-stick baking parchment and set aside.
3. Place the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the cubed butter. Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the egg and water and mix together using a fork until everything comes together.
4. Divide the dough in half. Press one half of the dough into the bottom of the prepared tin, flattening it out with your fingers or the back of a spoon to create a level surface. Spoon the COOLED apple mixture onto the pastry into the tin, spreading it out evenly.
5. Roll out the other half of the dough between two sheets of floured non-stick baking parchment into a rectangle the same size as the tin (30cm x 20cm). Remove the top sheet of baking parchment and lifting the rolled out pastry on the other layer of baking parchment flip it over to cover the apple filling. Tuck in the edges of the pastry making sure that the apple is covered.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30minutes until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and dredge with the caster sugar. Set aside to cool before cutting into 12 even squares.
Makes 12 squares.