For fall cooking and crafts, pumpkins usually take the spotlight as the centerpiece of Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations, along with pumpkin-spice-flavored everything.
This year, why not consider the apple when planning for special desserts, a warming drink on cool evenings around the fire pit or the Christmas tree, or even as a folk craft?
Apple head dolls have a history dating back to at least Colonial times, and the folk craft was probably learned by white settlers from Native Americans. The technique involves peeling an apple, carving in crude facial features, then preserving the raw apple in a mixture of lemon juice and salt before drying either in a low-temperature oven or in a cool place out of direct sunlight over a few weeks.
This will result in a wrinkled, puckered "face" as the fruit dries out. The head is then added to a doll body that is traditionally clothed in overalls or a gingham dress, with white cotton “hair” added to represent an older person, but the finishing touches are limited only by the imagination of the crafter.
To begin, peel a large apple, removing the stem. The best types are drier to begin with, like Granny Smith or Gala apples. Since the apple will shrink as it dries, use as large an apple as possible; it will shrink down to about half its size.
Carve facial features into it, not too deeply, but not so shallow the features and character lines don't show. Consider doing several apples at one time because as they dry, the same process that makes each one unique can end unpredictably, and the apple doll faces can become an unrecognizable mess.
Submerge in lemon juice for about a minute, then sprinkle with noniodized salt to help keep the fruit from spoiling as it dries. An alternative method is to soak it in a solution of 10 ounces of pure lemon juice with a tablespoon of salt added for 30 minutes.
One drying method requires no special equipment, aside from patience. Push a straightened large paper clip through the core with a bend on the bottom to keep it from slipping off, and a loop or hook on the opposite end to hang it in a north-facing window, out of direct sunlight, to dry evenly. The method usually takes up to four weeks.
Another method, to speed the process, is to place the carved apple in a 100 degree oven for a couple of hours, on a baking sheet lined with a piece of parchment paper, and turn it every few minutes to cause even drying. Continue the process by leaving it out until it is dry and rubbery feeling.
When completely dry, the facial features can be enhanced with some paint, including rosy cheeks and lips and the addition of eyebrows. Eyes can be painted on, or beads, apple seeds, or googly eyes can be used. The head can be further preserved with a coat of shellac or varnish before gluing on hair made of cotton or fake fur. Eventually, the apple will darken to resemble leathery, weather-worn skin.
To finish out the doll, carefully place the dried "head" on a wooden skewer that can support the weight of it and act as a "spine" for a body made of pipe cleaners. Cut off any excess length of skewer, attach the pipe cleaner body and wrap it with tape or fabric scraps to fill it out, then add clothing.
Variations to this can include Halloween themes, with paint applied to the wrinkled head to make it appear zombie-like, or even as a Jack-o-lantern, scarecrow, witch or wizard, or Frankenstein's monster. Or, run a string through the core and leave it without a body, and decorate as if it were a shrunken head.
Interestingly, in the mid-1970s, vintage horror movie legend and St. Louis native Vincent Price lent his image for the promotion of a "shrunken head" craft kit sold by Milton Bradley. The kit included fake hair and a contraption designed to suspend the apple over a table lamp bulb as it was drying.
As for edible uses for apples, a hot, spiced apple cider drink, also known as mulled cider, is sometimes served as an alternative to hot chocolate for a fall or winter drink. Add a few more ingredients and you have Wassail, traditionally served during the Christmas season. Add some rum, whiskey or bourbon to either and you could have an extra good time!
Apple cake isn't just for fall or winter, but the scent of the spicy, sweet baked good that doesn't even need frosting does evoke memories of crisp fall days.
1 gallon apple juice or apple cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
a sliced orange
2 tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. whole allspice seed pods
3 sticks of cinnamon
2 whole nutmeg or 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
In a saucepan large enough to hold the ingredients, mix the apple juice or cider, orange juice concentrate, and sugar.
Add the orange slices and spices, either loose or tied in a square of cheesecloth, and stir to mix.
Heat to boiling, then reduce heat to low and allow to steep for an hour. Spices that haven't been tied in a cheesecloth bag can be strained out after the mixture is done steeping, but either way, remove the orange slices and spices. Leftovers must be refrigerated and can be reheated in a microwave or on the stovetop.
4 cups of apple cider
4 cups of fresh orange juice
4 cups cranberry juice
3 cinnamon sticks
2 fresh ginger pieces
2 tsp. whole cloves
1 sliced lemon
1/3 cup brown sugar
Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker and simmer on low for 6 to 8 hours and serve warm.
4 cups of apples, chopped
2 cups sugar
3 cups of self-rising flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 cup melted margarine
Combine ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes, until the middle is baked through and a toothpick inserted into it comes out clean.