Go apple picking with your kids and make some great memories. And some great pie.

Originally posted Oct. 10, 2009

Oh, how I look forward to apple-picking time.

A visit to Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park to pick our apples has become a fall tradition for my little family, and this year was no exception. I love strolling through the orchard and watching my kids’ excitement build as they discover and grasp the ‘perfect’ apple, and we always look forward to those insanely delicious cider donuts they sell in the orchard’s bake shop.

Forget about the apples. Those famous finger-lickin’ sugar and cinnamon cider donuts are reason enough to head to Kuipers … but I digress.

Last year, we became so busy with the kids’ football and soccer games that we nearly missed out on the apples – and the donuts, altogether. By the time we got around to it, it was the last weekend of ‘u-pick,’ so we got the dregs. Nary an apple could be found, but for the few rejects we discovered, discarded in the apple boxes at the end of each row. We weren’t the only slacker wannabe apple-pickers who rescued those ‘Charlie Brown’ apples and made them our own, but it felt like cheating, somehow, not to pick them ourselves.

We didn’t make that mistake this year.

We headed out to Maple Park last Saturday after Noah’s football game and were not disappointed. The trees were heavy with fruit, and in spite of a few rainy moments later in the afternoon, the weather was perfect for picking. Enough people were scared off by the forecast to make the line into the orchard virtually nonexistent, so we were able to get down to business right away.

But not before getting past Stan, the purveyor of those cute little ¼ peck apple bags.

Stan, our orchard guide, snappily dressed in a red vest, red kerchief and straw hat, gave us the dirt about the orchard: it has produced apples for 38 seasons and contains over 5,000 apple trees comprised of 21 varieties. There would be no hayride that day because it was too muddy for the wagons, Stan said, but he invited us to try the apples before committing to a particular variety.

Eat the apples? Right there in the orchard?

Never before, in my whole life, have I ever been encouraged to sneak a snack at a u-pick farm. I was thrilled about this revelation, especially since I had pies to make and the Braeburns, my all-time favorite cooking apple, weren’t quite ripe enough for picking last Saturday.

I asked Stan about his next best picks for apple pies.

“Blending the varieties to get the best flavors. Try that,” he suggested.

Not a bad idea, so my family tried three. The Rome Beauty was okay but seemed too bland for pies. The yellow Jonathan was good, too, but paled in comparison to the Empire, which was especially sweet and snappy and my family’s taste-test best-pick.

I’m sure Stan’s right, but we couldn’t help ourselves and just filled up on the sweet Empires.

But not without a plan.

My mantra was “the redda the betta.” Noah’s strategy for finding the reddest apples was to go to the very center of the tree. Always up for a challenge, it wasn’t long before he decided that climbing the tree was the most effective method for getting the best apples. I’m pretty sure he broke a cardinal rule of orchard etiquette and didn’t allow him to do it again … but that apple sure was a beauty.

I quickly remembered that apple picking is all in the wrist.

“Twist and pull,” I suggested to Holly, who had her own ideas about what makes a worthy apple.

“Look at this lumpy one, Mommy,” she said, pointing to one she’d just picked. “I learned from the Berenstain Bears that if it’s all lumpy it has worms in it.”

“Ooh, let’s bring it home and see if the Bears are right,” I suggested, opening my apple bag so she could drop it inside.

“No,” she decided, before tossing it to the ground under the tree.

I always feel for the lost apples, the ones who might just taste sweet in spite of their lumpy exterior. I never did learn if they’re really wormy or not, but we did discover – when we peeled them and dusted them with sugar and spice and baked them up in pastry shells the next day – that Empires really do make fabulous pies.

Now it’s time to make the applesauce. I wonder if my Braeburns are ready yet …

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