Minnesota’s apple tradition began with a search for varieties that would survive and meld well with the climate. Extremes of harsh winters and hot, dry summers posed huge challenges to growing quality apples in 19th century Minnesota. And early killing frosts meant apples had to last for months, often stored in a root cellar. Taste? Usually just “good enough” had to do.

Expectations were humble and yet ambitious. Early creation of the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program spurred development of spectacular apples, such as the internationally acclaimed Honeycrisp, introduced in 1991, and named the State Fruit of Minnesota in 2006. With its balanced sweetness and acidity, it has (in food science speak) larger cells, which rupture when bitten and release a crisp explosion of flavor and juiciness.

In short, the evolution of hardy trees, with their excellent fruit, transported apples from just good enough to a whole new and delightful eating experience. From surviving to thriving, today four out of five apples grown in Minnesota were developed at the U of M.

But it’s a long road from experimental seedlings to market. Honeycrisp, for example, was 31 years in the making. Apple scientist/pomologist David Bedford, a senior research fellow, defines it as a quest for outstanding taste and texture.

“You might buy an apple once because it’s pretty, but taste and texture bring you back again,” he said.

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He elaborates that it’s easy to make a fruit flavorful with caramel or in a pastry, but the stand-alone fresh, unadorned taste is the true test. And he would know, sampling some 500 apples a day on a journey to the next “WOW!” apple.

One likely candidate, christened First Kiss, debuted recently at the Minnesota State Fair, garnering rave reviews. Described as the first kiss of autumn, it’s lightly tart, crisp and aromatic. For fair-goers, it was a delicious, eat-out-of-hand (not on a-stick), palate-cleansing experience.

The season for freshly-harvested Minnesota apples runs from August through October. Here are some of the nearly 30 varieties of apples created and released by the U of M, listed in order of ripening:

Beacon: Bright red eating apple, slightly tart. Ripens mid-to-late August.

First Kiss: Introduced in 2017. Deeply colored and very juicy. Has a longer storage life than most early apples. Also known as "Rave" when produced by growers outside Minnesota. Ripens mid-to-late August.

Zestar: Introduced in 1999. Large, crunchy, with a sweet-tart flavor. Great for both fresh eating and cooking. Ripens late August to early September.

SweeTango: Child of Honeycrisp and Zestar; what could be better? Sweet with hints of fall spices. Ripens in early September.

Sweet Sixteen: Crisp and juicy, with an exotic, yellow flesh. Sweet, unusual flavors of sugar cane or spicy cherry candy. Ripens mid-to-late September.

Honeycrisp: Great for fresh eating as well as salads as the flesh is slow to brown. Crisp and juicy. Ripens late September.

Haralson: Introduced in 1922. Outstanding pie apple. A real keeper — it will store for 4-5 months. Firm texture and complex tart flavor. Ripens late September to early October.

Frostbite: Introduced in 2008. Intensely sweet. Excellent for cider. Ripens late September to mid-October.

SnowSweet: Introduced in 2006. Savory and sweet with rich overtones. Excellent for snack trays, salads, and fresh eating. Ripens mid-October.

Fireside/Connell Red: Large fruit with sweet flavor and fine-grained flesh. Great as baked apples or fresh. Ripens mid-October.

Reaching for an apple is as easy as grabbing any convenient snack. It’s portable, versatile, satisfying, sweet or tart, and nature provides it in a handy single-serving size. Apples are a good source of fiber and water, making them filling, with a low glycemic index and glycemic load. They provide vitamin C and spelling-bee worthy phytonutrients such as quercetin, phloridzin, catechin and chlorogenic acid (FYI not chlorine). Consume apples unpeeled to obtain more of these healthful antioxidants.

While apples look lovely in a pretty bowl on the dining room table, they store best in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, as room temperature adversely affects the texture. To keep apples from browning once they are cut into, dip in lemon or lime juice to slow the process.

Mom’s Apple Batter Pudding Cake

In this recipe, try a combination of apples for more variation in flavor and texture. It also works well baked in 8x8-inch pan using half the recipe.

Ingredients for pudding layer

6 cups apples, peeled or unpeeled, cut into small pieces

1 cup sugar

2 T margarine

½ cup hot water

Place the apples in a 9x13-inch pan. Sprinkle sugar over apples and dot with butter or margarine. Pour hot water over apples. Add the batter.

Ingredients for batter layer

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

4 T melted margarine

1 cup flour

4 tsp. baking powder

Beat eggs and sugar together, and add melted butter or margarine. Sift together flour, baking powder and add to egg mixture. Blend together. Pour batter over the apples. Bake for 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven. To serve, spoon out of pan or cut into squares. Makes about 12 generous servings.

Nutrition per serving: 49 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 7 grams fat, and 275 Calories.

Waldorf Salad

2 cups chopped apples (skin on)

2 teaspoons lime juice

¼ cup chopped celery

¼ cup chopped walnuts,

½ cup seedless red grapes, halved

½ cup Greek lemon and cream yogurt

1 Tbsp. Miracle Whip

Toss apples with lime juice. Add celery, grapes and nuts. Stir together yogurt and Miracle Whip. Add to to apple mixture and toss gently. Serve chilled. Makes 4 side servings.

Nutrition per serving: 17 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 50 grams sodium and 147 calories.

Mary W. Zbaracki is a dietitian for St. Luke's.