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Maple syrup and dates add a healthful spin to baked apples

Walnuts, dates and apples combine for a healthier autumn dessert.  (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
Walnuts, dates and apples combine for a healthier autumn dessert. (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
By Ellie Krieger Special To The Washington Post

The autumnal aroma filling your kitchen as this dessert bakes will have you swooning well before it is time to dig in.

It’s an anticipation that makes eating it even better, priming you for the reward of digging your spoon through the softened peel of the whole apple to arrive at its tender inside, scooping bits of spiced, sweetened walnuts and maple-kissed juices along with it. This recipe offers that supreme, homestyle enticement in a more healthful way to boot, without much added sugar at all.

That’s because a minimal amount of maple syrup is drizzled on top, and instead of the refined sugar usually used to sweeten the nutty stuffing, finely chopped dates do the job. With cooking, the dried fruit melds in with the walnuts, so you don’t even realize it’s there – you just get its sweet essence punctuated with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

This new spin on an old-fashioned dessert delivers so much for all its simplicity – pleasure, economy and nutrition – a welcome reminder of the many benefits that home cooking delivers.

Walnut and Date-Stuffed Baked Apples

½ cup (2 ounces) walnut pieces

4 large cooking apples (about 2 pounds total), such as Rome, Cortland, Gala or Braeburn

3 tablespoons finely chopped pitted dates

4 tablespoons maple syrup, divided

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

⅛ teaspoon ground cloves

1 pinch kosher salt

½ cup unsweetened apple juice

Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Place the walnuts on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant and darken slightly, about 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts to a cutting board, let cool, then finely chop.

Core the apples, leaving their bottoms intact. (Use a melon baller to scoop out the core, but not all the way through.) Place the apples upright into a rimmed baking dish just wide enough for the apples to snugly fit, such as an 8-by-8-inch pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the walnuts, dates, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the apple juice with the remaining 2 tablespoons maple syrup. Stuff the center of each apple with the walnut-date mixture, then pour the apple juice around the apples. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until the apples are tender.

Serve hot or cold, drizzled with the pan juices.

Yield: 4 servings

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