From time to time, we've all spotted the words "fruit compote" on a brunch or dessert menu, where it usually signals some cooked and sweetened fruit served as a chunky sort of sauce for waffles and French toast. Truth be told, the execution's generally a touch sloppy, with overcooked fruit disintegrating into an ambiguous pile of mush.
For the most part, that's okay; there's something to be said for a rough 'n' tumble technique and big spoonfuls of a chunky fruit purée. But historically, fruit compotes were once among the daintiest of dishes.
In The Complete Practical Confectioner, a 19th-century tome, the author writes that compotes "must be neat and perfect. To attain this perfection, it is essential that the fruits should be both well trimmed and smoothly peeled." The instructions go on to describe slices of apples treated as if with a lathe to smooth every edge, and a fragrant poaching syrup of herbs, spices, and citrus. In short, a simple but elegant presentation that put the fruit itself front and center. (In fact, compotes were generally served as a dessert unto themselves, in crystal compotiers.)
While today's chefs are more likely to treat compotes as an accompaniment to some other dessert than as a stand-alone dish, I wanted to make my recipe the old-fashioned way, with carefully sliced and peeled fruit lightly cooked in an aromatic syrup.
I started with an assortment of apple varieties to create a medley of flavors and textures—some sweet and tender, others tart and crisp. After peeling, coring, and slicing the fruit into half-inch wedges, I used a vegetable peeler to pare down their sharp edges, per my 19th-century guide. For anyone who's simmered daikon the Japanese way, it's a familiar step, one that keeps the poaching liquid perfectly clear and free from crumbly bits of daikon (or, in this case, apple).
Rather than a simple combo of sugar and water, I decided to poach the apples in a syrup made from apple cider and caramel sugar—either darkly roasted sugar or Belgian-style brown sugar, which is made with caramel rather than molasses. American-style brown sugars are fine, too, though they'll add a tangy note of molasses rather than mellow caramel. (For more info, read up on the difference between Belgian and American brown sugars.)
Along with a strip of lemon peel, I also threw in a cinnamon stick and a whole nutmeg seed, split in half with a chef's knife. Old-fashioned compotes often included a few pieces of angelica or whole cloves, but feel free to reach for whatever you have on hand. Just take care not to overdo it, or the sharpness of the spices can overpower rather than enhance the apple aroma.
Simmer the mixture gently until the apples are al dente—they should be easy to stab with a fork, but not soft enough to mash. When they're done, drain the apples (but save that syrup!) to halt the cooking process.
Do leave enough syrup to keep the apples glistening and well sauced, but not so much that the fruit is swimming in the bowl, a surefire way to waterlog your dessert. The dish is best served warm or at room temperature. According to my 19th-century guide, compotes are not meant to be stored long-term, likely because reheating would destroy their delicate, tender texture.
I love this apple compote spooned over thick slices of gingerbread, dishes of rice pudding, and scoops of cinnamon ice cream, but it's a nice touch for crispy yeast-raised waffles and French toast as well.
Now, back to that syrup situation. Return the reserved syrup, spices, and citrus peel to a simmer, and cook until the liquid is slightly reduced, just a minute or so. You'll be rewarded with a thick, tart, and spicy caramel-apple syrup that's perfect for sweetening winter cocktails, mulled cider, or even simple mugs of tea.
Because it yields a warm and tender apple compote and a jar of aromatic caramel-flavored syrup, this recipe is a real two-for-one to help spice up your favorite fall and winter desserts.