With Washington state a leader in producing apples, we're eager to find the next Fuji, which could be one of the new varieties such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady or Lady Alice.

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Some years ago, believing it might help me identify the apples growing in my backyard, I purchased a little book called “Apples” by Roger Yepsen. The book did nothing to help me identify my apples, but it did foster my ongoing love for this fruit in its myriad forms. With brilliant watercolor paintings and brief essays, Yepsen details the defining features of 90 of his favorite apple varieties, from Akane to Zabergau Reinette, but he barely scratches the surface of the several thousand varieties currently under cultivation.

Every seed in every apple is potentially a new variety, and the vast majority of varieties grown from seed do not show all the characteristics that consumers look for. So apples grown for the commercial market are not grown from seed; instead they’re cloned by grafting scions or cuttings from the parent tree onto new rootstock.

Deciding which varieties should be mined for production has been the business of generations of apple growers in Washington State. In 2006, Washington produced 58 percent of the apples grown in the United States, and according to the Washington Apple Commission, apple orchards cover 175,000 acres of the eastern foothills of the Cascades and employ some 35,000 to 45,000 pickers during peak harvest.

For decades, Washington apples were linked to a single variety, Red Delicious. I’ll never forget my first trip to the apple orchards east of the mountains nearly three decades ago when I was surrounded by insipid fruit that farmers were hard-pressed to sell. Demand plummeted when a new generation of apple eaters sought more flavor and variety.

Growers came to their own rescue. In the 1980s, they tore out acres of the old Red Delicious and started planting newer varieties like the Fuji. Developed in Japan, it is a cross between Red Delicious and Ralls Janet, an heirloom variety that was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The apple is especially versatile because it tastes good in salads, pies and applesauce.

Fuji was so well received that growers today often talk about “the next Fuji.”

One contender for the title has been Honeycrisp, a green- and red-flecked apple with a tart, sweet flesh and crispy texture that, like the Fuji, is all-purpose. Another is Cripp’s Pink, a late-ripening apple that is sometimes marketed as Pink Lady. A cross between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams, the pink was developed in Australia. On recent trips to the Yakima and Columbia river basins I have been heartened to find up-and-coming varieties like sweet and creamy Fiesta.

This year, I encountered an apple named Lady Alice after the mother of the man who found it growing as a wild seedling in an old Red Delicious orchard. Its crunchy, tart and fragrant flesh might just make it the next Fuji.

Find out more about Washington apples at www.bestapples.com.

Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com.

Best Apple Custard Tart

Most fruit tarts use a milk custard, but I think this cider-based poaching liquid makes a brighter filling. Assemble the tart just before it is served. I prefer using organic apples and other ingredients where possible.

For the crust

1 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch bits

2 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon table salt

1 egg white

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, optional

For the filling

3 medium Pink Lady or Fuji apples

1 cup apple cider

2 tablespoons lemon juice or apple cider vinegar

1 large egg, plus 1 egg yolk

½ cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

2 tablespoons butter

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line the bottom of a two-piece, 10-inch springform pan with a circle of baker’s parchment or spray it with nonstick spray.

2. To make the pastry for the crust, put the flour in the work bowl of a food processor or in a mixing bowl. Work in the butter, sugar and salt. If using a food processor, process just until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs; leave some chunks of butter about the size of BBs. Add the egg white and the zest and pulse the motor or work the mixture with a wooden spoon just until the dough comes together into a scrappy heap. Do not knead or overwork; it is not necessary to make the dough into a smooth ball.

3. On a floured surface, roll the pastry dough into a 10-inch circle and plant the circle in the prepared springform pan. Line the pastry with a piece of baker’s parchment or aluminum foil and fill it with rice or beans or special pie weights. Bake the pastry until the edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove the parchment with the rice or beans and bake until the center of the crust is dry and just beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes more.

4. While the crust is baking and cooling, poach the apples and make the filling. Start by poaching the apples. Peel and core the apples and cut each one into 8 wedges. Pile them into a large, enameled cast-iron soup kettle or Dutch oven and pour on the apple cider and lemon juice or cider vinegar. Cook over medium-high heat until the cider is boiling, then reduce heat to low and simmer just until apples are tender, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the apples from the simmering cider to a clean plate and allow them to cool while you make custard with the poaching liquid.

5. To make the custard, whisk together the egg, the egg yolk, the sugar and cornstarch in a medium-sized mixing bowl; whisk in about half of the simmering cider, then transfer the tempered egg mixture to the pot and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is boiling vigorously. Transfer the cooked custard back to the mixing bowl, whisk in the butter, and let it cool for 15 minutes or so.

6. When the tart shell has cooled completely, fill it with the apple custard and arrange the poached apple slices over the surface. Serve it at room temperature or chilled.

Greg Atkinson, 2008