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Delicious detour: Apple Thyme Tapioca Sauce

This time of year I'm drawn to apple orchards like a fly to honey. So, as I was driving home from a recent trip to Minneapolis, it was no surprise when my car took a quick, unexpected turn to the left onto a winding country road.

As I made the turn, I noticed, in small print on a homemade apple sign poking from the ditch, just under the arrow, it read "10 miles."

The sun was shining brightly on the jewel-colored autumn leaves as I wound around curves and drove up and down rolling hills. The scenery was beautiful, but I went 10 miles and never saw an apple tree. Just after 13 miles, I stopped some people on four-wheelers and was told to turn around, go around one curve and then another and then turn north when the new blacktop ends. And then go one mile. I did. No apples. I would not give up. After driving 3 more miles, I saw someone working in a garage and stopped in hopes of getting more directions. After a few phone calls to some of the locals, the friendly woman told me I should have turned south at the end of the blacktop.

But as luck would have it, she had her own apple trees that had produced way more apples than she would ever use. She invited me to fill a bag with the juicy, tart fruit. I pulled out of her driveway after a long visit, a tour of her flower gardens, news of a business she was planning to start, an invitation to return and a bag of apples in my trunk. And an apple in hand - each succulent bite my reward for being so persistent. I was a happy little fly.

I have so many apple recipes that I've collected over the years, still waiting to be tried, but it didn't take long for me to decide how I'd use some from the bag sitting in my kitchen. There was one recipe that immediately caught my eye. I had discovered the recipe for Baked Apple Tapioca in 1991. I'm sure I had my tapioca-loving dad in mind at the time. He thought it a real treat when my mom would make him tapioca pudding, creamy and sweet, with tiny gelatinous beads of tapioca floating throughout.

Unfortunately, I never did get around to making this apple tapioca dessert for him.

I made some adjustments and additions to the original recipe. Fresh apple slices are baked in the oven, then sweetened and spiced, the sauce thickened with tapioca. The results are like chunky applesauce, but thicker and creamier, with a consistency similar to pudding. The flavor is reminiscent of apple pie without the crust or apple crisp without the crisp, and it's a little more complex with the infusion of fresh thyme as the apples cook in liquid in the oven.

Tapioca is a starch produced from the root of the cassava (manioc) plant. It is available as flour or as balls, referred to as pearls. Quick-cooking, or minute tapioca, has been precooked and has a fine grain. Tapioca is mainly used to add thickness and texture to foods, as is the case with tapioca pudding. Tapioca's neutral flavor makes it easy to incorporate it into sweet or savory dishes. I've used the thickening agent in fruit pie fillings and oven-baked beef stew.

Apple Thyme Tapioca Sauce is best served warm. It becomes a fall dessert eaten with a scoop of ice cream.

But it also can be eaten for breakfast stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal or layered into a dish with yogurt and granola.

My apple detour led to a new acquaintance, a bag full of apples and a warm, satisfying dessert. I wish my dad were around to have a taste.

Apple Thyme Tapioca Sauce

2 pounds tart baking apples, peeled, cored, sliced

3 cups water

Juice of 1 lemon, about 2 tablespoons

2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup minute tapioca

1/2 teaspoon baking spice blend or cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Toasted pecans, broken, for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine water and lemon juice in a 9- x 13-inch baking dish or any shallow 2 1/2- to 3-quart baking dish. Place apple slices and thyme in the lemon water and use your clean hands to move the slices through the water to be sure they are all coated with the liquid. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and seal tightly. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes.

While apple slices are baking, combine brown sugar, tapioca, baking spice blend or cinnamon and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.

Remove dish from oven. Carefully pull out the sprigs of thyme and discard. Sprinkle brown sugar mixture over the apples. Stir gently.

Add melted butter and gently stir. Cover dish and return to hot oven for an additional 10 minutes. Remove foil and stir once again. Cover dish and bake 5 more minutes. Remove dish from oven. Add vanilla and stir until it is mixed into the sauce. Serve warm with ice cream. Sprinkle with toasted pecans. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Tips from the cook

--This dessert is a nice place to use lemon thyme if you happen to have some in your garden.

--Baking spice is a blend of cinnamon and other spices such as nutmeg, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, anise, depending on the brand.

--Toast pecans in a 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they can quickly become too dark.

--Find quick-cooking or minute tapioca near the pudding mixes in the grocery store.