What to make when you feel like it should be fall, but it most certainly is not

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

September is the absolute worst month, and this is a hill I'm willing to die on. 

It sounds like the weather will be nice. It sounds like a month of pumpkin spice everything and apple orchards and corn mazes, and while you may be able to find those things, it will still be approximately as hot as the surface of the sun. Sweaty corn mazes are just not the fall muse I'm looking for. 

Still, this has been an oppressively hot summer and there's no reason not to celebrate its ultimate demise, even though it means the sad end of summer festivals and, eventually, chilled fizzy wine drinks. Although in my opinion, an Aperol spritz knows no season as long as it's cocktail hour. 

First, you could start your fall plants, including cauliflower, garlic, spinach, beets and the like. Go ahead and clear a space and get that ready and reap the rewards quite literally when it's, you know, actually fall. 

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Since it's still hot as blazes, you could also just hide away in the safety of your air-conditioned kitchen and make some fall-flavored dishes. Baking is fine. It will make you hot, but you'll get over it when you have a faceful of apple cake. 

The below recipe for Nama's Apple Cake, named after the great-great-grandmother of the former Southern Kitchen editor who provided it, is supposed to be served cold. But  you can eat it warm if you enjoy sweating. 

Following that, you'll find a fall-like salad with a dijon vinaigrette that should be eaten cold.

I've also added a stuffed squash recipe that's good for any season, providing you can find acorn squash at your local market.

Happy pretend-like-it's-fall month.

Namas Apple Cake

Nama’s Apple Cake

Eaten warm, this cake is almost pudding-like and is a big bowl of fall-scented comfort on a day when you wish it was cold and lovely outside. 

Serves 12

Ingredients

Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 heaping teaspoon vanilla

3 cups diced and peeled baking apples, such as Granny Smith

1 cup chopped nuts, such as pecans (optional)

Caramel Sauce

1 cup packed brown sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/4 cup milk

Instructions

To make the cake: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vegetable oil, eggs and vanilla. Using a stiff spatula or wooden spoon, stir the oil mixture into the flour mixture. It will be “real stiff.” Mix in the apples and nuts. Press the mixture into the prepared baking dish and smooth out the top into an even layer. 

Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool while preparing the sauce.

To make the sauce: In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter and milk. Place over medium-high heat to melt the butter. Once the butter has melted, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to medium. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, until the sauce just begins to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the hot sauce over the cake, spreading it evenly across the top.

Let the cake cool at least until the sauce has seeped in, about 20 minutes. 

Fall Harvest Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette

It's not quite fall salad

Better known as chayote squash, mirlitons are native to Mexico and Central America, but have grown around Louisiana since the 19th century. They have a tart flavor when cooked and a fantastic crunch with a faint flavor of zucchini or cucumber when eaten raw.

A tip: Soaking raw onions in ice water removes some of their bitterness and pungency. Just make sure to drain well before tossing with the rest of the salad.

Serves: 3 to 4

Ingredients

Dijon Vinaigrette

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salad

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

Ice water, as needed

4 cups thinly sliced kale, washed

2 mirlitons, cored and diced into 1/2-inch cubes (see note)

1 Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced

1/2 cup dried cranberries

Instructions

To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. 

In a large bowl, toss the butternut squash with the olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until the squash is tender and lightly caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking. Let cool to room temperature. Keep the oven on and save the bowl for tossing the salad.

Spread the pecans in a single layer on a second baking sheet. Roast until lightly browned and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, cover the sliced red onions with ice water. Let sit for 15 minutes, then drain thoroughly.

In the large bowl, combine the kale, mirlitons, apples, cranberries, roasted squash, toasted pecans and drained red onions. Season with salt and black pepper, and stir in 1/4 cup of the Dijon vinaigrette. Toss to thoroughly coat all of the ingredients with the vinaigrette; add more vinaigrette if desired. Serve.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Any-season stuffed winter squash 

The key to perfectly stuffed squash is having the correct ratio of squash to filling. To help achieve this, scoop out all but a half-inch of the flesh of the roasted squash. Mixing most of the softened squash with the remaining stuffing ingredients better integrates the flavors throughout the entire dish.

If you’d like to make a vegetarian version of this dish, you can substitute 1 pound of mushrooms, sauteed in butter. We particularly like shiitakes here, but you could also use a mixture of wild mushrooms or cremini mushrooms, cooked until all of their liquid has evaporated. Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.

Serves: 4

Hands on time: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Ingredients

2 large acorn squash, halved and seeded

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 links hot Italian sausage, casings removed (see note)

1/2 yellow onion, diced

3 ribs celery, finely diced

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus more for serving

Instructions

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Place the squash halves on a baking sheet cut-side up. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over the flesh of the squash. Liberally season with salt and black pepper and roast until the squash are fork tender and the edges have started to curl, about 40 minutes. Let cool until easy to handle. Keep the oven on.

While squash is roasting, heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the sausage and cook, stirring frequently and breaking up any large pieces with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the onion and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the apples, sage and garlic, and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute. Stir in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

When the squash are cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into a large bowl, leaving 1/2 inch of flesh attached to the skin to help retain each squash’s shape. Add the sausage mixture and stir to incorporate the squash. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. 

Stuff the sausage mixture into the hollowed squash halves and return to the baking sheet. Top with the bread crumbs and the Parmigiano Reggiano. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and roast until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with additional Parmigiano Reggiano and drizzle with additional extra-virgin olive oil, as desired. Serve.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com