11/08/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Andrea Gargotta: Kick Off the Holiday Season with Apples

By Andrea Gargotta

I feel a chill in the air. A chill for Southern California is 70 degrees, but I'll take it! For me and my family, kicking off the Fall season and the upcoming holidays begins with sweaters, scarves, boots, and . . . apples!

When I was young and we lived on the East Coast my mom would take me and my brothers on a drive to see all the leaves changing. She always knew where to find that perfect romantic farm for picking apples. When we moved to Northern California this wonderful tradition continued and we would go into the hills of Watsonville to a very special place in my heart called Gidzdich Ranch. I still take my kids there when we visit for a slice of fresh pie.

For those who live in Los Angeles, you might think that apple picking is reserved for cooler climates. But there is an area, Oak Glen, located about two hours east where apple farms are abundant. On Fall weekends, my children and I continue this tradition and head to Riley's Farm. They have hills of apples as well as restaurants, shops, and activities--the kids can even hand-dip candles. My kids and I spend the day hunting and picking through the many varieties of apples. Major photo op! We finish it off with a slice of pie and head home.

After a few days of eating fresh apples, then apple pies, crisps, cakes, and muffins, I get creative so the apples don't go to waste. Here are a few of my favorite ways to savor the apple and the memory:

Chunky Cinnamon Apple Cups:
Peel and dice 8 to 10 apples. Put them in a pan with about 3 tablespoons of apple juice, a dash of cinnamon, and a dash of vanilla extract. Simmer on low heat until the apples are just soft. Spoon into small bowls. Top with homemade whip cream, warm caramel sauce, or my daughter's favorite--granola! This treat is also great with dried cherries added in.

Sweet Apple Bites:
Peel and cube 8 to 10 apples. Quickly toss in a few drops of lemon juice and barely coat the apples, to prevent browning. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. Put toothpick in each apple cube. Then heat either homemade or store-bought caramel. Carefully dip the apple into the caramel until coated. Place on parchment to cool.

In another pot melt chocolate. Be creative with this. I have usually three pots going--dark, milk, and white. Follow the same procedure and carefully coat apples with the chocolate. Before they are cooled try rolling them in roasted nuts. I like pecans and crushed hazelnuts. Delicious! My kids love it when I roll them in sprinkles. This makes a great family movie night snack!

Chilly Apples:
Peel and cube 8 to 10 apples. Heat them in a pot with a little apple juice or water until tender. Cool. Blend in blender or food processor until smooth. Strain through cheesecloth. Now pour the concoction into ice cube trays. Voila! This makes a great treat for the kids or the perfect ice cube for the adults' apple martini.

Warm Cider:
Peel and slice 8 to 10 apples. Put them through a juicer. Cut a square of cheesecloth and fill it with a cinnamon stick, vanilla beans, cloves, and some of the apple peel. Wrap and tie at the top. Place this decorative pouch into the apple juice and simmer until hot. A yummy version of homemade apple cider.

Apples are a healthy and versatile treat. When food prep begins with a day's outing to the apple farm, they somehow become even more savory and special!

Professional chef and party planner Andrea Beth Gargotta has built a career on effortlessly dishing up a variety of healthy, exotic dishes. She is known for her art of detail in every aspect of the culinary experience -- from menu development to shopping to clean up. She opened and ran her highly acclaimed craft-services company, Andrea's Craft Service, with the goal of creating a healthier food experience on the film set, gaining admirers such as Tim Allen, Mary J. Blidge, Michael Bay, Joe Pytka, Adam Sandler, Jane Seymour, and countless other A-listers. She is at work on a book about her culinary experiences.