Today I’m kicking off an occasional series of posts focusing on how different ingredients and tools can be used to make decorative elements for fun bento lunches. First up: apples!
Apples are a perennial favorite that appear frequently in our lunches. They’re not as exciting as our beloved summer berries, but they are sturdy, sweet, crunchy, and nutritious and I can count on my kids to eat them throughout the winter months. Apples are also a great candidate for decoration because their cream colored flesh and brightly colored skin lend themselves to several arty, but not-too-complicated techniques. (Really! I swear!)
Cutting the Apple
First I want to quickly show how I cut the apples for these techniques. Rather than cutting the apple in half and coring it, I use a sharp paring knife to cut flat-bottomed chunks off the apple. I start by cutting a big chunk, then rotate the apple 90 degrees and cut another chunk, continuing around the apple until I’m left with a square core. This method is fast and gives you nicely sized pieces to work with. The flat bottoms also make the apple chunks more stable when you are cutting them so they’re less likely to tip and cause the knife to slip.
Let’s start with the easiest technique: the stripey apple. This is super fast and I use this technique a lot when I pack lunches.
Slice a couple of chunks of apples length-wise into quarter inch thick slices. Trim the ends to fit in the space you’d like to fill in the bento box. I cut off about 3/4 inch to fit in the square silicone cup I used below.
Place the apple slices in the cup one at a time, flipping over alternate slices to contrast the white inner flesh with the darker skin.
Ta da! Striped apples!
Cookie Cutter Apple
Begin by selecting a cookie cutter slightly smaller than the apple chunk you are planning to use. I like to use cutters from Wilton’s series of mini cutter sets for this. Most of them are 1-1 1/2 inches across which is just the right size. (The flower cutter I use here is from their romance set.)
Gently push the cutter through the skin of the apple. Don’t press it too far into the flesh — maybe just a couple of millimeters beyond the skin.
Remove the cutter, then slip the tip of a knife under the skin of the apple. Gently cut under the skin of the apple, keeping the knife parallel to the skin. I find it’s helpful to start by going all the way around the edge of the cut-out first, rotating the apple as you go. If the skin is still stuck to the middle of the cut-out once you’ve gone all the way around, poke the tip of the knife into it and wriggle it back and forth until the skin pops free.
You can use the apple as is, or you can kick it up a notch by filling the cut-out with a food that’s a contrasting color.
For the example here, I used fruit leather, but piece of cheddar cheese would work nicely too. Using the same cutter, cut a shape from the fruit leather.
Pop the fruit leather over the cut-out and add it to your lunch box.
A carved apple is quick to make if you have the right tool. I use a small U-shaped knife that I bought at a Daiso store near my home, but you can also use a linoleum cutter which is easy to find online or in art stores. In a pinch, you could also carve an apple by cutting narrow V-shapes with a very sharp paring or craft knife but please be careful not to cut yourself if you go that route!
You can carve just about any simple shape into an apple (or more complicated ones if you feel like fussing a bit), but I like to carve my kids’ initials into apples because letters are pretty fast to make and my kids both love to see “their letters” in their lunch boxes.
To cut the shape, poke the tip of the carving knife just through the apple’s skin and then keeping the blade parallel to the apple’s skin, slide it through the fruit to carve a shallow trough.
Zippity doo dah! There’s the letter A!
Let’s finish with one of the most famous of all decorative bento techniques: the checkered apple!
Begin with a rectangular chunk of apple. Using a sharp paring knife score straight lines into the skin of the apple. Try not to cut too far into the flesh of the apple — again just a millimeter or two. Cut from one end of the apple to the other doing your best to keep the cuts parallel to each other. When you have finished the cuts in one direction, rotate the apple 90 degrees and repeat the process by cutting lines cross-wise.
When you’ve finished there should be a grid pattern on your apple.
Slip the tip of the knife under alternating squares of skin, gently prying each piece off the white part of the apple. Clean up any rough edges.
When you’re done you’ll have a lovely checkered apple to slip into your lunch box.
A Quick Note on Browning
One question that always comes up when I talk about putting apples in lunches is how I keep them from browning. There are lots of ways to prevent oxidation. You can dip apples in water with a little lemon squirted into it, pineapple juice or really almost anything acidic or you can use one of my favorite products: Fruit-Fresh. Sprinkle this powder evenly over the cut portions of the apples and they’ll easily stay white until lunch time. Not only does Fruit-Fresh work the best of any technique I’ve found to prevent browning, but it also imparts little or no sour flavor. You can usually find it in stores that sell canning supplies or you can also get it online.
How do you like to decorate apples for your lunches? Do you think you’ll give any of these techniques a try?