Stirring up passion for apple butter

When I was a kid, I had all the cool chores. I got to shell the peas, gathered to the brim of a bottomless five-gallon paint bucket. I got to guard the rows of cabbages with a swatter, set to strike down any moths fluttering along. I got to lie down on my belly in the dirt and pluck microscopic weeds from the tiny, feathery shoots of microscopic baby carrots. I got to stir the apple butter.

What, you say? Why would you complain about stirring apple butter? What a fun job! Well, as I remember, and as my mother presented it to me, it was not. I was too short to reach the stove, so I took the helm on a chair perch. And the stirring, believe it or not, was nonstop for what seemed like hours, done by a wee thing whose arms were barely thicker than the spoon she was wielding. And what we ended up with, from a mountain of apples and all that stirring, was a jar, maybe two (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but those of you who have made apple butter know that the apples stewed down to apple butter diminish like spinach when sautéed).

Wah. I digressively whine, but that’s what I remember about apple butter. And how damn good it is. So the pain is usually worth it.

I considered the worth of apple butter over three fall weekends recently, as I stared down the apples taunting me from my tree in my backyard, and I was urged to apple butter by my cousin, Janice (aka “The Midnight Baker”) who made a wee-hour Facebook request for an apple butter recipe. And I was finally encouraged into apple butter my longtime friend and collaborator, who, as he heard all the options/non-apple-butter-distractions I had in mind for the apples remarked that apple butter, in fact, would be the best use for those apples, an array of small red delicious and gala (my tree fruits six varieties).

One last thing helped me decide. Apple butter is just so damn good.

More mature of mind, savvier of recipe and thicker of arm, I have entered into my adult apple butter-making with a few tricks up my sleeve. I’ve got a crock pot or oven (both of which work as a laid-back option for fruit butters) and hours set aside for the process. I’m blessed to have my own apples and a handy apple corer/peeler/slicer hat turns them into clean, lovely spiraled creatures ready for butter, pie or Betty (soon, Betty, soon).

My recipe came from a cute little apple cookbook I had found in Montana, called “50 Best Apple Recipes” by Joanna White (Bristol Pub Enterprises, 1995). This version was cooked in the oven and promised a simple, slow-roasting process, that reminded me of what my mother had told me her mother had made (guess these things, too, skip generations).

So, it’s a two-part cooking method (by the way). The apples are first tenderized (simmering in water and a little apple cider vinegar), then blenderized (the recipe said to use a food processor, but my beloved immersion blender did the job just fine). After a little more cooking with spices, brown sugar and more cider vinegar, the whole mixture is placed in a glass baking dish to bake for several hours — six, according to the recipe. With, get this, OCCASIONAL stirring.

What I found in making two different batches of this apple butter, is that it was pretty well done within three-and-a-half hours, a rich, chocolatey brown, thick, yet smooth. Although the aromatic, spicy perfume filling the house as the apple butter cooked would have been welcome to continue its autumnal spell for 12 hours or more.

I’ve come to love the whole process of preserving — sterilizing the jars in the canner, using the funnel to ladle jams, jellies and butter…whoops, I couldn’t find my funnel. Oh well, I did a pretty clean job (sort of ), ladling the butter into the jars (note to self: find all the accouterments for your canning well in advance).

I love submerging the jars of preserves into their hot water bath in that time-honored process to keep all the fresh flavor of all you’ve made. The best part, after you’ve taken the hot jars out and set them in a safe place, and wilted onto the couch after a day of apple butter-making, is hearing, later, one by one, the musical pops of the jar lids as they settle and seal.

And the other best part, eating juicy, dense, spicy apple butter on your toast the next morning, and vowing to stir it up again.

Apple Butter
From “50 Best Apple Recipes” by Joanna White (1995)
Makes 6 cups

5 lbs. apples, peeled and cored
7 1/2 cups water
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 to 2 cups brown sugar, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Cut apples into thin slices and place in heavy saucepan with water and 1/4 cup of the vinegar. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree apples in a food processor or blender. Place remaining vinegar in a saucepan, boil and reduce to 1 cup. Add vinegar and remaining ingredients to pureed apples. Simmer gently for 30 minutes until thickened.

Pour mixture into a glass baking dish. Bake in a 250-degree oven for 6 hours, stirring occasionally. Spoon into sterilized jars and heat seal or keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Blogger’s Note: I used 2 teaspoons of cinnamon for this recipe, and my oven cooking time was about 3 1/2 hours.

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