The Road Home to Apple Country: Apple Butter
September 17, 2015
I know I swore I’d never can another fruit. And then along came a big bag of apples, plucked straight from the tree, and I couldn’t just let them rot.
I’ve never been much of an apple person. I think they’re a little boring as fruits go – a little too uniformly sweet, too big to nibble on, too much chewing to do. But apples feel like a harbinger of the fall, of cooler, crisper days, of waiting for the school bus and new sweaters, of cinnamon sticks and pie and holidays.
I grew up in apple country. Not far from where we lived, the roads started undulating like a kiddie coaster, curving through fog-stained fields full of gnarled fruit trees and corn. We bought our apples from a stand along the road which sold fresh peaches and blueberries – whatever was in season – along with homemade pickles and preserves. And every fall, there was the Apple Harvest Festival, a sweet-smelling country fair with bluegrass music and whole pigs roasting on spits. Mouths full of apples, of course.
I have a very vivid memory of the festival. It must be a composite, because I’m sure we went more than just the once, but in my mind it’s that one long day in the clear, blue fall. I remember an apple fritter pulled from a vat of boiling oil, soft and doughy and covered in powdered sugar. I remember sitting on a hay bale and watching a play whose plot points I can no longer recall though I can still feel the scratchy hay poking through my thin leggings and the straw sticking out from a scarecrow’s shirt beside me.
I know there were tractors on display and squat ponies walking around and around the corral with children on their backs. I remember the tooth-shucking snap of a caramel apple, shredded pork barbeque with French fries and bloomin’ onions, dusky hot apple cider, and the witch’s cauldron full of bubbling apple butter. I begged and begged for apple butter – a big, glass Bell jar with that golden, two-piece lid and a handwritten white label. At home, I ate it on warm toast with butter and a glass of cold milk.
Not everybody has heard of apple butter. It feels very down home – like something you’d never buy at the grocery store, but that someone’s mom would make for you. There’s no butter in it – it’s just concentrated apple sauce cooked down with cinnamon, spices, and cider vinegar until it’s soft as a pat of butter in winter sun.
It’s the perfect way to fill a slow, lazy Saturday. The kitchen fills with the heady smell of apple steam, a gentle counterpoint to the classic jazz playing from the next room. Mashing cooked apples through a sieve is time-consuming and meditative, as are the hours it cooks, the butter turning a rich, silky chestnut brown.
As the apple sauce softened, I read on the couch, and the little dog jumped into my lap, hoping for a snack of leberwurst or cheese. I pulled the blanket up over my feet and remembered other apples – the heaping apple pies my mom made every year, the bright red candied apples shining in glistening rows at the Christmas markets in Berlin, the big paper sacks of apples with dusty skins from the roadside stand back home, a crisp fall breeze and a hay bale, the promise of cool, comforting days to come.
Feel free to adjust the spice levels in your apple butter to taste. The lemon, especially, can have too bright of a flavor for some. Better to start with less and work your way up to more. Makes approximately 6 1/3 cups (1.5 liters) of apple butter.
4 lbs. (1,815 g) apples
2 cups water
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup apple cider vinegar
3 cups sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. cloves, ground
½ tsp. allspice, ground
Dash of salt
Without removing the peel or core, quarter apples and remove any bruised (or, if you’re using apples from your own tree, buggy) spots. The peel and core impart flavor and pectin, respectively, both good things for apple butter making.
Place quartered apples in a large pot and add water, lemon juice, and vinegar. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. After ten minutes, reduce heat to medium and cook for another ten minutes, until apples are soft. Remove from heat.
Set up a smaller pot fitted with a mesh sieve. In small batches, push the apples and liquid through the sieve to separate the apple mousse from the seeds, peel, and core. When finished, you should have about 6 cups of apple mouse.
Return apple mousse to the large pot and add 3 cups of sugar (the ratio is ½ cup of sugar for each cup of mousse, so if you ended up with more or less mousse, adjust accordingly). Stir to combine. Add lemon juice, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, allspice, and salt. Turn heat to low and allow the mousse to cook, uncovered, for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
When you’re ready to can the apple butter, wash jars and lids. I neatly filled up two 425 ml jars and two 324 ml jars. Line up the jars on a clean work surface with the lids opposite.
Bring the apple butter to a boil. Remove from heat and place it next to the jars.
Ladle apple butter from the pot into the jars in increments (i.e. pour 1 inch of apple butter into the first jar, 1 inch of apple butter into the second jar, etc., until all the jars are full). Ladle apple butter all the way up to the lip of the jar and make sure the threads of the jar are clear of apple butter. Screw the lid on tightly and flip the jar upside down to create a seal. The jars should keep in the pantry.
Allow jars to cool completely before moving.