Saturday, January 23, 2010

Apple Butter, the kind of home made preserve ANYbody can make - A simple living treat

Apple Butter, the kind of preserves ANYbody can make …...
- As long as you have one element – time

In order to describe the relative simplicity of making apple butter, I have paraphrased my Nanny. Once, my mom brought a friend of hers to the deep Georgia woods where my Aunt and Uncle were living with my Nanny (grandmother). Harriett was a lovely, lovely person and we all liked her. Well, that was the start of the problem. My Nanny was many wonderful things but if she had a weakness, it was jealousy. At first, all was fine and dandy. But then after a day or two of hearing how great mom’s friend was, nanny had had enough. At one point in the day, Harriet brought out some homemade fudge she had brought as a gift. Passing it around, everyone responded with oohs and ahhs and the usual southern pleasantries. Having had quite enough of the attention given to Harriet, nanny looked at her fudge without eating it. When Harriet left the room, Nanny laid her piece on the plate and leaning over to me, whispered, “That’s the kind of fudge ANYbody can make,” I Laughed so hard I thought I would die.

Well, apple butter is the kind of preserve anybody can make. The recipe and the technique are simplicity itself. But, there is one catch. Yes, apple butter is a simple recipe and simple technique. Simple yes – but not easy. I suppose that sounds contradictory. But the fact is apple butter is notoriously easy to scorch because it requires long, low cooking and that means it is easily forgotten, allowed to stick and burn. In the following, paragraphs, I will share with you an heirloom recipe that Nanny and I used to prepare this simple but delicious treat.  Plus, I will share with you some modern tweeks you may want to try.  So, read on.

There is no butter in apple butter. It developed the name because the early homesteaders, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch, used to use it on morning toast as a sweet substitute for butter. Apple butter was a wonderful way to preserve the bountiful apple crops and was once far more popular than today. The early homestead would gather their apples in the fall and make a whole day of preparing vast kettles of apple butter to store away for use in the fruitless winter. Preserving food was a celebration of the harvest and a promise of a content winter. Stirring a kettle of hot fruit for hours and hours (it takes a lot longer to concentrate a tub of apples than a small pot) is a lot of work. The poor women or child given the work of stirring was told “Two times around and once down the middle” every minute on the minute. If a man was forced to do this labor he was often fortified against the task with some hard cider made from last year’s harvest.

Basically apple butter is just applesauce with added sugar and spices, cooked long and slow, until it becomes rich and thick and develops a complex taste quite beyond its simple ingredients. Some people actually prepare apple sauce as a first step and move from there – I am not sure that’s historically likely and in any case I do not. I start with peeled and cored apples chop them up place them in a pot and add enough apple juice, or cider to cover – hard cider like woodchuck amber is delicious and any leftovers help to reward you for all the hard work stirring.

The basics –
4 pounds of apples – 10 apples or so - any variety will do but try to mix sweet with tart for best results
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider or juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon clove (optional)

A) Peel and core the apples, roughly chop them or process in a food mill or food processor.
B) Put apples in a pot with the apple cider (if the cider doesn’t come close to covering add more)
C) Bring the apples to a low boil, stirring frequently to prevent sticking for 30 minutes
D) Reduce the mixture to simmer and add the sugar and spices (you add later to prevent scorching)
E) Simmer briskly while stirring frequently for another 30 minutes to an hour
F) It is “butter” when a spoon full dropped on a cool plate holds its mounded shape and does not flatten out and run
G) Ladle the hot butter into hot sterilized canning jars leaving an inch of headroom
H) Wipe the rips with a clean moist cloth
I) Place the lids and rings on the jars and twist tightly
J) Allow to cool, properly handled, the preserves will last well over a year

It really is a simple process that only requires time and patience to reward you richly. I think it is well, well worth it. Simple living is not without effort but it is a great time to slow down, talk to your kids or just spend time alone. Now, as I said, the effort only makes the reward richer. But, if you must conform to modern trickery, there is an interesting idea out there – making it in a crock pot. I have to say it sounds like a brilliant idea and I may be tempted to do so. But not this year, the sentimental aspect of slow cooking with a spoon in hand appeals to me in some way. Frankly I feel that the time and patience spent stirring is part of the magic – kinda like the reward homemade ice-cream grants those that turn the handle.
But, for those heretics among us, here is an adaptation. Simply prepare the recipe as above. But, dump all ingredients in the pot at the same time. Boil on highest setting for 2 hours, then reduce to low and simmer for 4 to 6 more hours. The great advantage is with a Crockpot; you can simmer the fruit for hours on a very low setting and have no serious risk of burning. Just remember, this method may produce wonderful thick butter, but it will not be proper for canning so the butter must be kept in the refrigerator and will remain at its peak for 4 to 6 months.

Other modifications include using all brown sugar for a darker richer taste. One can also adjust the amount of cinnamon up or down to taste. A great alternative is to substitute pears for apples, I do not cook them for as long so they keep a golden color and they look and taste great. I am sure whatever method you choose, the taste of homemade apple butter will sweep you a simple living world of real food every time you open a jar. It may be the kind of preserve ANYbody can make, but I assure you it is a treat you will treasure and love to give and share with others.

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