More Than a Recipe
Apple Butter is one of those recipes that is about so much more than the apples. What makes my ears perk up at the mention of Apple Butter has little to do with the flavor of autumn or with preserving the harvest. It is not about an interest in canning. That is something I have never tried. It’s not even about having a low fat spread to smear on hot biscuits or toast. While these are all good reasons to pursue the ultimate recipe for Apple Butter they are not mine. What causes me to smile at the thought of Apple Butter is my great great uncle Hal.
Uncle Hal grew up in the rural hills of southern Indiana over a century ago. His father died when he was young and his education was spotty after the fourth grade. From that point on he was needed at home to work the farm. Even so he was a keen observer. He had a quick wit and he told a good story.
Despite his lack of formal education Uncle Hal was inspired by his daughters to write a memoir. What he wrote for them was a beautiful legacy. He penned 162 handwritten pages. Reading them for the first time I was mesmerized by the vivid pictures his words evoked. I could see the dapper young man riding the streetcar in Louisville wearing a new suit of clothes. I matched that image to the portrait I found in a family album of this handsome young man coming of age a century ago.
Uncle Hal had a beautiful way of describing the landscapes of his life. Whether the streets of Louisville, the farmland of Wisconsin or Minnesota where he eventually settled, or the gently rolling knobs of Indiana, his boyhood home, he drew a picture in his careful handwriting of the wonder and humor and providential nature of the world he knew.
The Last Harvest of the Year
And that brings me back to Apple Butter. One of Uncle Hal’s most beautiful portraits described the harvest season in southern Indiana when he was a boy.
The apple harvest was another occasion for busy, happy excitement. It came in October when the corn was in the shock and summer’s work was almost finished. The apple harvest was the last harvest of the year and we had ample time to enjoy it. It was lots of work too but it was the kind of work that is more like fun, especially to an eight year old boy. The apples had to be picked and brought in; then came the job of peeling them and taking out the cores. The neighbors usually helped. Apple peelings were quite common and something of a social event. Anyone who wished to get the job done and have a lot of fun at the same time would invite as many neighbors – usually in the evening – as the house would accommodate and a great deal could be accomplished in one evening. Preparations took about two days.
With the kettle in place and wood stacked nearby, we would roll out of bed before daylight and get the fire going and Mother would come with apples. From there on the procedure was the same as with peach butter, Mother adding more apples from time to time as the apples boiled down. We changed about, each one taking a turn with the stirrer. Sugar and cinnamon were added when the apple butter was brown and thick and the fire was allowed to burn out. Apple butter took longer to make than peach butter, due to the higher juice content of the apples. Sometimes night would fall before the job was finished. Remember, my dear girls, that we made apple butter in October when the days were shorter than they were in the peach season.
I wish I could give you a clear picture of the apple harvest in Southern Indiana when I was a “kid”. I wish you could see those beautiful October days when the autumn colors were on the trees and Indian Summer came and spread its lavender mantle over the good earth. I wish you could see the sun going down in a sea of lavender and gold and a spiral of wood smoke rising from a small fire and disappearing in the purple twilight. If you look closely, you may see a boy stirring apple butter in a farmyard and a Mother coming out of the house to see if all is well. If I could make the picture as clear to you as it is to me I’m sure it would remain in your memories as long as it has in mine.
Since reading Uncle Hal's story I have become fascinated by recipes for Apple Butter. Personally I am not a huge fan of jams, jellies and other preserves since they are often too sweet for my taste. I prefer most fruit fresh, if possible, and with very little sugar added. But, as I said, Apple Butter is about so much more than the apples. It's about history and family. It's about what's wholesome and homemade. It's about making the most of the abundance God has blessed us with here and now.
I have continued to collect recipes and search fro a less-sweet version of Apple Butter. Considering those recipes I have learned that sugar has a preservative quality that adds shelf life to canned fruits. I think that's the main reason most traditional Apple Butter recipes call for far more sugar than I find palatable. Yet, in the past few years I have found that Apple Butter can be made with much less sugar and stored in ways that weren't available to my great great grandmother and Uncle Hal a century ago. Today Apple Butter can be stored for several weeks in the refrigerator, or longer in the freezer, without much concern for the amount of sugar added.
Finally, last year I found a post about Apple Butter that really appealed to me. Lelo in NoPo wrote about a wonderful, forgiving way to make Apple Butter in a slow cooker. Lelo fills a slow cooker with apples then lets them cook overnight. By morning the fragrance of apples will be wafting through the house greeting you as you begin to stir and tugging on your sleeve, urging you to get out of bed and make pancakes for breakfast. Just puree the apples using a stick blender, add a little ground cinnamon and you have fresh flavorful homemade applesauce to serve with those pancakes.
After Breakfast, add sweetener to your own taste. Set the lid of the slow cooker ajar and let the apples continue to cook, stirring occasionally for the rest of the day, or until the apple mixture reaches a thick buttery consistency. What you have now is Homemade Apple Butter made by a process that is so simple and rewarding it just might turn into a new family tradition.
A Sensory Indulgence
This apple butter is a wonderful treat on cool autumn days! As it cooks I think of Uncle Hal's sea of lavender and gold in the purple twilight. I can almost see the smoke rising from his small wood fire as I breathe in the fragrance of the apples and spices cooking down in my slow cooker. The aroma alone is worth the small amount of effort it takes to prepare this recipe. Better yet the resulting Apple Butter can be spread on biscuits, toast, cornbread, even a saltine cracker, or it can be added to a variety of recipes for cakes or muffins. Though this recipe makes only a few jars of apple butter rather than the 30 gallon copper kettle full that my great great grandmother canned during the autumns a century ago, it is enough for our tastes and circumstances and worth far more in the places it is able to take me than in the contribution it makes to my pantry.
This recipe, using Lelo’s method, includes a taste of real maple syrup and a little ground cardamon and allspice to supplement the traditional ground cinnamon. The resulting Apple Butter is mildly sweet but still lets the crisp tartness of the apple flavor shine through.
Homemade Apple Butter
6 - 8 pounds of apples (enough to fill the bowl of your slow cooker)
½ cup water
½ - 1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup maple syrup
½ to 1 cup sugar (I used brown)
¼ teaspoon cardamon
¼ teaspoon allspice
The juice and zest of one small lemon
Before Going to Bed:
Fill a slow cooker with apples that have been peeled, cored and sliced.
Pour ½ cup water over the apples.
Cover and let cook on low overnight.
(Mix the batter for Overnight Pancakes, if desired, and store in the refrigerator)
In the Morning:
Add ½ teaspoon cinnamon to the apples.
Using a stick blender, blend the cooked apples until smooth.
Now you have applesauce. Fill a bowl with enough to serve your family as a sidedish with pancakes for breakfast.
(Make pancakes using the prepared batter for Overnight Pancakes or try Swedish Pancakes or Wheat Germ Griddle Cakes if you prefer.)
Leave the remainder of the blended apples in the slow cooker. Stir in the maple syrup, sugar, cardamon and allspice, lemon juice and zest. Add more cinnamon and/or sugar to taste. Prop the lid open or set it ajar so that steam will escape.
Every hour or so stir the apple mixture scraping down the sides of the slow cooker well each time.
Continue for most of the day, until the apples have thickened to a buttery paste, or until they reach the consistency you are looking for.
Store the finished Apple Butter in clean glass jars or in freezer containers. The Apple Butter should keep several weeks in the refrigerator and several months in the freezer.