Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pomocentrically Speaking

If, as Michael Pollan tells us, apples adapted to our need for sweetness in our diet and indeed our cold-wind, big-prairie life (in exchange for our help in their quest for nationwide domination), then apple butter is the perfect expression of humanity's place in agricultural evolution. Preserves allow us to turn the tables on the tyranny of nature. Here is a perfect match of palate-stimulating flavor and energy-galore (all those calories). Here is harvest bounty that is divorced from climate, a reclamation of woman's rightful dominance over the natural world.

And not just any woman. Her name's "Aunt Sarah" and she made Bucks County's best apple butter, or so said Edith Thomas in Mary at the Farm (1915).

Who was this Aunt Sarah? She must have been popular: she brought together able-bodied farmboys and farmgirls from far and wide to help her peel and core a whole mess a' apples ("what country folks call an 'apple bee'"). She's the keeper of traditions, the one who knows how to fashion a long-handled stirred with a couple pieces of wood. She had authority and gumption, a woman whose word was the last on all subjects concerning good, resourceful, economical living. "Spices destroy the true apple flavor," Edith reports, "although Aunt Sarah used sassafras root, dug from the near-by woods, for flavoring her apple butter." I like that image: Aunt Sarah with dirt to the elbows, a gap-toothed grin, her nieces charged with swatting away the flies.

I wanted to stay as true as possible to this old-time recipe within the not inconsiderable limitation of modern-day resources. Sassafras is out, sorry to say. And spending an entire day boiling down cider? My Keyspan bill would be through the roof! (Also out: a wood fire on the fire escape. Talk about blocking your exit!) And sadly, it was a one-woman apple bee. I had plenty of help in the picking but the paring was all me. I was the only among my friends to have that questionable-holiday-in-October off of work, so I spent an intimate hour with a vegetable peeler, four pounds of Jonagolds, and my brand-new, dangerously sharp birthday knife.

Aunt Sarah's recipe was a good starting place, but I had to wander the Web for a recipe not designed for quantities in the tens of pounds and an outdoor range. My girl Heidi and her friend Carolina B. came through for me. I worked with this recipe, sticking pretty close to the instructions but wimping out on the spices, Aunt Sarah's admonition in the back of my mind. One long, hot afternoon (and *only* two arm-burns) later, I had three warm jars, canned the modern way instead of Aunt Sarah's very charming method of storing in small crocks topped with paper and nestled into the cellar. I took a cold shower and went to bed, feeling finished.

But at 5 am, I found myself wide-awake with one thought in my mind: that apple butter is too damn sweet! Aunt Sarah just wouldn't constitute it. I couldn't shake the image of her lips pursed in disapproval. Only one thing to do: I got up and started paring another couple pounds of apples. (Have I mentioned my obsessive tendencies? I spent the better half of my 8th year reciting the incantation, "A great big bunch of bananas." When I was about ten, I entertained myself at dreadfully dull adult dinners by writing down every word they said. My parents thought it was a great party trick, especially when I read it back to them and I got to the later parts, moments that would have been lost to the wine if it wasn't for me, amateur stenographer.)

I had to go to work in a few hours so I decided to go with a slow-cook Croc Pot method. In lieu of straight apple cider, I cooked the apples in a mixture of apple cider vinegar and sweet cider, the idea being that Aunt Sarah's cider might have been closer to tart, boozy applejack (hence the interminable boiling down in advance). Didn't add sugar but did float a clove-studded lemon in the fruity soup. Cooked on high for an hour while I caught a few more winks, then switched it to low for the day.

That evening, I was greeted with the singularly homey fumes of warm and bubbling apples. The butter was not yet at the consistency of marmalade (Aunt Sarah's instructions), so I left it to cook, uncovered, for another hour and a half. Fished out the soggy lemon and a few straggler cloves (my method of infusing acid and spice makes a pretty picture but it was not exactly practical. If I had ground cloves on hand, I would have used that.)

When my butter was just right, I popped open the jars of the too-sweet batch, combined them and re-canned. The result was spot-on, perhaps spicier than Aunt Sarah's but still true to the essential appleness of the harvest. I've already given one jar away, to Ms. O'Neill herself, and I'm eager to hear a verdict!

Niece Nora's Kings County Apple Butter

I used mostly Jonagolds, because that's what we picked at Outhouse Orchards, but I would recommend a mix of tart and sweet cooking apples (Jonagolds are pretty sweet). If your apples are tart, increase the sugar by a half cup or so. (Heidi and Carolina B. at 101 Cookbooks recommend roughly 1/2 cup to every pound of apples, but I found this too sweet). It's always best to start with less and add as needed, as I'm sure Aunt Sarah, whoever she was, would tell you.

6 lbs. apples, pared and cut into 1/2" pieces
2 to 2 and 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 gallon apple cider vinegar
3 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground clove
juice of 1 lemon

Put the apples in a slow-cooker and pour in the cider and vinegar (it should be enough to cover the apples, plus about an inch). Cook on high, covered, for one hour, then add sugar, spices, and lemon juice (letting the apples cook first allows you to get a better idea of how much seasoning is needed). Cover and cook on low for about 9 hours. The give it a stir, check the seasonings, and allow to cook, uncovered for another hour or even two, until it's as thick as marmalade. Stir every 20 minutes or so. Preserve in canning jars (follow instructions that come with jars) or if you should happen to have an old-fashioned cellar, you can try storing them in adorable little paper-topped crocks!

Yield: about 40 oz. of apple butter. Plenty enough to keep and share!


Luna Pier Cook said...

While I do enjoy my creamed honey, I like my apple butter to be less sweet than most. I'm in it for the flavor of the apples. What you've described here sounds closer to what I prefer, generally from orchards and crafters, than a lot of the pre-packaged stuff at Kroger. Gee, maybe after this year-long project is up you should retail some of the projects, such as this one! ;-)

Nora Leah said...

I love that you're thinking about how I can actually make money off this passion -- that's the goal, right? And you're on to something: I could imagine selling this stuff for $5 a pop in Brooklyn! But my day job kinda gets in the way. (My facialist and I have been dreaming of collaborating on homemade, fruit-based creams and potions ... well, maybe some day ... who knows??)

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