Last Thursday night I made Apple Butter. I find that my hobbies — the things I do for myself — have to fit into smaller and smaller spaces. Moreover, like so many workers in corporate America, they need to be more productive. The boost I have to get out of doing something for myself has to be considerable to be worth the price in sleep loss, opportunity cost, or making my husband work harder. This summer, I found that canning fits the bill. It doesn’t take a wild amount of time — one evening plus thinking ahead. It’s very different than what I do all day (computer hobbies, for example, have the downside of being just like work). And it’s intensely satisfying, both right after you’ve completed it and throughout the year as you watch happy people nom down on your cooking. So in an indirect response to my life time-crunch, I did a lot more canning this year.
Which brings us back to apple butter. It was an obvious choice. One of our yearly traditions is apple picking. Abuela gives us apples from her tree every year. And the farmshare has also provided us with a hearty harvest. Added all together, and we had a ton of apples. Worst yet, although I make a mean apple pie, none of the men in my house like it. So although I’ve never eaten apple butter in my life, I figured it was worth the effort.
For my birthday, my mommy bought me the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and some canning toys. I used the Cider Apple Butter recipe.
Without a doubt, canning apple butter is best done with a chatty best friend working with you. (Now taking applications for next year!) It took me nearly an hour and a half to peel and core the SIX POUNDS of apples the recipe called for. I’m not a novice peel-and-corer, either. It was rather tedious. It was interesting to see how different all the apples were. Since my apples came from a wide variety of sources and types, it’s a mutt of an apple-butter — never to be reproduced. I liked seeing how different all the apples were. Here are the results of my peeling-and-coring extravaganza:
I dumped them all into my biggest pot (note to Santa: I need a bigger pot if I’m actually going to do more boiling-canning. None of mine were large enough to fit the canning rack I got.). I added the two cups of cider. This seemed woefully inadequate for such a large “cider soup”.
I also got the jars going. I’ve aided in making jam since I was 8 or 9 years old — mostly in the squashing raspberries and stirring departments as a young child. But only once have I been around canning where you boiled the cans afterwards, so I paid careful attention to the instructions. Please note an important idea: you preheat the jars filled with water, but you better have enough room/not so much water so that when the jars are filled, the pot does not overflow. Happily, I caught that one before I found out the hard way. I thought the jars were pretty in the pot.
Then I pureed the apples, attempted to food-process my whole cloves to ground cloves, failed miserably, and ground them in a mortar and pestle instead. Despite carefully measuring the POUNDS of apples, I didn’t have the volume the recipe called for. I added apple cider to make it up. I’m pretty sure that was a mistake — since I wasn’t adding pectin, it wasn’t as necessary to be precise. I bet that added significantly to the cook time. However, strike 1 for the recipe. It offered no guidance. I added the pureed apples/cider and spices back to the pot for the Long Cook.
Included in my birthday present was this clever device (upper right). Just one problem: it uses about 10x as much water as boiling the lids flat and using the neat magnetic lid-grabber-thingy I also got. So…. very cool but I’m not sure it’s worth it.
The apples cooked and cooked and I stirred and stirred. Since I’ve never EATEN apple butter, I wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to look/taste like, or what the consistency was supposed to be. Here’s what the cookbook said:
Testing Fruit Butters: Butters are cooked until they thicken and begin to hold their shape on a spoon. To assess doneness, spoon a small quantity of cooked mixture onto a chilled plate. When liquid does not separate, creating a rim around the edge, and the mixture holds a buttery, spreadable shape, the butter is ready to ladle into jars and process.
I think I read that about 18 times. I never decided if the clause “creating a rim around the edge” was something that it was or was not supposed to do when it was ready. I thought of my sister, the tech-writing cooking-savant and how she would blanch at this obfuscatory help. Clearly, assessing apple-butter-doneness is the sort of thing you have to learn at the apron of someone who knows it. Here was my attempt at being a good little recipe-follower:
I’m pretty sure it didn’t cook long enough, but I was running out of time. When the butter started “spitting” and burning me, I decided that I’d better start jarring it. Here’s a picture of what happens to your hand when you wash it as often as I did making this butter. I expect sympathy, people.
It was time to start the canning bit. I’ve done this a gazillion times with jam. I advise you to move the jar right next to the pot. A funnel is one of the few truly critical pieces of jamming equipment (you CAN do it without a funnel but it’s HARD). If you are doing jam, use your jars in a bell curve: smallest known jars first (they are hardest to get to seal), then middle, then big, saving a few small jars for the remnants in the pot that won’t fit in a big jar.
At that point, the recipe gets a HUGE strike 2. They had helpfully told me how many jars I would need. I prepared equivalents (I like to use three jar sizes: sampler, medium and big) and added a few extra for safety margin. They were WRONG. I needed three medium jars more than they called for. That’s huge. I actually ran out of prepped jars and had to use an unprepped jar, which I marked with an “X” because I didn’t want to trust the seal on it. ALWAYS HAVE WAY MORE JARS THAN YOU WILL NEED (and enough lids for all the jars you have).
Because of the additional jars, I had to boil them in two sets, making me even later for bed.
It took me roughly 3 hours, start to finish, to make the apple butter. The good news? It’s delicious, especially on cornbread! The bad news? It’s really sugary, spicy applesauce. We definitely didn’t achieve buttery consistency!