Haikus and apple butter

I don’t have much time for contemplation in my life. I’m a knowledge worker, so most of my tasks require the better parts of my brain, leaving little time when my hands are busy and my mind is free. But this last weekend we obtained a bushel of apples. A bushel of apples means apple butter time, which means peeling, coring and cutting 20 apples, followed by much stirring. One finds oneself thinking of the infinite variety of apple seeds (apple trees don’t grow true from seeds – varietals are made by grafting), or how rarely I’ve made apple butter with Joe and Don keeping me company during playoff season.

My mind wandered. The result was two appallingly bad haikus, which I of course share with you:

Peels and cores piled high
Throwing away apple seeds
Russets never known.

Playoff baseball sounds
Peeling six pounds of apples
My team sits at home.

The tools of the meditation

Makes preserves, and redeems us

I’m sitting in the kitchen, waiting for my apple butter to cook. It’s mid-October, so unless I get 70 apples on Monday (it’s happened before…) I’m probably done with my seasonal canning for the year. I have a farm share – a double fruit share and a theoretically small but is actually vast vegetable share. I try, as much as possible, to do my preserving from this local, fresh, organic produce. So with my source of prepaid goodies ending soon, I’ll hang up my magnetic lid grabber, at least for now.

I feel like this was an off year for jam. I blame it entirely on plums. Previous years, I’ve gotten loads of plums — significant amounts of 3 or 4 varietals. There were Shiro Plums and black plums and Italian prune plums and “I don’t know, they’re just plums” plums. (There have never been Damson plums, to my tremendous disappointment. This might be the lamest bucket list item ever, but I really want to make damson plum jam.) This year, we got Italian prune plums once! Not nearly enough to turn into jam, either! So I made at least three fewer batches of plum jam than in previous years. I even repeatedly went to farmer’s markets looking for plums and found NADDA. Apparently plums aren’t hip. But man, they make delicious jam. I may yet break down and buy (shudder) supermarket plums and turn them into jam. We’ll see how big the rebellion in the troops is before we take such a drastic step.

Also on my weirdo bucket list: crabapple jelly. I can’t find a source of crabapples, and of course nobody but nobody sells crabapples. So if you have a crabapple tree (or know of an unloved one) and live in the greater Boston area, let me know. I pay in jam.

Also also: one of these days I’m going to make rosehip jelly. Slightly easier to find than crabapples, but require the chutzpah to go to some random shrub and start harvesting.

What did I make this year? I made:
2x Strawberry jam (a perennial favorite)
1x Strawberry rhubarb (which tastes identical to the strawberry)
1x Concord Grape jelly (check that one off my bucket list!)
1x Blueberry jelly (no on in my family likes it, but the farmshare gives me blueberries by the bucket and it makes a nice gift)
1x Peach butter (a labor of love!)
1x Apple butter (makes a huge amount)

I’d been thinking about making hot pepper jelly, but my neighbor made some and I figured that was enough hot pepper jelly for one street for this year.

I was thinking about making some of the more unusual recipes from my beloved “Ball Book of Home Preserving”. There’s a curried apple chutney that would help if I only get 45 apples next week, which sounds fascinating and exotic. Oh, and I think I’ll preserve some Pomegranate molasses, because I need it for my favorite cranberry sauce, and it’s a pain to make during Mocksgiving, and I only need a bit of it… so it would be a good candidate for canning.

Then again, if I never peel and core another apple it might be too soon.

Oh, also, for those following the drama… I did get to remove my brace yesterday. Yay!

So tell me… which one of my jams sounds best? Why are there no plums to be had this year? What should I find a way to make happen

Apple Butter

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.

The cook in the kitchen
The cook in the kitchen

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.

The recipe
The 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:

That's enough for four or five pies, by my reckoning
That's enough for four or five pies, by my reckoning

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”.

My biggest pot
My biggest pot

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.

Did I mention I need a bigger pot?
Did I mention I need a bigger pot?

Cider soup stage
Cider soup stage

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.

The stovetop during the Long Cook
The stovetop during 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:

Chilled plate and buttery texture?
Chilled plate and buttery texture?

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.

Cracked knuckle skin = not fun!
Cracked knuckle skin = not fun!

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.

In the middle of jarring
In the middle of jarring

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.

Post-boiling process
Post-boiling process

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!

The fruits of my labor
The fruits of my labor