How Do You Like Them Apples?

This past summer was not a fruitful gardening season by any stretch of the imagination.  Our assumption of the new roles of full-time parents to our baby daughter, in combination with the sparse bouts of rain and a several runs of too-hot summer temperatures, meant that we weren’t able to grow much of anything.  To be honest, I hadn’t gotten around to planting anything other than a few tomato and pepper plants and, by the middle of August, thanks to the unfavorable weather patterns, they still had not yielded anything worth writing about.

This is in stark contrast to last year, when we enjoyed a bumper crop of tomatoes, along with a healthy surge of fresh herbs and leafy greens that afforded me free food and ingredients for several months.  We ate fresh tomatoes off of the plants for a good part of the summer, and when Labor Day rolled in, I visited a farmstand in the Amish country, picked up a box of slightly bruised tomatoes for $5, and canned enough of them to produce almost twenty quarts, which were ushered onto a shelf in the basement, ready for sauce on a whim.  This year, by the time we visited the farmstand, well after Labor Day, all of the tomatoes were gone and had been replaced by squash and apples.  With some degree of regret, I packed up my canning supplies and stowed them away in the dark recesses of my basement until next year.

The change in weather brings changes in my culinary urges.  In an attempt to satisfy a particularly strong craving for cider doughnuts, we stopped at our local orchard and farm market in mid-October and were surprised to find the grounds overflowing with hundreds of people.  The lines snaked through the store, past the bakery counter, and outside to a tent which sheltered the seasonal placement of cash registers.  Each person in line had the triumvirate selection – a basket of apples, a pumpkin, and a quart or gallon of apple cider.  Upon seeing the mountains of fiery orange pumpkins, and smelling the apple-scented air, my longing for the lazy heat of the summer was extinguished, replaced by the remembrance of the charms of autumn and an overwhelming desire for apple-everything.  Pie. Cobbler. Stuffed.  Roasted. You name it.

I had come across a recipe for apple butter that was made entirely in a slow cooker, which suited my schedule perfectly.  Intrigued, I picked up a few pounds of firm Granny Smiths and McIntosh apples and, for the first time in my life, one of those peeler/corer contraptions that operates on a hand crank.  The recipe was quite straightforward – fill a slow cooker with chopped apples, some sugar, a bit of apple cider, and, at your option, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.  Turn on and drop out.

Using the peeler brought me the same joy of discovery as the first time I used a (good quality) mandoline.  I jabbed an apple onto the spike, turned the crank, and was almost immediately rewarded with a peeled and cored apple that was already conveniently separated into rings.  Fair warning – apples that are in the least bit on the soft side will tend to gum up the works, but for firm specimens, the thing works like a charm.

I piled the apples into the slow cooker, added the rest of the ingredients, popped the glass lid over it, and turned it to the High setting.  For the first few hours, it seemed as if nothing was happening – I would peer down through the glass lid and see the pale, cinnamon-bespecked apple slices staring back up at me.  I went upstairs to do some work.

At some point, I returned to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and, halfway down the stairs, was greeted by the warm smell of the holidays, which had permeated the entire first floor and was now quietly invading the rest of the house.  Checking on the slow cooker, the top layer of apples had still retained their shape, but a quick stir with a wooden spoon caused them to disintegrate.  By the sixth hour, the apples had turned into a chunky, mahogany-colored paste.

I brought my canning supplies up from the basement, filling the large black pot with water and setting it onto a burner and running the jars through the dishwasher to clean and sterilize them.  The actual canning process went very quickly – after ten minutes in boiling water, I had produced about eight or nine half-pint jars of apple butter, suitable for gifting or for hoarding in the basement.

And, in a couple of weeks, when I take the last jar of summer tomatoes for sauce, I know exactly what’s going to take up that shelf.