I am spending some time in Chicago, to care for my mother after her hip replacement, and on my afternoon walks I watch animals scurrying about to prepare for winter. I think of my own preparations for the year ahead, and how they are as connected to tradition as the squirrels amassing their store of acorns and hazelnuts for the winter ahead. Perhaps it is the season’s bounty or maybe it is because I am with my mother, but I have visions of the foods that will warm me in the months ahead. And while squash and crucifers come into their own in this season, there is perhaps no greater harbinger of fall than the apple.
Whether walking the prairie or preparing food for my mother as she gains strength after her surgery, I think about the foods that sustain us and define who we are and from whom we come. Hearty stews and creamy risottos with butternut squash nourish us in the evening, but my cravings in the morning adjust to the season as well. In my family, the yogurt and fresh fruit of the summer slowly give way to oatmeal and crepes topped with an ingredient that makes me feel all is right with the world: apple butter.
My mother’s mother was of Croatian descent and died when I was relatively young, but certain foods will always remind me of this gemutliche woman who saw food as the magical substance that holds families together. In the kitchen she was an alchemist, never measuring the flour for a strudel or the cups of chopped walnuts to be added to beaten egg whites and honey and then spread on a yeast based-dough and rolled into a potica. These foods are still a part of our family tradition, but her palicinka rolled with apple butter brings her more into focus for me than any other food. The apple butter for these crepes, palicinka is the Croatian word for these thin pancakes or crepes, was made in the same way that she did much of her cooking, with heart and soul instead of measuring cups. She had a faith that her own sense of taste would season the apple butter to the right level, even though the final product would depend on the variety of apples on hand.
Each fall, I follow in her tradition, collecting a bushelful of windfalls, the apples that have fallen to the ground in the orchard with bruises or damage that shortens their storage life. I take this mixed array of apples and transmogrify the fruit into apple butter, spiced with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, the zest and juice of a lemon or two, a cupful or so of apple cider vinegar and water, which is then sweetened to taste with sugar after the apples have cooked down and been blended into their buttery state. (Apple butter does not contain butter, it simply spreads as easily as butter.)
And while I am not one known for putting up tons of jam or preserves for the long haul, I do can some of my apple butter for the season ahead. The process simply requires sterile jars and lids. When I pour in the mixture, the heat of the apple butter seals the containers. And just like the squirrels, I know where to look in the months ahead when I need a little sustenance and connection to home.
Recipe for Grandma’s Apple Butter
Note: This recipe works at any scale. I’ve written it here for a peck of apples (10-12 lbs. or about 32 apples.) If you want less, you could make it with a half-peck, or if you want more, with a bushel (42-48 lbs. or about 126 apples.)
A peck of apples (about 32 apples)
Zest and juice of two lemons
Apple cider vinegar
Sugar, to taste
Cinnamon, to taste
Allspice, to taste
Ground cloves, to taste
- Wash apples. Use an apple corer to remove cores and cut fruit into wedges, cutting away bruised or rotting sections of the fruit. (Do not peel the fruit.)
- Put apples into a very large stockpot. Add water to the pot so that there are a few inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Add a cupful or two of apple cider vinegar. Cover and bring to a boil until fruit is soft, usually about half an hour. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool down before advancing to the next step.
- Puree apples, either using a food mill or chinois, or use an immersion blender to puree the fruit and their skins until smooth.
- Add sugar, spices, lemon zest and juice. Cook on low heat until the mixture coats a chilled plate and is not runny in texture. (Just like testing custard for thickness.) Taste and adjust seasoning adding more sugar or spices, as desired. Process for canning, if desired, following processing directions for hot-pack jams and jellies.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.