To know me is to know that I love apples. They’re one of the few local fruits I can eat fresh the cold winter long, comforting me with their crisp tart sweetness when most other fruits are but a whisper of anticipation.
A couple of years ago I wrote a post called Musings on Apple Madness, exploring my love for apples and the nostalgia they evoke. I just re-read it and was moved again by the memories of gathering windfall apples with my mother on cold autumn days at a time in my childhood on the farm when frugality was a necessity. That didn’t preclude us from living richly, though. After all, I grew up thinking that delicious homemade food like apple pies encased in flaky pastry were normal fare.
You can imagine how pleased I was to be contacted by a representative for the Ontario Apple Growers, asking if they could send me a box of apples (oh, yes!) to cook with and write about. In due course, a beautifully packaged box of Ambrosia apples arrived on my doorstep from Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo.
The Ambrosia variety was new to me. The ones I received are quite large, with a lovely rosy skin offset by sunny yellow patches. Beautiful to look at, hefty to hold. The flesh is creamy in colour, firm and juicy, and the taste is sweet and mild. They remind me somewhat of a golden delicious apple, yet they’re unique. These apples hold their shape well during cooking, an important consideration in knowing which apples to choose for a specific recipe.
I knew right away that the first thing I wanted to make with my treasure trove of Ambrosias was apple butter. I was surprised to learn on Wikipedia that apple butter originated in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in the Middle Ages. Although my parents are Belgian, we never ate apple butter when I was growing up. In fact, I had only a vague awareness of it until I met the Culinary Enthusiast. He enjoys it on toast for breakfast and always buys a jar when we visit local apple farms. I’ve also learned that apple butter can be used as an ingredient in other recipes, as you’ll be seeing in future posts.
The recipe that follows is my own, developed to cater to our tastes. Most apple dishes are enhanced by using a medley of apples, so I used four varieties that were grown right here in Ontario: Ambrosia, McIntosh, Empire and Fuji. I added maple syrup for that Canadiana touch, but kept the sweetness level dialled down. The spicing is restrained; I didn’t want the flavour of apples to be overwhelmed by bold spices. Since I have a juicer, I made my own Ambrosia apple juice to use in the recipe, helping to keep the apple flavour at the forefront.
After some internal debate, I decided to leave the apples unpeeled. I confess that my primary motivation was to avoid the work, but for a more noble (yet secondary) rationale, I also wanted to take advantage of the natural pectin in the peel to help the apple butter set. However, although I pureed the cooked apples extensively with an immersion blender, there are still small bits of peel in the final product. Personally, I don’t mind them but next time I might go for a smoother texture by either peeling the apples or passing the puree through a strainer before adding the spices.
While it’s possible to make apple butter in a slow cooker, reducing the amount of labour on the part of the cook, I wanted my first attempt to be the stovetop experience. Next time I’ll use the overnight slow cooker method, but I’m glad I tried the old-fashioned way first (okay, so I didn’t use a copper kettle over an outdoor fire; stovetop was as old-fashioned as I was willing to go).
Yes, there was a lot of stirring involved, but I made the apple butter on a day when I didn’t need to leave the house. Altogether it took about 6 and a half hours to go from apples to apple butter, with very frequent stirring. When I was working in the kitchen I turned the heat up slightly because I could stir more frequently, but otherwise the pot was on the lowest simmer. Let’s just say I got a lot of exercise going back and forth to the kitchen.
During the extensive cooking time, the mixture reduced by about half, deepening in colour and intensifying in flavour. When it was done it was no longer runny, and a dollop placed on a plate kept its shape in the refrigerator. Close your eyes and imagine how good my house smelled with the scent of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves perfuming the air for hours.
So, how did it turn out? Oh, swoon. The apple butter is rich in colour, and fragrant with the sweet aroma of apples and undertones of warm spices. It tastes like the essence of apple pie, magnified. This version is far less sweet than purchased products I’ve sampled in the past. I’m pretty confident the Culinary Enthusiast will be sourcing his apple butter from the canning cupboard from now on.
Making apple butter is a slow journey, but the destination is worth it.
DISCLOSURE: The Ontario Apple Growers provided me with a box of Ambrosia apples from Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo, to cook with, photograph and post about on my blog. I received no compensation for this. All opinions are my own and my love for apples is genuine.
I’ll be publishing a series of posts featuring Ambrosia and other apples. All the links will be available here.
For best results, use a combination of apples varying in sweetness/tartness. Texture is not an issue for this recipe as the apples are puréed once cooked down. You’ll notice the amounts of spice that I’ve used seem minimal. Since the applesauce was going to reduce significantly, I knew the flavours of the spices would become more concentrated through the process. The following is the recipe as I made it; you, of course, are free to tweak it as you choose and create your very own “house” apple butter.
- 5 lbs apples, each cored and cut into 8 wedges (I used 4 Ambrosia, 2 McIntosh, 5 small Empire and 2 Fuji, all grown in Ontario)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 cup apple juice (I used freshly made, unfiltered Ambrosia juice)
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place the apple wedges and the water into a large Dutch oven. Cover and bring to a boil, then stir and turn the heat to simmer. Stir a couple of times. After about 30 minutes or so, the apples will be soft and your kitchen will smell like apple heaven. Remove the pot from the stove and puree thoroughly with an immersion blender, grinding the apple skins as fine as possible. This yielded about 7-1/2 cups of apple puree.
Set the pot of apple puree over low heat. Add the spices, salt, sugar, maple syrup, apple juice and lemon juice and, stirring well, bring back to a slow bubble with the pot uncovered. Reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, ensuring the sauce isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pot. It’s important to keep the pot uncovered to aid in reduction of the puree, but I used a splatter screen to guard against occasional spitting bubbles. Continue for about 6 hours or until the mixture has reduced by roughly half and is beautifully darkened and thick.
Apple butter will keep in a sterilized jar in the refrigerator for about a month, which is why I decided to can 3/4 of my batch, leaving one jar unprocessed for use right away. Since I’m a novice canner, having started only last summer, I’m not going to provide detailed canning instructions here. There are numerous online sources for step-by-step canning directions.
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