If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, many people refuse to take Slate’s infamous invective against apple picking to heart. Lured by the pumpkin-spiced aura of the harvest, overly romantic souls continue to travel to picturesque orchards with light hearts, only to return home freighted with unwanted Jonathan and Granny Smith. A friend cried out recently: “Accepting suggestions on what to do with my apple-picking bounty!” The plea was accompanied by a grim photo of the pointlessly picked apples. “What could you possibly do with all of us?” they seemed to demand in chorus. The threat of rotting fruit flesh turns a harvest idyll into a Halloween nightmare.
Luckily for my friend and everyone else who’s visited an orchard this fall, I know a spell for taming your apple glut, and you won’t even need to cast a salt circle. I’m talking about apple butter, that happily overcooked apple sauce that contains no actual dairy but does pack the pleasant company of sugar, spice and everything nice (meaning booze) into an irresistibly spreadable purée. A mere tablespoon or two is enough to autumnize your morning toast, oatmeal or slice of pumpkin-beer bread; or in a more savory key, to dress your roasted pork loin in velvety style and add a certain depth to your butternut squash soup.
Making a basic apple butter couldn’t be easier – all you require is the fruit, some fresh cider, a modicum of sugar, and the section of your spice organizer labeled “Warm and Cozy.” Then, it’s just a matter of tossing these into a heated vessel and waiting for the apples to fall apart. But if you aim for higher than basic, consider the following enhancements: a dose of a seasonally harmonious spirit like Applejack (or Calvados, its fussy and pricey European counterpart); a splash of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice; and, finally, the sleepy smile of a little vanilla.
Two nonstandard pieces of equipment will come in handy. First, a slow-cooker is required – apple butter takes hours to reduce properly, and though some recipes proffer dubious promises of “quick” stove-top cooking, the low and steady heat of a trusty Crock-Pot requires less attentiveness and carries far less risk of burning. Second, I highly recommend an immersion blender.
Slow-Cooked Apple Butter
5 pounds (about 10 large) apples, preferably a mix of sweet and tart varieties, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups apple cider
1 cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup Applejack or Calvados
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
Zest and juice of ½ large lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ ground ginger
∂ teaspoon ground cloves
∂ teaspoon ground allspice
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the apple chunks in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast until they’re softened but not very brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples and any juices they’ve released to a slow cooker.
Add all the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Cover the pot. Turn the slow cooker to low and cook until the mixture has turned brown and reduced to a chunky purée, about 10 hours. (This is convenient to do overnight.)
Remove the lid, turn the slow-cooker to high, and cook, stirring occasionally, for an additional 3 hours or longer, depending on the desired consistency. (The longer you cook it, the thicker the butter will be.) Turn off the slow-cooker.
Purée the apple butter with an immersion blender until completely smooth (or let the butter cool completely before puréeing with an upright blender or food mill). Serve the butter warm or at room temperature. (Keep apple butter in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month, or can it and keep it at room temperature for up to a year.)
Makes 5 to 6 cups.