Sunday, November 18, 2012

Apple Butter, a.k.a. the easiest stuff to can, EVER!

Ah, fall! The leaves have long since left our trees, but there are still oodles of autumn produce to be had. I have been buying apples by the half bushel from a sweet gal who sold at the farmer's market over the summer. She joined up with my awesome grassfed meat source, and now they both deliver bi-weekly a few miles from my house. You really can't top the convenience, especially this time of year! These apples are good eatin'! They are grown locally with a minimum of pesticides, and you can taste the difference right on the skin. Store bought apples have such a bitterness to their skins, but my farm apples aren't bitter in the least.

Now, a half bushel is a huge amount of apples, especially when a lot of them are on the smaller side. I couldn't refrigerate them if I wanted to. At first this wasn't a problem. My boys go through apples like crazy. They could polish off a 3lb bag of apples in three or four days, tops. Bulk was not only more convenient, but cheaper! Is it just me, or have there not been any major apple sales this year? I don't recall pears going on sale when they were in season, either. Stupid inflation.

Where was I? Oh yeah, bulk apples. (count yourself lucky, I almost went on a political/economic rant right there) The first half bushel of apples, my boys were in heaven. I left the box on my kitchen floor and they were able to help themselves throughout the day. Two weeks later, they had just about finished the box when I picked up the next half bushel. This time, they slowed way down. I think they're suffering from apple burnout. After a week, the apples began to bruise, which dramatically increased the rejection rate. AC does not dig blemishes on fruit. At all. If his banana has the slightest brown on it, I have to hand it to him strategically so he can't see the spot before he eats it. Parenting is all about strategy and outwitting the other side. Or is that in battle? Eh, same thing.

That's right, I said bedtime.
What is a gal to do with half a box of bruised apples? Well, can them, of course! I immediately hopped on pinterest (better than google in my world) and started searching for different ideas. BAM, it hit me. Apple butter. But not just apple butter, apple butter made in the CROCK POT! I absolutely LOVE apple butter, but the store bought stuff is guaranteed to be laced with high fructose corn syrup. Where's the fun in that?

Let me tell you, apple butter in the crockpot is so rediculously easy, and so dadgum DELICIOUS, that I immediately had to make more. I promptly ordered another half bushel, and even told them they could include imperfect and bruised apples. It really doesn't matter with apple butter, and I figured it helped them unload produce they might have been stuck with otherwise.

I'm writing down what I did mostly to remind myself for next year. If you want a more formal recipe, this one at is really informative. This is a great project to start in the evening after kids go to sleep.

I started by slicing as many apples as would fit in two of my crockpots. (5qt and 7qt) The apples shrink a lot as they cook down, so I decided to cook down two crocks, then combine them when it came time to can them up. I left the skins on my apples, both for nutrition and bulk, but if you insist on a perfectly smooth apple butter, I'd recommend cutting them off. My stick blender couldn't get every last piece, although it is mostly smooth.

Then, I topped each crock with 1/4 cup sugar (next time I use brown sugar), cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, and a wee bit of cardamom. All spices were eyeballed, because I can't be bothered to measure them. I add the initial sugar to help draw out moisture from the apples. There is absolutely no need for additional liquids when I cook them like this. Fewer liquids = less simmering time. I opted for fresh ginger over dried, simply because I LOVE fresh ginger and I always have some on hand. I'll save the ground ginger for gingerbread. Oh, gingerbread... now I'm hungry.

Stay on target, Maria, stay on target.

I am now envisioning myself flying across the surface of the Death Star.

I think I'm off target.

GINGER. I was talking about ginger. Be forewarned, if you use fresh ginger, it will not break down while cooking and the stick blender won't catch it. I happen to love bits of fresh ginger. Others (Hubby included) don't. Your call. Unless I'm doing the cooking, then it's my call. Sorry, Hubby.

Once all the spices were in, I threw the lid on, set it to low, and went about my evening. Every few hours, I took a peek to see if the apples had shrunk down. If there was room, I diced up another half dozen apples and stirred them in. I continued adding until I had used up the entire half bushel. As soon as all your apples are added, you can ignore the sucka for the rest of the night.

In the morning, my kitchen smelled like apple magic and happiness. For real. The apples were super soft and ready for the stick blender. If you don't have a stick blender, I have heard of people using hand held mixers. At this point I suggest tasting it, and adding sugar and spices to suit your tastes. Immediately after I finished canning my batch, I happened upon a recipe that included vanilla extract. WHY didn't I think of that? I'm totally doing that next year.

The next step kinda depends on your crock pot. You want to get your puree up to a simmer. One of my crocks was simmering on low, while the other one had to be cranked up to high. Once it's simmering, you can take the lid off and let it cook down over the course of the day. Stir it every once in a while, or whenever you can't resist leaning over the pot to sniff the goodness. As soon as it is as thick as you like, you're done. Hot foods are always more runny than room temp or refrigerated, so it might help to scoop some on a plate and chill it. You can do this whenever you're curious. Or hungry.

I started simmering my apple butter about 9:00am and it was done about 4:00 in the afternoon. To make life easy, I decided to combine everything into my 7qt crock (it BARELY fit) and leave it be until the kids went to bed at 8:00. Next step: canning!

The link I incuded above gives very thorough canning instructions, so I will send you there for the details. Below are just my notes.

  • A half bushel of apples netted me 21 half-pint jars of apple butter, or approximately 5 1/2 quarts. I'm hoping this will last us a year!
  • From start to finish, the canning part of things took me about 4 hours, but I know I could pare that down quite a bit.
  •  I have two water bath canners, and when you're doing big batches like this it is AWESOME! It cut my processing time in half, although I think my poor stove wept for joy when I was done. Canners are huge!
  • I always forget how long it takes to bring the water to a boil initially. It must have taken close to 2 hours between the two of them. Factor that in if you want to start canning as soon as kids are asleep. You can have the water heating during the bedtime routine.
  • One HUGE canning tip I learned this time around, is to add a splash of vinegar to your canning water. Canners, especially the racks, will rust. Guaranteed.  Adding vinegar to the water works some mojo and not only prevents but REMOVES rust from the pot and rack! Be forewarned, if your rack is super rusty and you soak it in vinegar water, you will get all sorts of nasty floaty bits in the water. Better to give bad rust a soak before you use it to can.
I am REALLY impressed with how easy this was. I essentially spent two evenings on it, with a little stirring in between. The first evening was chopping apples, a job that can be done in front of the TV (or radio, if you're feeling old-timey). The second evening was the canning, but considering it was only four hours (and most of that waiting for water to boil), there was very little work involved. Very few actual hours invested, and I now have a year's worth of sweet apple butter. I'd love to try it in baking, but for that I may have to make another batch. These jars are going to be as closely guarded as my spiced blueberry jam!

(I know, it's cruel to do an apple butter post without showing apple butter. But since I can't find my camera I'm going to post this now and update with a few beauty shots later.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Garden Recap 2012

Not my 'maters. Image Credit
This year I managed to clear a little 4'x8' patch in the backyard, and in it I crammed four Roma tomatoes, three jalapenos, three sweet frying peppers, and four cabbages. Yes, they all somehow fit. The cabbage ended up a bust, because I planted them late and they were devoured by some little buggy.

Only parts of it managed to get 6-7 hours of full sun, but somehow my little patch of tomatoes and peppers did phenomenal! That is, until they got walloped by a nasty combo of septoria leaf spot and late blight. I didn't notice it until it had gotten a strong foothold, and I was reluctant to spray heavy pesticides on them. It's a shame, too, because my Romas were absolutely covered in tomatoes! Once the blight got to them, it was over. Unripe tomatoes were falling off the vine daily, and whatever managed to hang on was covered in blight spots. I did get enough good fruit to try several batches of fermented salsa. That was interesting. I'm still getting the hang of fermenting. Most of my attempts have worked out well, but many of them are too salty for me to enjoy. The salsa wasn't too bad though, and I think I'd try it again if I had the chance. It was far less effort than canning!

My peppers fared better than the tomatoes against the spot/blight combo. To my surprise, the blight didn't cross over until very late in the season. There was very little effect on production, thank goodness, but I had no idea how many jalapenos I could get from three plants! WOW! I only wish I had been more prepared for the harvest, because most of it ended up sitting in my kitchen until it went bad.  I did make a small batch of candied jalapenos (also called cowboy candy!) and those turned out really good! It's horribly full of refined sugar, but the syrup is my favorite part. Sweet and hot, it's awesome on burgers or even salads! I definitely want to try that again next year! Assuming I get my butt organized in time...

I think my plants did well in their plot for two main reasons:
1) I fertilized them weekly for the first half of the season (non organic. sorry), and kept them reasonably well watered despite a very dry, hot first half of the summer.
2) The full sun lasted until early afternoon, effectively shading the plants during the hottest part of the day. Normally that would be a problem, and I think it was part of my blight problem during the wet second half of the season, but for our unusually hot, dry early summer it was exactly what they needed.

The worst part of all this, is thanks to the intense leaf spot and blight, I will not be able to plant tomatoes or peppers in my plot for at least three years. To add insult to injury, a few scraggly pepper plants that I had planted out front also came down with blight, so I have no place to plant tomatoes in-ground without digging up a new plot. Nuts.

So what have I learned this past year? First, if I'm going to grow something, I had better be prepared with half a dozen different ways to use up the harvest, and at LEAST one that requires little or no effort. Wasting produce is to have wasted every minute and every dollar spent on gardening. Second, I need to make sure I inspect my plants regularly. If I had kept a closer eye on my tomatoes I might have caught and eliminated the blight before it wrecked my plants and poisoned my soil.

I have already thought a lot about the past year and how I want to improve, but that will have to wait until my next post. Yep, I'm already planning next year's garden. What can I say, I'm a committed planner!