Apple butter has been around at least since colonial times in America. It was originally used as a way to preserve apples and a good use for grade B apples. There is no butter or dairy product in apple butter. The name comes from the sweet creamy texture and consistency as well as its use as a spread on bread. It also has many more uses in sauces, breads and pastries. It’s thicker and creamier than applesauce with a sweet caramel and spice flavor. Many people prefer apple butter to dairy butter.
Though apple butter can be made in small quantities using a crock pot, CROCKPOT APPLE BUTTER, the traditional method requires a large copper kettle over an open fire. Harvest time is an important time of year and fortunately apples are usually quite plentiful. Often the challenge is what to do with the surplus apples. Mixing 40 to 50 pounds of apples over an open fire with a large wooden paddle, for hours on end calls for a lot of strong, preferably young arms and backs. Hence, the family or community tradition of the Apple Butter Festival.
This recipe comes to us from high in the Appalachian Mountains where autumn apple butter making is a cultural as well as family tradition. Apple butter festivals are held from New England through the Mid-west, down the Appalachians and across the South. If you haven’t tried this sweet delectable treat, ask your grocer where you can find it on the store shelf.
Better yet, get a bushel of apples and start a new family tradition, or rekindle an old one.
One large family (preferably with teenagers)
One thirty gallon copper kettle
50 pennies (preferably copper ones)
One apple butter stirring paddle
Lots of firewood
Eleven to twelve bushels of apples
40 to 50 pounds of sugar
two boxes of red hots cinnamon candy
4 to 5 ounces of cinnamon oil
Two weeks or so before you plan on making the apple butter, start preparing the apples. It helps if your large family has lots of sisters, or a brother or two, who can’t sleep at night and enjoy peeling apples to wile away the long pre-dawn hours. You prepare the apples by peeling, coring and slicing them. The thinner they are sliced the faster they cook. They need to be clean – the apples that is. Peels and seeds harm the butter.
Now you have to store the peeled apples until it’s time to cook the apple butter. That means you need to either freeze them or cook them down to applesauce and can them. If you cook them down to applesauce and can them it really speeds up the cooking process on the day you make the apple butter. Again, it helps a lot if your large family has lots of sisters that like canning.
On the warm fall day of the apple butter making, get up real early, around dawn. Set up your copper kettle in an open area with plenty of room around it so you can get around it to stir the cooking apple butter. Make sure your pot is level. Put a little water in the bottom of the kettle. Add the pennies. They will keep the bottom of the pot scraped and help prevent sticking and burning. They will also make a nice surprise in the bottom of the jars of apple butter for a kid some Saturday morning next year if you don’t find them all at the end of the day.
Add the apples and build a fire under the kettle. Immediately start stirring the apples. (This is a good time to talk about the last time you made apple butter as a family. It is important to stake out your position on critical issues about how the last batch turned out so as to buttress your recipe preferences this time.) You, or the teenagers in your large family, will be doing this for the rest of the day; continuously. Seriously, all day, continuously, you have to stir non-stop. As the apples cook down, add more apples. Add apples until the pot is full and you run out of apples or until someone threatens the next person to add apples with bodily harm.
You want to keep the fire at a level that keeps a soft boil going in the pot. Cook and stir the apples until they thicken – about seven and a half hours if you started with applesauce, nine and a half to ten hours if you started with raw apples. This may vary depending on the type of apple used. We try to use Wolf River apples as much as possible. We think they are the best apple butter apple and several family members have trees. Other types were also used this year and any type will do. The types of apples that make the best applesauce will usually make the best apple butter as well.
If yellow jackets, hornets or honey bees get into the apple sauce, you can either dip them out or let them cook up as a source of trace proteins, your choice.
Knowing when the apples have cooked down enough to add the sugar is an art, not a science. It is also an endless source of argument. You can always dip some of the cooking apple butter out and let it cool to see how it sets up, but that won’t settle the argument. If you have an aging matriarch in the family, the best way to settle the argument is to take the cooled apple butter to her and let her tell you whether to cook it any longer. Failing that, you just have to endure the arguments of all the wannabe matriarch (and patriarch) contenders (older brothers and sisters and in law) arguing until some kind of consensus is reached that the apple butter is ready for the sugar. No doubt one of them will likely be at least slightly offended.
Add the sugar. Start by adding thirty to thirty five pounds. This will thin the apple butter and require you to cook it for around two hours more. Once the thirty to thirty five pounds of sugar have been added and well mixed, let everyone taste the apple butter. This will start the argument about whether it is sweet enough. One faction will point out that it’s supposed to be tart. Another will call it sour. Add more sugar if you are so brave. Here is where the living matriarch really comes in handy. However, if you don’t have one, the first side to play the matriarch card (“That’s the way Mom liked it.”) wins. And that is how sweet your apple butter will be. If you are using 11 bushels of apples you will probably use around 45 pounds of sugar (unless they were Granny Smiths or some other real sour variety). It is almost guaranteed that at least one or maybe two more family members will be offended by losing this argument.
You now get to repeat the argument over whether it is cooked down and thick enough. This argument should last for the last half hour or forty five minutes before it is done. God help you if it starts sooner – that means you’re going to have runny apple butter because you’ll end up taking it off the fire just to end the argument. This will enable some family members to say, “I tried to tell ‘em...” each time a jar of apple butter is opened over the next few years.
Right before you decide it is thickened up you add the Red Hot Cinnamon candies and cook for just a while longer. I’m told this is for the color because all the cinnamon cooks off. Actually, I think it’s just tradition.
Once the apple butter with sugar is cooked down and thickened you can get it away from the fire either by trying to lift the pot off the fire (very hard and dangerous – don’t tip it over and spill your hot boiling apple butter on anyone) or you can pull the fire out from under the pot. Once you’ve done that, you add the cinnamon oil. Again, the amount you add depends on how cinnamony you like it and this will, of course, precipitate another argument that follows the same course as the argument about how sweet it is. Remember, you are stirring the pot this whole time still. You have to get the oil mixed into the apple butter.
After the cinnamon oil is mixed well into the apple butter, its time to dip the apple butter out of the pot and put it in the jars. We prefer pints and quarts, although some of the family sub-units with lots of kids take it in half-gallon jars. Eleven bushels and fifty pounds of sugar should yield around twenty four or twenty five gallons of apple butter – enough to keep a large family satisfied for two or three years at which time you can get together and do it all again.
Photos and article courtesy of Dan Hardway
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