|Farm machinery is fun! And big. Very big.|
Confused? My grandfather was one of 11 children who grew up on a farm in the southeastern corner of Michigan, and one of the things they did every October when the apple crop came in was to preserve some it by making vast quantities of apple butter. Over the years, as the kids grew up and moved to their own farms or away, this became an unofficial family reunion, and, eventually, the official family reunion. They've been doing it for many decades now, and even though nearly all of my grandfather's generation is gone, the farm is still in the family*, and we still meet there every year to peel and chop and stir and gossip and eat.
|A tiny fraction of the peels generated on Friday afternoon.|
When The Cajun and I still lived in western Pennsylvania, it only took us 3 or 4 hours to get over there, so we went pretty regularly, but once we moved east, he couldn't go (though I still hitched a ride with my parents), and then when we moved to Boston, we couldn't go at all. This year, my parents went, and I'm eagerly awaiting their report.
|Southeast Michigan is flat.|
What's apple butter, you ask? Well, it's a preserve, a bit like very concentrated applesauce, but sweeter, and cooked for much, much longer. A friend asked me several weeks ago to share the recipe, and I had to think about it. We don't really have a recipe, we just make it. So this is what I told her:
|First step is to boil down the cider by half. The sleepy dog is optional, and does not go in the cauldron.|
"Honestly, I don't know that we use a recipe, but I'll check with my dad tonight. I know that on Friday morning, they build a fire, set up the copper "kittle" (a cauldron, actually), and start boiling apple cider down to a syrup while the rest of us peel and chop the apples (to do it properly, you'll need at least 10+ bushels and 30-70 German family members. And a barn.). Not sure what happens overnight, but on Saturday, we add the apples gradually as they cook down (they may start cooking them down on Friday night), and stir constantly for 4-5 hours. It helps to have an "overflow" kittle so you can pull some out of the main kittle while you're loading the apples in, then you can add it back to the main pot as things cook down. And we stir constantly, though I'll forgive you if you're not using a wooden stir-stick with cornhusks tied onto it to help scrape the bottom of the cauldron.
|This is the "kittle." The stirring stick has cornhusks tied onto the bottom.|
After all the apples are in (it takes a while, they don't fit at the beginning), you keep cooking... until Aunt R.** says it's done. Seriously, that's how we know. Though I think it's also when you put a glob on a plate, tilt the plate a bit, and no liquid runs out of the butter. Then you add any sugar and seasoning you want (I like cinnamon and very little sugar, depending on the apples, but this varies because half the family is diabetic), stir it in, pull the canning rings and lids out of their hot water bath, slop the apple butter into the jars, finger tighten the rings, flip them upside down, and let them cool. We've never bothered processing them in a hot-water bath because the stuff is like napalm when it goes in. They should seal themselves as they cool, but if you get one that doesn't, just put it in the fridge and eat it first."
|Canning time. Imagine this, times 15 or so.|
In actual fact, once the apples are peeled and cored and chopped, there's not a lot of real work to do, other than stirring, which must be done constantly. But only one person can stir at a time (carefully supervised and criticized by 6-10 other people), so a good chunk of Saturday morning and afternoon (depending on how quickly the apples got processed) is spent sitting around and catching up, eating (farming families know how to do a proper potluck), and making sure any small children present don't hurt themselves on the rope swing in the loft***.
|Stirring needs to be carefully supervised. Preferably while discussing football.|
Once the apple butter is ready, there's another flurry of activity while the spices and/or sugar (and/or sugar substitute) are added, and the jars are filled. Then the potluck dinner comes out, accompanied by some good bread and any apple butter that didn't make it into the jars, everyone eats until their jeans feel tight (and beyond, depending on how good the dessert table looks that year), the shed is cleaned up, the chairs and tables are put away, and everyone waves good-bye and drifts back home.
And then you're left with these delectable jars of fruity brown goo, useful for spreading on toast or pancakes or cornbread or baked chicken, or, if you're feeling generous****, distributing to friends and co-workers.
So you can see why I was sad to not be at the farm this weekend. I really hope Mom and Dad can spare a few of their jars. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go bake some cornbread and see what a jar of the 2010 vintage tastes like.
* One of Michigan's "Centennial Farms," no less. That means it's been farmed by the same family for over 100 years. They have a nice sign that says so.
|It's official: my family is cool.|
** If Aunt R. is unavailable, Cousin W. may be substituted.
*** This is accomplished by demonstrating to them how to swing on the rope. Sometimes you can manage to demonstrate 4 or 5 times before they catch on and demand their turn.
**** Or, like me, you don't eat it fast enough and have jars of several years past still sitting in your pantry.