I made apple butter this weekend, and it got me thinking about that amazing fruit.
Brought to the Appalachians by English settlers, apples have sustained generations of mountaineers. This nutritious fruit became such a popular and important dietary staple that most families had at least one tree growing on their homestead.
Mountaineers valued the apple for its versatility. It could be successfully stored throughout the winter, providing fresh food through the long, dark months. The apple could also be prepared in numerous ways, including being cooked into apple butter, baked apples, apple crisp, fried apples, applesauce, apple fritters, apple dumplings and of course, apple pie. They could also be dried or pressed into cider for even longer preservation.
In the early years of our country, growers produced nearly 800 varieties of their beloved apples. Now, only 10-30 varieties are commonly grown. Fortunately, Western North Carolina remains a large apple producer and has farmers who are preserving heirloom varieties with names like American Beauty, Arkansas Black, Buncombe and Carolina Pippin.
Most apples ripen between August and November, so this fruit has long been associated with fall. Down through the years, apples have taken center stage in fall gatherings in the mountains. Families and neighbors gathered to press cider, slice and peel apples for drying or to stir big batches of apple butter over an outside fire.
Apple butter making steals my heart. The wonderful aroma of cooking apples mingled with wood smoke in the cold air seems to me to be the very epitome of not only the season but also of our tradition. However, when I was growing up my mother made small batches of apple butter in the crockpot. When I got home from school the whole house smelled wonderful and I could hardly wait until suppertime to spoon the dark sauce over homemade bread.
Actually, apple butter is a great place to start cooking with apples. If you have a crockpot (or can borrow one) and can slice an apple, you can make apple butter. Why not try it this fall and cook up some of your memories?
This is my adaptation on traditional apple butter. Look for heirloom cooking apples at your local farmer’s market to use in this recipe.
12 medium cooking apples
1 ½ cups milled cane sugar
½ cup apple cider
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground clove
¼ teaspoon vanilla
pinch of sea salt
1. Peel, core and cut apples into chunks.
2. Mix all ingredients in a crockpot slow cooker.
3. Cover and cook on high setting for 4-5 hours on high setting or for 8-10 hours on low setting or until apples are very tender.
4. Mash apples with hand masher.
5. Cook uncovered on high setting for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until mixture is very thick and most liquid has cooked off. Cool.
6. Spoon apple butter into containers. Cover and store in refrigerator up to 3 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months.