Whether our walk was through chill New England spires and cemeteries or luxuriant California vineyards, there is a good chance we took a path through the harvest orchard. Even as last week's jack o'lanterns fall to the same natural process of decay and renewal that gives us autumn leaves, the harvest orchard is fulsome with the last of the season's fruit. There are still fat-bottomed pears in rosy d'Anjou or spritely Bartlett to gather from increasingly bare branches. But the harvest orchard is anchored, as it has been since time immemorial, by one of the Mother's most plentiful, magical gifts: apple trees.
Apples have been a trick and a treat for much of recorded history, with a story that goes back at least six thousand years and over seven thousand varieties of this single, singular fruit. Though we think of apples as an all-American treat, the only apple native to North America is the crab apple. Orchard apple trees were not introduced into the Americas until the seventeenth century. However, the apple tree was already thousands of years into human history by that time. Many believe that the apple tree was the earliest tree to be cultivated by human agriculture.
Though there are summer and winter yields, by far the most species of apple ripen for harvest during autumn. Along with the cultivation and harvest of the apple came its storage. Apples dried, cored, cut into disks, and threaded onto strings were one of the first snack foods, with the added benefit of distributing a sweet fragrance through an early homestead that likely benefitted from it. Another common method of storing apples was cellaring: storing the fruit, belowground as the term indicates, in dry beds of straw in barrels or boxes to stave off decay. This presaged the root cellar that was once as common to the American homestead as the water pump. With the advent of safe home canning, that root cellar became not just a storage facility for everything from barrels of apples to braids of onions. It housed rows of sturdy wooden shelves on which were stored the miracle of gleaming jars of food, preserved when it was fresh against times of scarcity.
Apple jelly is one of a home canner's core skills (no pun intended), but the most popular is applesauce. Everyone loves applesauce. It was one of our first treats, spooned in sweet mouthfuls as babies. We carry cups of applesauce in our lunch boxes, serve a side of applesauce with a thick diner pork chop, stir it into our breakfast oatmeal. Every blue-ribbon home canner sends a jar of their finest applesauce to the county fair, while leafers stock up on applesauce in the gift shop during an apple-picking trip. Applesauce was one of the first preparations I made when I started home canning. It was in memory of my grandmother's kitchen, where production was a chore that young hands were drafted into. My job was to wash the Mason jars she put up in.
The basic method to make applesauce is to peel, core and seed anywhere from a pound to a bushel of apples, boil them in a solution of water, sugar and an acid, and mash the result into pulp before hot water bath canning it. I have discovered that roasting the apples improves the texture of the applesauce while bringing out a warm sweet flavor that elevates the end product beyond the baby food jar. This applesauce is sweet and spicy, substantial in flavor and texture, and miracle of miracles, it isn't gloppy. Make two batches -- one for your pantry, and mini jars to tuck into holiday parcels and gift baskets. This applesauce is a lovely accompaniment to a fall dinner of roasted pork tenderloin and green beans or a leafer's luncheon of risotto with mushrooms and fresh lettuces with dates and Manchego.
It is essential to follow safe canning practices. For instructions on safe canning, click here: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html, or here: http://www.freshpreserving.com/getting-started.aspx. This recipe should yield about 4 pints.
3 pounds sweet red apples, such as McIntosh, Fuji, Red Delicious, Gala or an assortment
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Prepare the apples
- Fill a large bowl halfway with cool water. Run a lemon along the counter under your palm. Cut the lemon in half crossways. Squeeze each lemon half over the water, then drop the lemon halves into the water.
- For each apple, peel the apple, safely cut the apple from stem to blossom end to form halves, and cut each half to form quarters. Safely cut out the seeds and core from each apple quarter. Place the peeled, cored and seeded apple quarters in the lemon water as you go.
- Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Butter the bottom and sides of a large rimmed baking sheet or ceramic baker.
- Place the apples prepared in steps 1-2 above into a large colander. Shake the colander well to express excess water.
- Transfer the drained apples to the baking sheet/ceramic baker. Spread the apples into an even layer.
- Sprinkle the top of the apples with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Sprinkle the top of the apples with the light brown sugar.
- Place the apples into the oven and roast until the apples are soft and very fragrant, approximately 35 minutes.
- Remove from the oven once roasted, and set aside until cool enough to work with, approximately 5 minutes.
- Once the roasted apples are cool enough to work with, measure the apple cider vinegar into a large non-reactive pot.
- Add the dark brown sugar to the pot. It is okay if it begins to bubble and dissolve in the vinegar.
- Working carefully, transfer the roasted apples and all accumulated juices into the pot containing the vinegar-brown sugar mixture. Use a silicon spatula to get all of the apple mixture into the pot.
- If there are any large pieces of apple in the mixture, use a potato masher to break them up.
- Turn the heat to medium and cook the mixture, stirring frequently, until thick and very fragrant, approximately 10 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Measure the spices into the mixture and stir the spices through the mixture.
- Prepare canner, jars and lids.
- Place a clean towel on a counter near the canner.
- Use canning tongs to remove hot jars from water bath. Do your best not to touch the hot jars; let the tongs do the work. Place hot jars mouth up on the clean towel.
- Use a jar lifter to transport a jar mouth-side up to the pot containing the hot applesauce. Place a clean canning funnel into the mouth of the jar. Carefully fill the jar with applesauce to the ½-inch mark. Continue until all of the jars are filled. It is okay if there is applesauce left over; refrigerate it for use within 1 month.
- Check for and remove air bubbles if any.
- Use a clean, damp sponge to wipe the rim of each jar. Center a clean, hot lid on each jar. Screw a band down on each jar until it meets resistance; increase just until tight.
- Use canning tongs to return the jars to the boiling water bath. Add more water if necessary to ensure that the jars are completely covered by boiling water by 1 inch. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
- After jars have processed for ten minutes in the boiling water bath, turn off the heat. Remove the canner lid and set aside. Let jars sit in hot water ten minutes.
- After ten minutes, use the canning tongs to remove the jars. Being very careful of the hot jars, lids and liquid, place jars upright on the towel. Allow to sit 24 hours. After 24 hours, check for a vacuum seal (see instructions). Label each jar with the contents and the date prepared. Safely prepared, stored and sealed, the jam will keep for one year from date of preparation.