Apple butter. Not only was this preserve/condiment a staple in my house growing up and as an adult, it is everything I love about Virginia autumns condensed into a pint-sized jar. There was no consensus to my varied inquiries about which apples or which assortment of apples was the best for apple butter, so after some encouragement from my Canning Sensei, I decided to do an early season and a late season batch. Virginia apples are currently running two weeks ahead of season, so the orchards are filling up with McIntosh, golden delicious, red delicious and even a few tart varietals. I had to seize the unscheduled Saturday that awaited me. We visited Stribling Orchard, my personal favorite, in Markham, Virginia. I'm saving the pick-your-own apple picking for my brother's visit in early October and instead opted for the large pens of apples that the orchard picked for us instead.
The weather was absolutely perfect. Sunny, cool breeze with wispy clouds in the pale blue sky. The minute we stepped out of the car, the smell of apples, baked goods, trees, and country air was intoxicating. I grabbed Em and said enthusiastically, "stop moving and just smell!" We walked towards the main orchard house and sifted through the pens of perfectly ripe apples. The varietals we selected for the apple butter were: 10% Jonathan, 30% Golden Supreme, 60% McIntosh. It was a good assortment of sweet and slightly tart, firm and soft. We left with about 30 pounds of apples and two gallons of locally made apple cider.
Once home, we washed the apples quickly and started the almost two hour long process of peeling, coring, and slicing the apples. We removed the few brown spots we found and made sure to adequately mix all the apple varieties together. I could not have done this without Em, who peeled every single without complaint. I cannot recommend enough the necessity that is a canning buddy.
So many apples were peeled that Em's hands turned into prunes!
The actual process of making apple butter was not recorded beyond this point. Em went to entertain Seamus, who was becoming downright demanding (he loves apples and thinks all apples are being sliced for him), and I couldn't subject my camera to the sticky mess of apple butter canning. I followed the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving recipe as closely as possible, because it was my first solo canning project and I wanted to mitigate problems with the recipe itself and sealing later on. It went pretty flawlessly. I did take the recipe's advice and cut back on the sugar a little bit, and I think in the future I'll use the recipe in Joys of Jams and Jellies. It calls for less sugar and light brown sugar, which will probably enhance the color and caramelization of the butter in general. I also didn't get the right consistency with my food processor, which probably has less to do with the machine itself and my fear of "liquefying" the butter. I wound up using my immersion blender to smooth out the butter later on. A few panicked texts later to Nicole, and I smoothly and efficiently processed 18 pints and 12 half pints of homemade apple butter all by myself. It was an absolutely incredible triumph.
There are a few things I learned from this entire process, too. The first - my hands absolutely HATE canning. Today they feel like I put them through some sort of heated and then cooled medieval torture device. Last night they ached, burned and were dotted with hives. The same thing happened after the original canning party, too. I will likely invest in some of those OveGloves to limited the amount of direct contact my hands have with heat, as well as wear plastic gloves during the prep and filling processes. I also learned that an organized assembly line is key, that you can't have too many kitchen towels, and the sound of cans popping as the seals fall into place is akin to the feeling one might have after winning the lottery. Em was snoozing on the couch when I heard the first pop; I think the sound of my joy inspired a minor heart attack.
All of my jars sealed perfectly and are awaiting their permanent homes. In the coming weeks I'll post a break down of ideas I've had for how to decorate canned food as gifts, and I'll let you know how the late season apple butter turns out! Learning how to successfully can food has been something I have longed to do for years and I cannot recommend enough a simple lesson with an experienced friend or at a local cooking school or business.
Local friends - Nicole will soon be teaching a few canning classes in Eastern Market at Hill's Kitchen. I'll keep you posted with details!