The other day I went on a long-ish drive with some children I know pretty well. We had the music cranked.
“This,” said one of these children, whom I would not dare identify, “is a good song for dancing with your butt.”
It’s true. It IS a good song for that kind of isometric boogie you can only do while seated in a car, among other things it is good for. Here's another: if you are driving alone in a deserted area and in a bit of a lather over some injustice or idiocy you have gotten tangled up with, it can be very useful to howl “ANGER IS AN ENERGY. ANGER IS AN ENERGY. ANGER IS AN ENERGY. ANGER IS AN ENERGY,” right along with Mr. John Lydon at the top of your gravelly lungs until you can, in an ‘Om, Shanti’ kind of way, inquire of yourself if you are ready to let that feeling go, and thus make yourself ready to be among people again before you arrive at your destination. I speak hypothetically, of course, but with a degree of confidence that I think the song would also be good for that.
There are other kinds of dancing you can do with your behind. I speak in this moment of the little waggly happy dance that can come of noting that something is very, very tasty. Proper and true apple butter is always likely to make me feel this way. Everyone has their own definition of proper and true, of course, and not just as it pertains to apple butter. Mine is: no sugar, no pie spices, nothing but apples. It should be as tangy as it is sweet, dark in color, and very thick. Absolute essence of apple. If you like the sound of that, but do not want to get your kitchen dirty, buy a jar of this.
I have been on a long, eye-ball threatening journey with recreating this apple butter for several years, and after exhausting (if not exhaustive) research and substantial risk of permanent injury (cooking it on the stove involves dodging a lot of flying apple lava), I think I have it down. I was not going to post about it, because I generally leave posting about canning to people who have invested a lot research in their recommendations. I am not a canning scientist. I just do a lot of canning, a wicked great honking lot of it, and in the course of doing it, note that a lot of people post about canning who don’t seem to have much idea about what common sense dictates to be safe. I do not want to be one of those guys, or to lead others into uncommonsensical territory.
However, though this apple butter could very well lead to dancing, it does not need to lead to canning. It does not yield very much apple butter (at the moment, a low ratio of product to ingredient is very compelling to me), and you can absolutely in all happiness not can it, just eat it and share it with anyone you love enough to share it with. You will not be drowning in the stuff itself, just in the happiness of it.
If you do can it, I think this is a safe product to can, though I disclaim expert insight in this regard. While a batch of the size below only fills three or four jelly jars, it fills about a dozen of those runty little 4-ounce jobs pictured above, and if there is a person on your holiday giving list who would not be happily dancing to receive one of those beauties then you should probably revise the list.
Though this takes a long time to produce, it requires precious little effort. I saw a lot of internet whining about wanting a recipe that only required cooking it for 90 minutes because who has the time to let it cook longer, but since you need to do almost nothing to it while it is cooking, I paid these recipes no heed. Many people will tell you to use a crock pot or slow cooker; these same people will show you how they have draped the area around the slow cooker with towels or sheets or shower curtains or chain mail or asbestos draperies. I have gotten a lot of apple butter in my eye and on my ceiling in the last three years and I do not want any more in either location. This apple butter will not spit at you or your kitchen even one time, requires no special draperies, and you can catch up on your reading while it cooks. You can also pause it at any point in the process. So it’s really largely whine-proof, as near as I can tell, as well as Pure & True (in my opinion).
P&T Apple Butter
About 20 medium apples, or about 8#
About half a cup of apple cider
Optionally, a vanilla bean or two
Core the apples but do not peel them. Cut them in chunks and load them into a large pot. Fill the pot with about 3” of water. Bring this pot to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and continue to cook at a steady simmer, stirring often, until the apples are entirely soft. If you absolutely do not believe that you will be happy with plain apple butter, you can add a split vanilla bean or two to this mixture.
(Here is a little nifty trick to conserve heat and minimize the risk of scorching the bottom: you can stop cooking the apples just shy of done, and let the pot stand, covered, to soften the apples the rest of the way).
If you have engaged a vanilla bean, remove it, but hang on to it. Attack the pot with a stick blender, if you have one, or puree the apples in small batches in a regular blender, taking very good care to vent the steam and not get splattered. It should be very smooth. Like babyfood.
You can pause at this point for as long as you need to; just refrigerate the applesauce once it cools to room temperature. You will probably have about 10 cups. If you don’t, there is absolutely no reason to fret. More will make more apple butter, less will make less.
When you are ready to proceed, heat the oven to 325°. Pour the applesauce (and the vanilla bean, if you are using it) into a low, heavy pan. I use an enameled cast iron baker that just holds this amount; if you have a Pyrex dish, that would also work well. If you only have a stainless steel roasting pan, I would put a cookie sheet under it, to discourage overheating the bottom. I would not use an aluminum roasting pan as it could affect the taste.
Now bake it. Bake and bake and bake it. When it begins to thicken up, or when you will be going out of the house for a couple hours, turn the heat down to 250°.
Bake it more. Stir it periodically, to get the drier, browner bits away from the edges and bottom. Do not worry about lumps. If you need to use the oven to bake something else at a higher temperature, bake the apple butter with it, then turn the heat back down; just be aware that as it cooks down, higher oven temperatures make it more prone to scorching so more stirring is required. Unless you will be in the kitchen with it, keep the heat at 250°.
Pause at any point (my criteria: if I need to leave the house for more than 2 hours or would like to go to bed; sad how often these two coincide) and leave it in the oven after you turn off the heat. I think it is actually better if it rests at least once like this. This batch took about 8-10 hours of baking, but not in a row.
When you have gone from a product that is watery and beige and applesauce-y to a substance very much like shiny spackle that stands up for you like Richard Dreyfus’ mashed potatoes, then you are done. If there are some very brown, almost caramelized parts, be happy. It’s the brown, almost fruit-leathery, caramel bits that will give it flavor.
Now you have ugly stuff that is lumpy and too thick to can. Lucky you!! This is another place that you can suspend operations if you need to.
Ready to proceed? If you have used a vanilla bean, extract it for good, pausing to make sure all its innards have been scraped into the mixture. Scrape the whole mess into a 2-quart saucepan. Add ½ a cup of apple cider. Grab the stick blender again, and have at it until it is completely satiny smooth. It should still be thick, but enough movement should be possible to get it very smooth. If you need a little more cider to achieve easy blending, add it by the tablespoon.
Not canning? You are done. Bon appetit!
If you want to can it, heat a canning pot of water and sterilize 4 half pints or a dozen 4 oz jars, and their lids. Hold the canning water at a simmer. Heat the apple butter over medium heat, stirring almost all the while to prevent scorching, until very hot all the way through. Note its innate desire to spit when not stirred; feel grateful it has only spent these few minutes on the stovetop. Using a sterile soup spoon, fill the jars part way, then tap them on a cushioned surface (a potholder or folded towel) to settle the stuff. Watch for big air bubbles. Tilt and tap until they pop. Fill another third of the way and repeat, until the jar is full to just below the first thread. Wipe the rims and affix the lids. Process 10 minutes in boiling water, and cool in the pot for at least 20 minutes before removing.