Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Apple jam

Somehow eating apple butter has always seemed like a reward to me. Strange, because there was probably always a jar of apple butter hanging out in the fridge when I was growing up, and I don't seem to remember my family doling out selectively for good test grades or feats of civic responsibility. Maybe it's because apple butter is a delicious but oft-forgotten entry in its culinary category--the ginger ale of spreadable fruit, the tater tot of fall jams--so easily neglected in favor of grape jelly or orange marmalade. Perhaps eating apple butter is your reward for remembering that apple butter exists in the first place.

I started making my own apple butter in 2005 and since then the experience of eating it has become even more rewarding. That first batch was pretty terrible--overcooked, caramelized to bitterness, lumpy, burnt on the bottom, whole cloves and shards of cinnamon threatening your dental work with each bite of your English muffin. Needless to say, it didn't win any awards at the 2005 Burton-Conner Apple Bake. Still, I treasured it, or at least treasured the idea that apple butter was something I could make in the comfort of my own dorm. I scooped the leftovers into a little Mason jar, which I stashed it all the way in the back of the dorm fridge lest it be discovered by a hungry floormate in the middle of an all-night 2.005 problem set. It was the rose growing on my little asteroid.

Over the years my technique has improved as I've upgraded my hardware, gotten more practice, and settled into a recipe that I dig. And as my confidence has increased, so have the quantities of apple butter I've made increased astronomically. This year's haul weighed in at seventeen pounds before canning. Okay, seventeen is not really an astronomical quantity, unless you mean seventeen parsecs.

But I did need to add an entire five-pound bag of sugar to my twelve pounds of apple puree, and that is a pretty large if not quite astronomical quantity of sugar. This is probably the first time I've used a whole bag of sugar to make just one recipe. It was kind of cathartic. Said apple puree subsequently took me no less than ninety minutes to push through my double-mesh strainer. Most of that was accomplished in the midst of a phone conversation with Sam's Mom ("How's school going?" "THIS IS SO ANNOYING."). I am thinking about enlisting some helpers next year, but I'm not sure that I trust anyone to take the smoothness of apple butter as seriously as I do.

Was it all worth it? Smite me if I'm being too prideful, but I'm pretty sure that not only would this year's apple butter have won the 2011 Burton-Conner Apple Bake, but MIT would probably award me a doctorate if I sent a jar of it back to the department of chemical engineering. Okay, maybe that sounds a little ridiculous, but so does pushing apple butter through a damn sieve for an hour and a half.


Recipe roundup...

Slow-cooker apple butter recipe from Ad Hoc At Home by Thomas Keller. I used 20 pounds of Pippin apples because that's what Jeff got in his mystery farm box. I also cut the vinegar in the first step by half. I might have added a little extra lemon juice at the end to make up for it. Also I used white vinegar instead of champagne vinegar because I am a grad student. My crockpot broke halfway through stewing the apples, so I just did it in a pot over super low heat and it worked just fine. Incidentally, apple butter is the only thing I ever used my slow-cooker for, and is also the only recipe in Ad Hoc At Home that requires a slow-cooker. TK and I are simpatico.


  1. You've been making apple butter since 2005 and I never got to taste any? Mitra was holding out on me!

  2. What a lovely autumn afternoon read! Also, where in the world did Jeff get 20 pounds of apples?! My mind is imploding (with pleasure) trying to imagine that many apples.

    Love you,