Every year I look forward to the month of September for many reasons, but mostly because the harvest season with its totally unabashed abundance inspires me to begin really cooking again! Summertime is wonderful with all of it’s light fresh meals, but it’s the long slow braises of autumn and the scents of apple butter, chili and stews that feed my soul at this time of year. If we’re lucky this year, the Indian summer will bring with it bonfires, apples and clambakes and lots of fresh cider. As soon as I feel the first chill in the air I’ll begin to think about making Cidre’, that thoroughly seductive French hard cider that my son and nephew love to drink all winter long as well as delicious slowly baked Apple Tarte’ Tatins that emerge from the oven dripping with butter and oozing with creamy salted caramel. Mornings will start with fresh cinnamon toast from the bakery around the corner spread with spicy homemade apple butter.
I begin longing for these treats in the last weeks of August when plump red apples start falling from my trees and the smell of their ripeness begins to waft through my windows with the warm breeze. Riding the trails this time of year is an incredibly delicious experience with the warm windfall apples crunching under Henry’s hooves , the last of the ripening berries that I can steal from the birds and the sticky sweetness of the molding fallen leaves. When my son Alex was just a little boy,(he's the one in the picture above hanging a bird house in one of our apple trees!) I used to take him apple picking at a farm that was right around the corner. We’d spend the day picking apples and the fragrant concord grapes so ripe that they were covered with wild yeasts. We’d bring a lunch of fresh cheese and warm bread and we’d spend the day playing among the trees , choosing the best apples and coming home with huge bags of fruit. Alex was homeschooled and one year my husband came home to find two huge jars on the sink filled with cider and bubbling very mysteriously. “It’s an organic chemistry experiment dad….we’re making Cidre’ “ my son proudly told his father! Jim looked at me in disbelief, but I was relentless and besides, I knew that he’d love the results!
I think that was the point that my husband officially began to question my sanity, but when the time came to fill the bottles with the sweetly alcoholic brew even he got in on the action. There’s something about the act of putting things by that brings out the provider in every man and I’ll never forget the sight of him helping Alex siphon the liquid from the carboys into the bottles that we’d labeled so proudly. We let the Cidre’ settle for another month or two and then we opened the first bottle. It was perfectly delicious and amazingly fresh and tart!
Apple cordial is easy to make as well. Just take many peeled and cored fresh apples, slice them and put into a bottle of spiced rum. Add more spice if you like, a whole vanilla bean, some whole cinnamon sticks , raisins and a bit of brown sugar or molasses. Shake and then let the whole thing sit for month. Pour it into several pretty bottles and give it as Christmas gifts. This is a wonderfully satisfying treat served in pretty glasses and drunk next to a cozy fire. Add a happy feline and stir!
I have my own apple trees once again and this year I am going to rent a cider press so that I can use my own fresh apple cider to make the first batch of Cidre’ that I will have attempted in many years. I’ll also make apple butter with bourbon and as much chutney as I can bottle. Making apple butter is one of the easiest things that you can do with a surplus of fresh apples. The traditional way calls for a huge copper pot and a bonfire , the way that it’s made every year at the Apple Butter Festival in Burton, Ohio. The Century Village in Burton has a wonderful festival every year where you can see apple butter being made in this way. We used to get up at 5:00 am and meet our friends Bethane and Doc to partake in this particular alchemy….that of turning apples, cider, cinnamon, butter ,sugar and smoke into the rich and golden spread. True apple butter made in this way takes hours to melt it down. First you build the bonfire and then you bring out the cauldron which is literally bigger than a kitchen sink! Add apples and cider and stir with a wooden paddle , every now and then adding more crates of peeled apples. Eventually, the apple butter experts come round and deem the pot fit for canning adding vast amounts of cinnamon, sugar and butter to the already delightful mixture. Every now and then you’ll buy a jar that has a bee in it…. signs of very good luck and a naturally made product!
Lacking a bonfire but owning a wonderful copper pot, I make apple butter every year at home. It’s very simple and makes your kitchen as well as the rest of your house smell incredible. I embellish a little bit simply because I can, but in the end it’s apple butter plain and simple. Try this because its one of the most satisfying Autumn conserves that you can make.
You will need:
Tons of apples, sliced and cored! It’s your call as to peel them or not, I keep the peels on because I like them, but the purists say remove them!
A large bottle of fresh apple cider
Cups of brown sugar
Huge amounts of cinnamon
At least one stick of very good butter
A slow cooker or a large copper pot (the slow cooker works very well ,but it never gets quite as creamy as it will if you stand for hours cooking out the liquid and stirring happy good wishes into the pot!)
Here’s the simple recipe. Put the apples into the pot or cooker, add enough cider to cover and cook for as many hours as it takes to really cook them down . When it’s almost done add the cinnamon to taste, brown sugar and enough butter to have it be silky and smooth.
When it’s done pour it into sterilized glass jars and seal tightly.
Now…. to gild the lily as they say! This simple recipe although wonderful doesn’t quite do it for me. Real apple butter made over a bonfire has a bit of a smoky taste so at the very end I add a bit of organic liquid smoke. Sometimes, I leave it at that, but more than often I’ll add some bourbon, something wonderful like a Woodford Reserve or a Bookers, because you will taste it!
If I want it to be apple chutney instead of apple butter, I’ll make it in the slow cooker and add raisins, lemons , walnuts and onions and a little bit of the liquid smoke. I play with the spices, sometimes adding fresh sage from my garden and sometimes add a bit of brandy or a touch of single malt. To serve add a freshly roasted chicken or a loaf of fresh bread and a large wedge of white cheddar.
Please promise me that you’ll have fun with the harvest this year and make a promise to yourself to put something by even if your stillroom is the teensy kitchen in your apartment. . In the end, that’s what food like this is about , because it’s slow, creative and fresh. Let it become a real part of your seasonal experience and enjoy the journey as well as the results!
Last but not least, I leave you with this little ditty...The Johnny Appleseed song. This lovely song is what my husbands family sings every time they get together. Because there are so many of them and they are some damn musical they sing it acoustically and in 4 part harmony. It's a gorgeous family tradition that has been sung at blessings, funerals , deathbeds and Thanksgivings for many years.
Now, run as quickly as you can over to Roxana Villa's Illuminated Journal ,where she will delight you with her thoughts about the fragrant and lovely Apple and it's place in her wonderful perfumes!
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