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Apple butter—or how to capture autumn

November 14, 2009

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The inspiration to make my first batch of homemade apple butter wasn’t whispered to me from a copper kettle, but came instead from a cupcake and a rather bold claim.

In Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (Marlowe and Co., 2006), authors Moskowitz and Romero proclaim their Apple Cider Cupcakes, made with both apple butter and spiced apple cider, “the quintessential fall cupcake.” True, aromas of apples and spice are the breath of fall. But theirs is a statement one should on principle investigate fully—especially if it means trying one’s hand at making apple butter.

Most apple butter recipes involve heaping mounds of roughly chopped apples into a pot or kettle, slathering on honey or brown sugar, dusting generously with cinnamon, cloves and allspice, and moistening with apple cider before cooking for hours and hours, a penny in the bottom of the pot for those who believe the old wives tale about how to prevent burning.

During hours of cooking, the sugars caramelize languidly, mixing with the spices to form a rich, deeply fragrant concoction, an unctuous russet spread. Many find the name “butter” misleading; but the flavor is so concentrated that, in a way, cream is to butter as apples and spice are to apple butter. And it is often spread on crusty bread for breakfast. Perhaps apple ambrosia would be a better name?

In Pennsylvania and the Appalachian region, apple butter is a tradition many claim was brought from Europe by immigrants of German descent in the 18th century. A recipe in The Kentucky Housewife (1839), perhaps the first printed (see Lynne Olver’s www.foodtimeline.org), is emphatic about using sweet, mellow apples and apple cider fresh from the press. But using granny smiths—and, in some recipes even adding a dash of apple cider vinegar—can give apple butter a tart touch that complements the honey’s sweetness, the spices’ richness.

In my recipe searches, I discovered that for many in the American apple butter heartland, this treat is as emblematic of fall as persimmons are for me (see my recent post), and is deeply rooted in a sense of community and history. I came across detailed instructions, nostalgia-tinged descriptions of childhood autumn breakfasts, advertisements for apple butter kettles in sizes ranging from 5-50 gallons (Lehman’s online), and announcements for annual Apple Butter Festivals where the all-important communal copper kettle stirring is set in an historic cider mill, or surrounded by civil war enactments, horseshoe tournaments, and church-organized picnics.

I haven’t had a chance to make a loaf of bread that might do my apple butter justice; but I did discover that it’s wonderful on buckwheat pancakes—a breakfast whose flavors remind me of Brittany.

Other classic fruit butters include peach and prune, and fall’s pumpkins and butternut squashes also cook down beautifully with spices, so you can capture the flavors of pumpkin pie on your morning toast.

More on the cupcakes later.

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