If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, many people refuse to take Slate’s infamous invective against apple picking to heart. Lured by the pumpkin-spiced aura of the harvest, overly romantic souls continue to travel to picturesque orchards with light hearts, only to return home freighted with unwanted Jonathan and Granny Smith. A dear friend cried out recently: “Accepting suggestions on what to do with my apple-picking bounty!” The plea was accompanied by a grim photo of the pointlessly picked apples. “What could you possibly do with all of us?” they seemed to demand in chorus. The threat of rotting fruit flesh turns a harvest idyll into a Halloween nightmare.
Luckily for my friend and everyone else who’s visited an orchard this fall, I know a spell for taming your apple glut, and you won’t even need to cast a salt circle (though you will need a pinch of the stuff). I’m talking about apple butter, that happily overcooked apple sauce which contains no actual dairy but does pack the pleasant company of sugar, spice, and everything nice (for our purposes, that last part means booze) into an irresistibly spreadable purée. A mere tablespoon or two is enough to autumnize your morning toast, oatmeal, or slice of pumpkin-beer bread; or in a more savory key, to dress your roasted pork loin in velvety style and add a certain depth to your butternut squash soup.
Making a basic apple butter couldn’t be easier—all you require is the fruit, some fresh cider, a modicum of sugar, and the section of your spice organizer labeled “Warm and Cozy” (you have one of those, right?). Then, it’s just a matter of tossing these into a heated vessel and waiting for the apples to fall apart. But if you aim for higher than basic, consider the following enhancements: a dose of a seasonally harmonious spirit like Applejack (or Calvados, its fussy and pricy European counterpart); a splash of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice (to add acid, which will enhance the complexity you’re after); and, finally, the sleepy smile of a little vanilla.
Two non-standard pieces of equipment will come in handy. First, a slow cooker (aka a Crock-Pot) is basically required—apple butter takes hours to reduce properly, and though some recipes proffer dubious promises of “quick” stovetop cooking, the low and steady heat of a trusty slow-cooker requires less attentiveness and carries far less risk of burning. Second, I highly recommend an immersion blender. If you are at all in the habit of making smooth soups, cooked purées, or vinaigrettes, this convenient and affordable tool will make the blending in your life inestimably easier.
One final suggestion: Use some of it for gifts! Apple butter is a prime candidate for canning, and this recipe will yield more than enough to share with your loved ones in the coming winter festivals. And that, in its own small way, is a kind of magic—tipping apple-cart horror into holiday cheer.
Slow-Cooked Apple Butter
Yield: 5 to 6 cups
Time: 14 hours, mostly unattended
5 pounds (about 10 large) apples, preferably a mix of sweet and tart varieties, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups apple cider
1 cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup Applejack or Calvados
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
Zest and juice of ½ large lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Spread the apple chunks in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast until they’re softened but not very brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples and any juices they’ve released to a slow cooker.
2. Add all the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Cover the pot. Turn the slow cooker to low and cook until the mixture has turned brown and reduced to a chunky purée, about 10 hours. (This is convenient to do overnight.)
3. Remove the lid, turn the slow cooker to high, and cook, stirring occasionally, for an additional 3 hours or longer, depending on the desired consistency. (The longer you cook it, the thicker the butter will be.) Turn off the slow cooker.
4. Purée the apple butter with an immersion blender until completely smooth (or let the butter cool completely before puréeing with an upright blender or food mill). Serve the butter warm or at room temperature. (Keep apple butter in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month, or can it and keep it at room temperature for up to a year.)