Monday, September 29, 2014

Bramley Apple Butter



This time of year in my hometown of Paintsville, everyone is gearing up for the Kentucky Apple Festival, or Apple Day as it's more commonly known by the locals, which takes place annually during the first weekend in October. It's the biggest event of the year in our little town and though it's been 11 years since I've attended the festival, it's one of the things I miss the most about home. Stages line the streets with live music to entertain festival goers, there's a parade, craft tents pop up all over town selling handmade wares and there are competitions for local students to showcase their talents in math, spelling, old fashioned costumes and penmanship. A full schedule of events starts a week before with everything from dog shows and beauty pageants to a carnival and an old fashioned car show. It's a fun time to live in such a small town as it seems there's nowhere to turn without seeing a familiar face and the street food is incredible. Local businesses, church groups, organizations and even big names like Bob Evans line the streets with food trucks serving things like tiger ears, funnel cakes, caramel apples, sausage biscuits and all things apple, including apple butter.

Just as sure as the leaves turn in Autumn, one thing you can always count on back home in the Fall is apple butter, a sort of spicy version of apple sauce that's slow cooked and primarily enjoyed on toast or biscuits. If your family doesn't make it, someone you know does and folks are just as generous as they can be, giving a jar to anyone who stops by for a cup of coffee and a chat. It's not uncommon to get a mason jar of homemade apple butter for your birthday or Christmas as a gift and it's just about the best present ever. Many women work tirelessly with either apples they've grown or a "mess" of apples given to them by a neighbor, to put up for the colder months what won't grow again for a year, making a lasting bounty out of the Autumn's harvest, using their own family recipe that's been handed down for generations. For those who aren't lucky enough to have an apple butter maven in their family, Apple Day is the place to be. Locals churn this sweet & spicy confection in large barrels over open flames for hours and the smell of apple & cinnamon lingers through the air. It's a sign that Autumn has officially started and the whole town smells like freshly baked apple pie. It's better than any candle money can buy.

After leaving the US 6 years ago for further pastures where I could no longer expect a parcel in the mail with 2 jars of apple butter every Autumn, I decided it was time to start making my own. Surprisingly, it's not as difficult as I had imagined given that I usually make just one or two jars, enough for my husband and I to eat over a few weeks, unlike my mother who might put up 50 or 60 jars at a time, using a pressure cooker and proper canning methods. Living in England where Bramley apples are a seasonal delight and used in crumbles and tarts savored at dinner tables across the country, I decided to try my apple butter with an Anglo influence this year.

The one thing I'll say about making apple butter is that you probably can't really go wrong unless you burn it. Through the years I've always been surprised that I've never tasted two versions that were the same. I like mine with a heavy taste of cinnamon, while many prefer it to be quite sweet. You can use any apples you can get your hands on, but different variations produce different tastes and textures. One of my grandmothers used to put hard cinnamon candies in her apple butter to give it a different flavor and make it bright red, while others keep the cinnamon content low and therefore the end result is more of a light reddish brown color. I encourage you to experiment, tasting as you go and sweeten or add cinnamon as it suits you, but this is my recipe which you can use as your guide.


Ingredients

8 Bramley apples
50g unsalted butter
2 cups tightly packed soft light brown sugar
Pinch of sea salt flakes
1 teaspoon allspice
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 cups water

Method

  1. Peel and core the apples and cut them into 1 inch chunks or thereabouts. Tumble them into a crockpot, although if you don't have a crockpot or slow cooker, just use a casserole with a lid that's appropriate for stovetop cooking.
  2. Turn the crockpot on high as you prepare to add the other ingredients. If using a casserole dish stovetop, use low heat. It's better to adjust the heat later than to burn the apples.
  3. Add the butter, brown sugar, salt, allspice and cinnamon. Stir with a wooden spoon until you see the butter and sugar start to melt and turn a deep brown color, coating the apples. 
  4. Add the water and stir again, making sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom.
  5. Clamp on the lid and stew for 4 to 6 hours, stirring occasionally. I try to stir at least once an hour, breaking up pieces as the apples soften.
  6. Once the apple butter is fully softened and resembles apple sauce, it's done. If it's too watery and you'd prefer it thicker, take the lid off and leave to simmer on super low heat until it starts to reduce, stirring occasionally.
  7. Once you have the consistency you like, either transfer the apple butter to a jar with a lid to cool or if you prefer, run it through a food processor or blender to make it smooth. (I never bother with this step.)
  8. Serve warm or cold on hot buttered toast, between two slices of buttered bread as a sandwich, on muffins or as a condiment on pork or sausage dishes. 
Note:
If you have the time (and the patience), try cooking your apple butter on low heat for much longer. Some people even cook it over night. However, I must say that the aroma that fills the house is rather tempting, so I rarely do it this way… My greedy impatience demands a quicker cooking time.
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