Fall is the best. It is the best colors, the best food, the best aromas, and, unless you want a winning professional football team, the very best that Northeast Ohio has to offer. Fall is apples and crunchy leaves and early, smoky dusk. It is pumpkins and bonfires and flannel shirts. Fall is a time to listen to Van Morrison and Otis Redding and get sentimental and pleasantly sad about the sweet, distant past.
I have 10,000 happy childhood memories that take place in the fall, but the one I most enjoy re-living is the Apple Butter Festival in Burton, OH. My parents used to take us every year, and when I visit as an adult, the smell of apple butter cooking in giant copper kettles transports me back immediately (it helps that the event takes place in a historic village, so it is truly timeless). As a child, my favorite snack there was a slice of thick white bread spread with warm apple butter, straight from the kettle. My second favorite (and my parents’ very favorite) was the bag of trail bologna and cheese that we’d get to snack on while we walked around. Today, my tastes have veered very, very far from cured meat (my parents would be so disappointed!), and the festival offers kettle corn, so it’s a natural substitute. You can’t walk around the Apple Butter Festival empty-handed! You’ve got to buy something delicious.
Back in the day, you could buy “sugar free” apple butter, which was usually sweetened with some kind of sugar substitute. In my family there are several of us who’ve chosen to watch our sugar intake for one reason or another, so historically there have been a bunch of “sugar free” condiments knocking around. But in 2017, when I am grown up who would like fewer chemicals in my food? What I have to say about that is apples are made of sugar. Here are some quick facts I’m going to use to convince you to make naturally sweet apple butter, no sugar or sugar substitutes needed!
- Apples are 80% sugar.
- Apple butter’s brown color comes from the caramelization of all that sugar.
- You will get a more concentrated apple flavor if you keep the ingredients list short. Don’t bother with the sugar!
So if you really like apples, and want to take on a kitchen challenge that will taste like pure Ohio autumn in a jar, try this recipe! The only thing that makes it a “challenge” is the length of time it takes. Choose a day when you want to sit around looking at old photos while listening to that Van Morrison playlist and occasionally giving a mindless stir to a crockpot. Mine was an especially Ohioish batch, because I used apples from Patterson Fruit Farm – another family tradition. Read on if you’d like the recipe!
[Bonus points if you also make yours in your mother’s Corningware Crockpot from the 1990s–I do own a modern crockpot, but this one still works and I use it for things that are messy or likely to burn. If you’d like to read more about vintage Corningware, the site CorningWare 411 is a treasure trove of info! It’s how I learned that this is the “Forever Yours” pattern, and was only produced from 1990-1993. Which means this thing has been working for a minimum of 24 years!]
No Sugar Spiced Apple Butter
- approximately 4 pounds of apples (any variety you like; I prefer McIntosh or Empire)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- Peel and cut apples into chunks.
- Pile them into your slow cooker; before cooking, these filled my 3-quart pot almost to the top. It seems like a lot, but they cook down a great deal.
- Add ⅓ cup water.
- Cook until apples are very soft – so you can mash them with a fork. LOW for 4-6 hours, or HIGH for 2-3 hours.
- Puree the cooked apples into a smooth sauce. An immersion blender is perfect for this.
- Add spices and stir well. (You can omit any spices, or add more to taste. These are just suggestions.)
- Cook apple butter for another 2-3 hours on HIGH, or 4-6 on LOW. Place the lid at an angle so steam can escape (in this step you are essentially reducing the applesauce into apple butter, and you need any liquid to cook off – see the picture for example). Stir frequently. A heavy rubber spatula is good for this purpose, as you’ll want to scrape the bottom and sides.
- Funnel into clean jars.
- Store in refrigerator, or process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
For info on canning, I recommend this website: Food in Jars.