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Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble: Homemade Apple Butter Recipe

Remember the three witches from Macbeth [1]?  In the first scene of Act IV, those wacky witches, or weird sisters, as they are sometimes called, are found hovering over a big vat  filled with some kind of gurgling, hissing, spitting substance, while chanting  “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.” It’s never revealed what exactly is in that cauldron, but I’m guessing it was apple butter.

I came to this conclusion after my recent experience making my own batch of apple butter. Except that instead of a cauldron, I used a Dutch oven.  But, there was a lot of bubbling, gurgling and spitting.  And, even though I’m not a witch, I may have done a little chanting too.  You know, just to help things along.

For the record, I’d never made apple butter before.  I never needed to.  Believe it or not, the artsy, chi chi, touristy resort town that I live in is also home to a small, yet well established Amish enclave called Pinecraft [2].  That’s right.  Right smack dab in the middle of our chic little slice of suburbia with its opera house, designer shops and art galleries, lies a thriving Amish community complete with roadside fruit stands, horse-drawn buggies and of course, country cookin’ restaurants.  Anytime I felt the urge for some delicious, homemade apple butter,  all I had to do was pop over to Pinecraft and pick some up.  After all, homemade is homemade – even if not by me.

One day a few weeks ago, when the cold, sad wind around a bleak gray sky was howling, I was consumed by the need to can something.  I can’t explain why, as I had never canned anything before.  But, there I was, wandering around my kitchen in search of something to “put up”.  A large bowl of bright, shiny apples sat preening on the kitchen table, and my plan began to take form.  Apple butter!  It was the perfect thing.  And, I began to search for just the right recipe that would satisfy my desire to attain “Earth motherhood” without the need to pull out out my hair by the roots from stress.

As I searched, I was surprised to learn that apple butter is really quite easy to make.  There were some great recipes out there – even a few using a slow cooker.  In the end, the one that seemed to be the most popular, and appealed to me the most, was from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks [3].   It was a straightforward recipe that required only apples, cider, sugar and some spices, all of which I already had.  I was sold!  And so, I made apple butter.

I tweaked the recipe a little bit, because I can never just leave well enough alone.  I loved, loved, loved the way my apple butter turned out, so I’m glad I did.  First, I increased the amount of apples I used from four to five pounds.  I figured that if I was going to make apple butter anyway, I might as well make enough to share.  I also substituted brown sugar for some of the granulated sugar in Heidi’s recipe.  I had no scientific reason for doing that.  I was just hoping that the brown sugar would give my apple butter a little “caramelly” flavor.  What could be better together than apples and caramel?  Pretty much nothing, that’s what!   Other than that, the only change I made was to add a little allspice to the mix.  I don’t know if it made much of a difference, but I liked it.

So, let’s make some apple butter!

The first thing you need to do is get your jars ready.   Place clean, dry jars on a baking sheet, and set them in a 225 F. oven for at least twenty minutes.  Wash the lids and rims with hot, soapy water, dry them well and set them someplace out of the way.  I used eight 4-ounce Mason jars.

Next, prepare your apples by peeling, coring and cutting them up into chunks.  Then, simmer the apples in a big pot with enough apple cider to just cover them.  When the apples are soft and mushy, remove them from the pot and puree them.

Pour the apple puree back into the pot and add the sugars, spices and lemon juice.  Let the whole thing come to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for a long, long, long time – until it’s apple butter.  Make sure you skim off any icky stuff that rises to the top.  Keep stirring every few minutes so that the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  When the apple butter is close to being done, it will sputter and splash like crazy, so be prepared.  Wear oven mitts and long sleeves so that you don’t get caught in the crossfire.  Trust me on this!

When the apple butter is almost ready, dig out your hugest stock pot, fill it up with water and put it on to boil.  Once your apple butter is jarred, you will need to boil the jars to seal them.

At this point, it’s time to fill up your jars with your divinely sweet and spicy, apple-y concoction and cover them tightly with their lids.  Make sure you have some tongs and those oven mitts handy, because those jars will be hot.

Here are my jars relaxing in their water bath.

Again, using tongs, gently power the jars into the pot so that they are completely submerged in the boiling water.  Spread the jars out so they are not touching each other.   Boil them for at least ten minutes, and then carefully remove them from the pot, placing them on a dry kitchen towel to cool.  Let them cool for several hours.

Here’s what they will look like.

You will have to test the lids to make sure they are sealed.  You don’t want to make anybody sick.  And if you do, you don’t want anybody to be able to trace it back to you!  Gently press down on the top of the lids.  If a lid springs up when you release your finger, it is not properly sealed.  You can still enjoy the apple butter inside by keeping the jar in the fridge and consuming it within a few weeks.   If you’re interested, the USDA has an excellent free guide to home canning [4] on the web.  It’s in PDF format, so you can save it on your computer and refer to it as needed.

So, how did my homemade apple butter compare with the ones from Pinecraft?  Extremely well, if I do say so, myself.  Honestly, it was heavenly!   Just look at it!  It had a rich, burnished, bronze color from the brown sugar and spices.  And, it had a deep and intense apple flavor with subtle hints of caramel.  The acid from the lemon juice was just enough to make the flavors pop without being harsh.  All in all, it was a very successful first foray into the wonderful world of canning.

If you’re the least bit apprehensive about making your own apple butter, don’t be.  I was too, but it really and truly couldn’t have been easier.  Sure it takes a little time, but most of it is passive time when you could be doing something else, like baking fresh scones [5] to go along with it.  I can’t tell you the feeling of accomplishment I had when I made mine; or the sense of pride I felt when I shared a few jars with others.  Remember, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.