“And with every bite, the crisp tartness of apples pop like fireworks, glittering brightly and fading, only to sparkle once again.
Its sweet deliciousness ripples from the mouth straight up to the brain…
a super-heavyweight punch of moist, rich goodness!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, all the judges have looks on their faces! What on earth could have created a flavor that rapturous?!”
“The biggest secret to that flavor is right here, brushed on the underside of the pastry crust…
“Hmm…” – Yuto Tsukuda
One of the many pleasures of living in Sonoma County is the abundance of amazing fresh produce. Here in Sebastopol, in addition to world-class grapes, we are famous for our Gravenstein apples. Gravensteins grow easily and best in the cool summers and sandy soil around Sebastopol.
Traditionally, people around here believed that the Gravenstein was brought to Sonoma County in the early eighteen hundreds by Russian fur trappers at Fort Ross. However, recent evidence indicates that they might have arrived even earlier, brought north from New Spain by the Spaniards. In either case, we are lucky to have them.
In the early years, Gravensteins were shipped nationwide by the trainload and played a major role in Sonoma County’s commerce. Once known as the “Gravenstein Apple Capital of the World,” Sebastopol boasted more than 15,000 acres devoted to apples in 1953. In more recent years, Gravenstein production declined significantly due to suburban development, orchard/vineyard conversion, and the fact that it was discovered that they are more fragile than other varieties and don’t travel well. Today, there are less than a dozen farmers who make a living selling Gravensteins.
More than a half-century past its heyday, the Gravenstein is now more than likely to be eaten as table fruit, crushed into cider or baked into delicious pies.
Karel and I get together with a few neighbors each August or September for an apple pie party. We all pitch in peeling, dicing, making crusts that we fill with our secret* blend of apples, spices and a bit of rum. The finished pies are vacuum sealed and immediately frozen so that we can all enjoy an apple pie throughout the winter. Last year our merry band of bakers produced twelve pies (for three couples) in a single morning. Of course, all of that work became a little bit easier the year that we decided to keep the party rolling with big pitchers of Mimosas. *(OK – the Mimosas may be one reason that the pie mixture is secret – no one can remember it from one year to the next.)
This year, Karel and I developed a recipe for the days when we craved apples but didn’t want to bake a pie – Apple Butter – a country treat as plain and straight as a log cabin. Apple butter (which contains no dairy butter) is a highly concentrated form of apple sauce that is produced by cooking a bunch of apples slowly with some cider for a long time – until the sugar in the apples caramelizes. The finished butter is as smooth and creamy as custard and has developed a deep brown color. It is flavored with cinnamon, cloves and other spices that infuse our kitchen with an intoxicating aroma.
When thickly smeared over a thick cut of warm homemade bread or dolloped on French Toast, it brings a fond reminder of autumn at any time of year.
Apple butter can be traced to Limburg (Belgium and the Netherlands) and Rhineland (Germany). It was believed to have been conceived during the Middle Ages, when the first monasteries (with large orchards) appeared. It probably came to America with the early German settlers of the Mid-Atlantic States and remains a staple that is almost always offered to tourists who dine at Pennsylvania Dutch eateries.
I have to admit that until recently, I was not a big fan of apple butter. However, when this season’s bumper crop of Gravensteins appeared on the market (essentially in our backyard), we felt the compulsion to expand our repertoire with another way to conserve part of the fruit production. The idea of layering in a salted caramel sauce knocked it out of the park – we knew we had a winner. I am now a convert of the highest degree. Incidentally, we initially used only about a third of the caramel sauce that is now in our recipe. However, being diligent tasters, we kept adding more and more until the combination was perfect. If you have any caramel sauce leftover, it goes equally well over ice cream. I hope you agree.
SALTED CARAMEL APPLE BUTTER
Apple Butter Ingredients:
- 3 lbs Gravenstein apples peeled, cored and diced into 1-inch pieces. Fuji’s or Galas will work if you don’t have access to Gravensteins.
- 1 C unsweetened apple juice (we use the “North Coast” brand from right here in Sebastopol)
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 3 TBSP unsalted butter
- 3 TBSP packed brown sugar
- 3 TBSP maple syrup
- 3/4 tsp sea salt
- 3 TBSP heavy cream
Apple Butter Directions:
- Mix the apple juice and all of the spices in a slow cooker.
- Add the diced apples and stir well to make sure all of the apples are well saturated with the spiced juice.
- Cover, set to high and cook for one hour. Turn off the slow cooker.
- Add a third of the cooked apples to a food processor. Blend until the apples are smooth. Repeat the process until all of the remaining apples are well blended. The longer you blend the mixture, the smoother and creamier your apple butter will be but you don’t want it liquefied.
- Pour all of the blended apple mixture back into the in the slow cooker.
- Set the slow cooker to low, cover and continue to cook for 6-8 hours. (The finished apple butter will be about half the original volume.)
- At this point, taste the apple butter for smoothness. If it is not as creamy as you would like, blend one more time in your food processor.
- Set aside.
Caramel Sauce Directions:
- Add the maple syrup, butter, and brown sugar in a small saucepan and cook on medium-high heat.
- Whisk the butter, syrup, and brown sugar, constantly until the mixture has thickened and is bubbly.
- Continue whisking while adding the salt and heavy cream. (1-2 minutes) Remove from the heat.
- Slowly stir the caramel sauce into the apple mixture.
- Set aside to allow to cool.
- Scoop into 4 oz lidded jars. It will make 3-4 jars.
At this point you can either refrigerate the apple butter or process the jars in a hot water bath as if you were making jam or jelly.