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The Secrets of Making Apple Butter

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Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as "The Right Way" to make apple butter. There are as many variations on the recipe as there are chefs who make it.

In late September, sweet golden delicious apples are the main ingredient. By Election Day, late tart apples are ready for use. Many cooks are partial to powdered spices, while others swear by cinnamon and cloves in oil form. Traditional recipes use three pounds of sugar per gallon of apple butter. Colonial cooks added West Indian molasses to apple butter, while health-conscious cooks today make it with no sugar at all. Some cooks recommend using cider to cook down the apple snitz, while others add plain water. Some old-timers will tell you that adding a copper penny to the bottom of the kettle will let you know if the butter is burning. Others claim the penny scratches the kettle finish and should be avoided altogether.

Luckily, there are some common grounds and truths that everyone agrees on. Most importantly, no one makes apple butter alone. It's a group activity, whether that group be family, friends, club members, or strangers passing by the kettle during the Apple Butter Festival.

There are other things to remember about apple butter:

No one can pass by a boiling kettle full of apple butter without stopping to take a stir. There is always lots of good food and better chit-chat around the kettle. Not inviting someone back to make apple butter the following year is a sure way to lose a friend. And, as Miss Eliza Leslie said in the 1848 edition of her classic cookbook, "It is not worthwhile to prepare apple butter on a small scale."

Making apple butter the "old timey way" -- over an open fire -- requires copper-lined kettles. A long-handled stirrer with a spoon-bill head, usually made from poplar, is also standard equipment. All day stirring assures no burning or sticking. "Twice around the kettle and once across" is the old adage popular among apple butter connoisseurs.

Using corn cobs or loaf bread to clean out kettles protect them from being scratched. Hardwood fires make coals rather than flame, so butter cooks slowly, not burning, sticking, or splashing over the edge. It's no secret that boiling apple butter splashed on bare skin is painful.

Putting sugar into the butter is called "adding the money." And, to keep the stirring arm going, some suggest pouring a glass of peach brandy into every stirrer twice a day.

How it's Done

Making apple butter is a simple task. On Day One, you snitz. Take ten to twelve bushels of apples of your choice, set up on the porch with an apple peeler, several sharp paring knives, and a collection of bowls and pots. Set to work. Wash, whir, peel, and thud. Stab, quarter, snip, and plop into bowls. Throw thrashings away. By late afternoon, enough snitz (the peeled, quartered, and cored fruit) is done.

On Day Two, fire up the kettles with a bin of firewood nearby. Add liquid to the kettles full of snitz and push the apples around. Push, slurp, slosh, and stir to keep the ingredients from sticking. The stirring continues all day long. Rock back and forth, slightly lift, then push down and around. The rhythm's in the work. And watch out, because you'll probably end up getting a kettleful of smoke in your eyes.

The apples will eventually break down into sauce, volcanic bubbles boiling and bursting. Several hours later, the time will come to add sugar. Finally, add spices, darkening the butter to a deep red like the inside of the kettle.

When apple butter stands firm, it's time to fill the cleaned and boiled jars. Ladle out boiling apple butter, screw on lids, and move as a team -- dipping, filling, screwing, and packing. The final stage is cleaning the kettles and scraping off the crust of baked-on butter around the rim.

The rewards for this hard work are multiple: eating spicy, thick butter on a slice of bread on a cold winter day or giving a jar or two as a prized Christmas gift. Most of all, however, the joy is in the doing.

The tradition of making apple butter brings together people in a spirit of warmth and cooperation. There is love in every sticky bite.

Apple Cider: A Historic American Favorite

History records that the Celts of Britain greeted their Roman conquerors with toasts of apple cider. American colonists made cider preparation a priority task in early settlements. Brought to this country by colonists who grafted their domesticated apples onto the branches of the wild crab apple trees native to the New World, cider reached its peak in popularity and consumption during the 19th century. It was a favorite of rural Americans and the target of temperance crusaders, who regarded it as an evil drink. Today, apple cider is pressed wherever apples are grown throughout the temperate zones of the world. Principal producers of cider are France, England, Holland, and the United States. The drink is still very popular and is a tasty source of vitamin C, a regulator of the body pH, and a purifying agent, excellent for the treatment of kidney and gall stones.

Around West Virginia, thousands of gallons of fresh pressed local apple cider are sold to visitors at fall festivals throughout the state each year. The golden drink is carried off in jugs, cups, and bottles by throngs of pleased customers. Some of this cider is consumed before the week is out, some is left to ferment more to give the cider that alcoholic punch, and some is frozen and thawed for use during the cold winter months to recapture the tangy tastes of autumn.

The production of apple cider in West Virginia has changed considerably during the last century. According to cider makers at Applejack Orchard in Berkeley Springs, the procedure for making the drink is a simple one. The best cider comes from a blend of apples: sweet Macintosh, golden and red delicious added to tart yorks and crabapples. The fruit is washed, ground into a mash called pomace, then pressed between layers of cloth-covered wooden plates. The juice is then strained and jugged with no additives or pasteurization, producing the familiar sweet cider taste. Left to age in barrels with yeast or sugar added, cider eventually turns hard and alcoholic -- the type commonly available in Europe.

It takes one bushel of apples to produce two to three gallons of cider. In West Virginia, cider is pressed weekly during the season between September through November, supplying local residents and food markets with thousands of gallons of fresh cider in jugs and barrels.

And not only is cider a healthy and refreshing drink, it's also an ingredient in many recipes. It can be used for flavor while soaking beans, basting roasts, and as an accent to squash, fish, rice dishes, and pea and onion soups. When cider is heated it becomes thick, producing cider syrup, a tasty addition to cornbread or barbecue sauces. Even the pomace left over when the juice has been squeezed out has its uses as animal feed or garden compost.

Cider is a popular, healthy, and versatile drink for all ages and kinds of people. Apple cider, as well, as apple butter, is available each year at the Apple Butter Festival on Columbus Day Weekend in October. Drink up and enjoy!

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