Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One Gift, Many Occasions

Remember way back when I totally blew off blogging in December, then promised I'd do some holiday posts in January? Lame, I know, but here's one of those posts. If it makes you feel any better, I've been feeling guilty about it since, like, November. So now I have less guilt and you have something yummy to read about. Win, win.

Much to my husband's annoyance, I insist on making a home made food gift for a select few friends and neighbors each holiday season. He, being of the "Why Bother?" school of thought thinks this just causes unnecessary stress and effort. I, being of the "If Anything is Worth Doing It's Worth Doing To Excess" school of thought, ignore him. But this year, with sanity, time and money all being at a premium, I had to rethink the process. God forbid I would skip the gifts altogether. This was not an option. However, I needed something that was easy to make and relatively inexpensive, since I had a lot of people I planned to give to.

It's no secret that I have an enigmatic relationship with my crockpot. Although I hear raves about it, I've yet to produce anything in mine that doesn't come out tasting and looking like, well, slop. Not ready to give up yet, I was browsing yet another slow cooker cookbookin hopes of finding something that didn't involve a can of cream-of-sodium soup. Towards the back of the book, I happened upon a recipe for apple butter. Hmmmm...interesting. My husband and I had always loved it when we lived in Washington and hadn't had any for a long time. It sounded good, easy, and inexpensive. After consulting the brain trust (who, by the way, devotes many posts to gifts-in-a-jar) and finding a cute little apple spreader from Crate & Barrel to go with the goods, I decided to give it a try.

The basic recipe is to chop granny smith apples and stick them in a crock pot with sugar. Let the apples sit all day until they release a lot of their juice and collapse slightly, then add some spices and cook overnight. The next day, take off the lid and cook some more to thicken. Puree with an immersion blender (OMG I LOVE MINE) and that's it.

I made my first batch for Thanksgiving, planning to take a jar to my cousin's as a hostess gift. The good thing about this recipe is that it lasts up to two months in the refrigerator, making it a perfect for those who like to do things ahead of time. So I knew I could test run a jar at Thanksgiving and be able to use the leftovers at Hannukah. Of course, the presentation was also important. Julia and I stamped some plain brown gift bags with leaf stamps from Close To My Heart, then used the same stamps on grocery bags to make a topper for the jar. I used the stamps again to make a gift tag. I attached the spreader with some ribbon to match and voila! By this time I was so overwhelmed with the cuteness of the stamped stuff and the whole home made-ness of the whole thing that it wouldn't have mattered if the stuff tasted awful.

Fortunately, it didn't. I never heard from my cousin the unknowing guinea pig, but the rest of us who tasted the apple butter all loved it. I immediately began massive apple butter production and spent a lot of time chopping, stirring, and pureeing. The rest of the time I spent talking about apple butter. Conversation is pretty lively around these parts.

I realized that one batch only gave me a little more than two jars of apple butter. So I stuffed my crock pot with even more apples the next time to make the minimal effort worth it. It totally worked. I also unwittingly messed up the second batch by forgetting to add the spices before I turned the crock pot on and let the stuff cook overnight. So I added them the next morning, along with some water because the stuff looked a little thick and guess what? It was even better!! By not letting the spices cook and get concentrated as long, their flavors remained a little more bright and distinguishable while allowing the fresh flavor of the apples to burst through.

As I moved into full production mode, I loved the smell of it simmering and I loved having a refrigerator shelf filled with jars of the dark, rich, apply goodness waiting to be gifted to friends and family. Starting with Hannukah (it was early this year, remember?) I must have given 10-11 jars out. It made a lovely thank you gift for a friend who helped us play Santa and when we accepted a New Year's Eve invitation at 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve, it was a no-brainer grab and go hostess gift. The only thing that had to be changed was the ribbon and the stamp I used to decorate the jar, bag and tag.

With all this apple butter flowing, you may be wondering just what it's good for. The obvious choice is on toast or bagels with butter or cream cheese (or all by itself), although we think it tastes awesome with peanut butter. Julia now takes peanut butter and apple butter sandwiches to school for lunch. At Hannukah it was a more sophisticated topping for latkes and it was delicious. I also like it on simple grilled or roasted chicken. Lately, I've been putting it on the muffins Ethan and I have been baking together.

Things I love about this recipe:

  • Not too sweet but plenty of flavor
  • Can definitely stand in for fatty spreads and actually started out as fruit
  • Tastes great!
  • Easy to make and to make ahead
  • Makes a generous amount
  • Stores for a while in the fridge or freezer
  • A monkey could make it
  • Everyone seems to love it
I'm sure I'll be making more for my own family as we're down to our last jar. But the best compliment I got was from a friend whose son has severe food allergies. Not only was he able to enjoy the apple butter on his rice cake with no problems, but her daughter apparently said it was the "best sauce" she's ever had.

If you'd like to make the original recipe, consult the cookbook. Here's my adaptation:

5+ lbs. of Granny Smith apples, washed, cored and cut into large pieces
(I overstuffed my crock pot and couldn't get the lid on, but as the released their juices and collapsed it was no problem)
2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla extract (I use the good stuff from Trader Joe's and splash quite enthusiastically)

Layer the apples and sugar in your crock pot. Place lid on (it may not close all the way, this is OK) and let sit all day without turning on the crock pot. By the end of the day you will have a ton of apple juice in your crock pot and the apples will have collapsed to the point that the lid will close. Turn crock pot on LOW and cook overnight. In the morning, toss the apples with the spices and vanilla. At this point I like to add a cup or so of water. Eyeball it and add as much or as little as you like. Continue to cook for several hours until you reach your preferred thickness, removing the lid if it's too thin. Cool in crock and use immersion blender (or regular blender or food processor) to puree. Store in refrigerator for 2 months or freeze for up to 3.

I'd love to hear from you if you try this recipe. Let me know how you like it and how you use your yummy apple butter.


Tara O'Rourke said...

Fabulous!!!! What no cream of sodium???? LOL....

Jodi said...

That sounds really good. Hmm.. that means I would have to go buy a blender. lol

Felicia McB said...

lol @ the cream of sodium soup!
the apple butter sound yummy! will have to try this! Thanks for sharing!
Just out of curiosity how big is your crock pot? since they come in a couple of sizes. :)

Meghan said...

I so need to move to Cali to be closer to my crafty friend!!

Look for the overweight, tall red head with the 17 mos old who is in the throw of the terrible twos looking for you!

Crockpot Lady said...

I've never made apple butter before, I'm going to try it!
your jars look beautfiful--I love home made presents.
Maybe I can get cracking and have that be a valentine's day gift for the grandparents and aunts---
very cool.
thank you for your kind words---I woke up to them this morning and they put me in a wonderful mood.

tspwlv said...

Tara-I wish I was the crockpot queen that you are.

Jodi-DO IT. I love mine.

Fe-mine is 6 quarts. I always end up with way too much stuff.

Meg-Come on out. Our "terrible twos" can commiserate while we scrap.

Steph-Thanks for stopping by. I'm loving your blog. LMK what you end up doing with the apple butter if you make it.