My mother makes the world’s best applesauce. Period. You can try to debate me on that, but you’ll lose, and I don’t want to make you cry. Now, I’ll admit to a certain nostalgia when it comes to the aroma of autumn’s apples bubbling on the stovetop in my childhood home, but somehow her applesauce tasted more… well, apple-y than any others I have tasted—homemade or store-bought. She didn’t do anything fancy, just cooked down apples with some sugar and a hint of cinnamon, but whether it was her choice of apples, the perfect amount of sugar, or the chunky texture (no food mills in our house—we liked a random apple chunk here and there), the combination was sublime: a soft, sweet bowl of apple goodness, best eaten warm right out of the saucepan.
Given my love for the sauce, I thought apple butter would be a sweet treat right up my alley. I mean, what could be better than even more apple flavor, this time spreadable on toast? Imagine my disappointment, then, when I tasted my first overspiced spoonful of the dark spread. Instead of intense apple, all I tasted was an overabundance of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Where did the apples go?
Since apple butter is essentially applesauce cooked long enough for the apples to caramelize into a dark paste while the liquid evaporates, I saw no reason to add a surfeit of seasonings and make my fresh apples taste like a dusty spice rack. Instead, I wanted to take all the things I loved about my mother’s applesauce and intensify them into an unctuous, sweet butter that needed no embellishments. Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, I was on a mission to spread my apple gospel to the masses—and convince the nutmeg-loving naysayers to channel their energies into mulled cider and pumpkin pie.
Since I was counting on the apples to do the heavy lifting in the flavor department, the choice of apples was key. For me, nothing says autumn—or applesauce, for that matter—like shiny red McIntosh apples. Their wonderful sweetness and deep flavor would provide the backbone of the apple butter. Not wanting the mixture to be one-note, however, I thought a second variety of apple would provide complexity to the flavor. I had used sweet, slightly tart Fujis in an apple muffin recipe and loved their presence there, so I thought I’d pair them with the Macs and see how well they played together. Fujis are much slower to break down during cooking than baking-favorite McIntosh apples, so I would need to account for that in my initial cooking stage.
Some cooks might argue that peeling the apples before cooking is the way to go, since it makes it easy to mash the apples into sauce before adding the sweetener and beginning the caramelizing process. They are absolutely right. It’s easier, but not necessarily better. I wanted to squeeze every last bit of apple essence from the apples I was using, so cooking the apples with their flavorful skins was essential. I did remove the cores, however, with one of the few single-use kitchen gadgets I advocate: an apple corer.
Next, I cut the McIntosh apples into 2-inch pieces. Remembering that the Fuji apples would take longer to cook than the Macs, I cut the Fujis into smaller 1-inch pieces to even the cooking time.
Since the apples needed some form of liquid (or fat, I suppose) in which to cook, I considered my options. Many recipes I reviewed cooked the apples in a small amount of water, but that just sounded like a quick way to dilute the flavor of the apples. Quick and convenient, sure, but not an option for me. Instead, I opted for apple cider, thinking that the intensity of the cider would only augment the flavors at work in my simmering apples.
Going one step further, I thought of the deep, pungent flavor of Calvados that is often used in pan sauces and braises that feature apple cider. Since I hold with the culinary school of thought that says most things taste better with a bit of spirit, I added a cup of Calvados to the apples. Now we were getting started!
A word about the vessel: Since I’d be cooking the apples on the stovetop for a long period of time, I used a heavy Dutch oven that would conduct heat evenly and keep my apples at a steady temperature. I brought the apples to a boil, reduced the heat, covered the pot with a tightly-fitting lid, and left the apples to simmer until they were soft (peeking in to check and stir once or twice).
After about 30 minutes, my kitchen smelled better than a Yankee Candle I bought on clearance. When I checked the apples, they were soft and pliable—the perfect texture for the next step: the food mill.
In addition to providing you with a great upper-body workout, a food mill is also good for removing the skins from the apples. Remember how we left the skins on to get all that apple flavor into the butter? Well, now we had to take them out so they didn’t mess up the otherwise smooth texture of the apples. The only way to do that effectively is with a food mill. Working in batches, I transferred the apples to the mill and started to mill…and mill…and mill.
While it wasn’t my favorite way to spend 10 minutes, it got the job done, leaving the skins in the mill and pushing the now-smooth apples into a waiting bowl. I returned my apple puree to the Dutch oven and prepared to add my final ingredients.
To sweeten the apples, I started out with 1½ cups of plain old granulated sugar. Always looking for ways to enhance flavor, however, I decided to replace ½ cup of the granulated sugar with light brown sugar, thinking it would bring extra depth and subtle molasses flavor.
Since I wanted to keep the apple flavor bright and fresh, I used lemon juice for a hit of acid, plus just a hint of salt to balance the sweetness and acidity. I gave my now-sweetened applesauce a stir to combine the ingredients, set the Dutch oven on the back burner, and let heat, sugar, and time work their magic on my apples.
Can I tell you about the torture of waiting for my apple butter to reduce? Not being blessed with an overabundance of patience, the two hours’ cooking time made me feel like a 5-year-old waiting in line to see Santa. Luckily, I needed to give the butter a stir every now and then to make sure the bottom didn’t burn. I knew the butter was ready when it had darkened to a rich brown color and thickened enough to leave a solid trail behind the path of my spoon.
If you’re not sure whether the apple butter has reduced enough (it’s often hard to tell when it’s hot), chill a small plate in the freezer while you’re waiting, then drop a spoonful of butter on the plate and see how easily it spreads. If it’s the consistency of a very thick but spreadable jam, you’ve got apple butter, my friend!
Apple butter is delicious spread on toast (especially when it’s made from freshly-baked wheat bread courtesy of my fellow test cook, Andrew Janjigian) or scones. My favorite way to eat it (other than with a spoon straight from the jar), however, is atop a bowl of cottage cheese. There’s something about the thick apple goodness set against the creamy, slightly tangy curds that makes me smile. I think my mother would approve.