Thursday, April 8, 2010

DIY Gifting- Apple Butter (and canning 101)

Ahh, one of my favorite subjects. DIY gifting can either be a nightmare, or can be easy on the gifter, and result in unforgettable gifts for the giftee. All it takes is a little planning. One needs to be sure one knows what one is getting into before the projects start- as, sadly, many DIY projects are MORE expensive than store bought anymore. Tragic really.

My earlier post about how I got back into liquor infusing reminded me of just how much I ADORE holiday traditions. My mother and I made Kahlua at Christmastime to give as gifts. These days, I realize that not everyone is real keen on the gift of booze, most of those who do like gifted booze aren't going to go through a whole bottle of Kahlua in a year, and frankly it's pretty cost prohibitive to produce for a lot of people.

So my annual Christmas gift tradition is Apple Butter. That started because I wanted to start a gifting tradition that was something that most people like, that is easy to make but that most people DON'T make (so it really could be "MY" traditional gift). I used to make dozens and dozens of cookies- about 36 dozen cookies each Christmas, and usually about 6 different kinds. That was a huge, painful ordeal, and also rather cost prohibitive. Apple butter is brilliant- apples are plentiful in the fall and don't cost near as much as 45lbs of flour or gallons of vodka and dozens of vanilla beans. The primary investment in apple butter is time, which it does take a lot of, and hence not many people make it. But it it well worth the time it takes. Homemade apple butter is one of life's great joys.

You need only a few tools to make it- a large pot (I use a stock pot), canning jars/flats/rings, a funnel, and a means of pulverizing the apples. I happen to be lucky enough to have a food mill attachment for my KitchenAid, but I'd say that a food processor or blender would still work just fine.

When trying to figure out how to make apple butter, I consulted the ancient family recipe book, and also my handy dandy "Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book" (also handed down through the family). The recipe follows, but I'd like to add a few of my observations. I personally use half cider and half juice- as I feel that cider only results in a WAY too tart butter, and juice only makes it too sweet. I also try to get at least 3lbs of granny smith apples, but I don't sweat the other 3 lbs, and will get whatever is on sale.

6lbs tart apples
6 cups cider or apple juice
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.

Core and quarter unpared apples; cook in cider in large heavy saucepan until soft- about 30 min. Press through food mill. Return to pot, boil gently 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in sugar and spices. Cook and stir over low heat til sugar dissolves. Boil gently, stirring frequently, til desired thickness. (I like my applebutter really thick, so I cook it about 5 or 6 hours- but it is possible to cook it too long and you get a sort of apple jelly as apples are naturally high in pectin). You are now ready to can the applebutter.

If you've never canned before fear not. It's super easy. And applebutter is a great way to learn. As your applebutter is approaching being done, put a stockpot about 3/4 full of hot water on the stove and bring to a boil. Remove lids and flats from jars (I use half pint jars for gifting). Lay out a clean towel next to the stove and have long tongs, a wide mouth funnel and another towel at the ready. Lay out another towel in a well ventilated area somewhere out of your way. Once the water in the pot comes to a boil, you'll be moving pretty fast. Using tongs, gently lower jars into the gently boiling water, and toss in the rings and flats (some people put a dish towel in the bottom of the stock pot to make it easier to pick up the flats, but I tried this last year and burned myself a dozen times and found it to be a major pain- I'll not be doing THAT again). Let the jars hang out in the boiling water for at least 5 min. Then using tongs, grab a jar, dump out the water and set it on the towel. Put the funnel in the jar and fill with applebutter- leaving about 1/2-3/4 inch of headspace at the top. Gently wipe any applebutter that might have escaped off of the threads and top of the jar. Failure to do this could prevent the jar from sealing properly. Pull out a ring and a flat and quickly pat off excess water from flat, seat it on top of the jar, and screw down the ring (jar is HOT! be careful!) Then wipe it down to get anything you might have missed, transfer to the other towel you laid out and repeat with remaining jars and applesauce. One batch of apple butter will make about 10-12 half pints of butter, give or take, depending on how much you boil it down. After a few minutes, you'll hear the buttons on the jars start to pop (a loud "tink" noise). I let them sit overnight, and in the morning press the centers of the lids to make sure they have all sealed. (sometimes they seal, but the button is still partially up, this is not a big deal, it'll pull down when you press.) If any of them haven't sealed properly- which you can tell because the button flexes- its not a big deal either- just make sure you put it in the fridge and use it within a few weeks. If I have any that don't seal, I bake a batch of biscuits immediately and enjoy!

For gifting: once cool, you can do any number of things for gifting. I go the easy route and just cut some squares of festive holiday cloth, remove the ring, place cloth over top, replace ring and done! You can also cross stitch clever little toppers, just wrap a ribbon around the ring, skip decorating the jars and just include them in a gift basket- whatever suits you!

I usually make a double batch, which gives me enough for Christmas gifting, plus some for personal use, plus a few extras that I can use for a last minute gift for a hostess, or for a friend who's having a rough day, or to contribute to a picnic or whatever.

I do hope that this has inspired some of you to try making applebutter and canning both. Homemade apple butter is something that really is fantastic to try at least once- and is a pretty good kid project for the 8 years and up crowd. Canning is something that intimidates many, but our grandmothers and our grandmother's grandmothers did it, and lived to tell, and it's a great skill to have at your fingertips in case you find yourself suddenly up to your eyeballs in garden bounty tomatoes, or other produce.

Happy gifting!

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