While I don’t think my kids or I will ever tire of biting into a juicy, red Empire apple or spreading chocolate hazelnut butter on slices of Honeycrisp, none of us is wild about the McIntosh. The Mac has been a popular apple choice in this country since its introduction 200 years ago, but I find the flesh too soft to enjoy eating out of hand and the slices too yielding to hold up to a heavy nut butter. Still, at this time of year, I should not have been surprised when our Enterprise farmshare included a four-pound bag of McIntosh EcoApples.
A few Macs met their fate diced into a green salad, but we still had most of the bag in the fridge (along with the Fujis and Galas I had been buying on the side) when another four pounds showed up in the next week’s farmshare. Now we were definitely into cooking territory. Macs virtually disintegrate when cooked through, making them a poor choice for pie (unless you want mushy filling and a soggy crust). I prefer apple crisp to pie in any case, and including a few Macs makes for a nicely cohesive base—but not eight pounds’ worth. Not for a family of four.
It occurred to me that the melting quality of cooked McIntosh apples would be perfect for applesauce; a little time poking around in cookbooks and online backed up this view. While Macs would be my mainstay, a mix of varieties would make for a more interesting applesauce, so I supplemented the eight pounds in our refrigerator with another EcoApples bag—Macouns, this time—from Trader Joe’s.
By happy coincidence, my children and I have been reading through Beezus and Ramona, and upon opening the book this past weekend I discovered we were up to Chapter 4: “Ramona and the Apples.” I hope I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that 4-yr-old Ramona sneaks down to her family’s basement where her older sister Beezus discovers, some time later, that Ramona has worked her way through half a bushel of apples by taking a single bite out of each one. (Ramona, to her credit, makes the valid point that the first bite of an apple always tastes best.) The girls’ mother rescues the apples by cooking them down into applesauce, though Ramona is somewhat put out by her parents’ refusal to acknowledge her naughtiness. The chapter ends with Mrs. Quimby wondering what she will do with a refrigerator full of applesauce.
After that, my kids were positively enthralled at the prospect of making our own applesauce. I decided we could do Mrs. Quimby one better: sure, applesauce is great, but apple butter is sublime (and also takes up less storage room).
Our main hurdle was a lack of supplies. I took a short walk to City Housewares, where, for just over $30, I picked up an inexpensive apple sectioner and a Fox Run food mill. (They also sell a nicer Oxo model for about $50.) Once I demonstrated how to use the apple sectioner, my kids delighted in cutting through one apple after another, tossing the sections into our biggest stockpot and neatly lining up the cores along the edge of the table. I decided against including any sweeteners or aromatics, added a little water and set the apples to cook during dinner.
Cranking the food mill became our family’s evening project. We worked the apples in batches: first I would briefly drain several cups’ worth in a sieve, then I transferred them to the mill for one child process while the other watched me pour the excess liquid back into the pot. My husband had the vital task of keeping the kids distracted while I picked the skins off of the mill disc before starting the next batch; otherwise their impatient whining may have caused me to abandon Project Applesauce altogether.
Finally, we sat down to enjoy applesauce so fresh that it was still warm. As the kids got ready for bed, I packed up small portions for their lunchboxes, stashed a quart of applesauce in the refrigerator for later in the week, and dumped the rest into my five-quart CrockPot, where it would meet its ultimate fate.
I returned the pot to the stove and added half a pound of cranberries to the cooking liquid and the handful of apple chunks that had escaped my ladle. I cooked those together for about 15 minutes, by which point the berries had burst and thickened the liquid considerably. After processing this last batch through the food mill, I added the tart magenta applesauce to the CrockPot along with 1/3 cup each brown and white sugar, a few slices of fresh ginger, a generous spoonful of ground cinnamon and a few pinches each of nutmeg, cloves and allspice. Following directions I’d found online, I propped the cover up slightly with a wooden spoon and let it simmer overnight on low heat, stirring once before bed and again first thing in the morning.
The aroma throughout breakfast was maddening, and I couldn’t wait to taste it. After cooking for about twelve hours, the sauce had reduced to about half its original volume and was thick enough to hold its shape when I plopped a spoonful onto a plate. I managed to fill several small containers for the freezer before succumbing to temptation. Spread on cracker with a small slice of sharp cheddar cheese, the cranberry-apple butter anchored a perfect combination of salty, tart and sweet. The kids can keep their applesauce; I know what I’m doing with my next bag of Macs.