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A way with apples

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Albuquerque has a fine botanical garden, within which is an orchard of heritage fruits, including a great many heritage apples. A lot of the apples are old southern varieties, many of which I had never heard of when I went there to give a talk recently. 

The obvious thing to do was to offer the audience a chance to taste these apples and see how they matched up to their descriptions, and to see whether we liked them and what might we do with them. So that is what we did.

But first I have to mention that this was a very difficult year for apples in New Mexico. We had a warm, very dry winter, an extremely cold spring (minus 27 degrees in April), heavy winds for about five months straight, and many weeks of smoky air from the Arizona and New Mexico fires. It was also a year of serious drought. Understandably, it was suggested that the apples might not be up to their best, and probably they weren’t. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Outfitted with apples."]

Furthermore, although these were all late-harvest apples (late September through early November), some would benefit by sitting around for a few months before being eaten, a luxury we didn’t have that day. But we tasted them in any case. 

Among them were Grimes Golden, a “Johnny Appleseed” apple and parent of the Golden Delicious; Fameuse, a northern apple from Canada that does well in the south; and Arkansas Black, Kinnard's Choice, American Russet, Green Pippin, Ralls Genet, and others. They were all fine apples, varying in quality and flavor, and nothing like apples you’d ever see in a supermarket, with such features as leathery russeting, pronounced sugar spots, and odd shapes and sizes.

I came home with a sack of unlabeled apples and another filled with all the cores and leftover pieces from the tasting. Since I didn’t know which apples were which varieties, I decided to use them all together to make applesauce, and to turn the cores and pieces into juice. 

Curiously, the applesauce was marvelously rich and complex, but very tart. The juice, on the other hand, was so sweet it just about twisted my teeth. (It was shockingly good, too.) So I reduced the juice until it yielded a syrup for the yeasted buckwheat waffles I was serving to a friend that morning. (I love apples with buckwheat, but also with oats; the Yeasted Oat Pancakes would be another good choice for breakfast or Sunday supper.)

It was quite a good combo, if I do say so myself: the dark, crisp buckwheat waffles with the tart rose-colored applesauce, the splash of sweet, warm apple syrup — and some excellent sour cream (Kalona SuperNatural Organic, from Iowa). 

The next morning, however, when I went to pour the syrup on a waffle, it didn’t pour at all. It had turned into apple jelly! All the pectin had set up, and instead of syrup, there were glistening amber shards of jelly — cool, sweet, intense, and made from nothing but from bits and pieces of apples.
[%image waffles float=right width=400 caption="Yeasted Buckwheat Waffles with apple sauce and jelly."]

If you’ve gone out and picked yourself a lot of apples and are at the point where you don’t know what to do with them, here are two very simple “recipes,” one for applesauce and one for the syrup or jelly, depending on what you do with it. 

When I’ve had huge apple crops on my own trees, I had enough apples to make apple butter, but this year, with that late freeze, my total crop from a dozen trees numbered two fruits. Two. So I was thrilled to have apples for applesauce, and especially these apples with their complex flavors.

It’s well worth going out and picking a number of varieties of old apples and mixing them together once you’ve tasted them separately, if such an opportunity presents itself. My guest, in fact, had just done that — in the Portland, Oregon, area. See if there aren’t some good apple orchards near you.

h4. Applesauce

I really don’t like to peel and core apples. It’s a time-consuming task and not a very interesting one, so I don’t do it. Instead, here’s how I make applesauce. It takes only about 20 minutes, but you do need two pieces of equipment: a pressure cooker and a food mill.

Cut your washed apples into quarters (skins, cores, and all) and fill a pressure cooker a little more than halfway full. Add 1 cup water, put on the lid, turn on the heat, and bring the pressure to high. Maintain it for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and use the quick release or let it drop slowly if you’re doing other things. When you open it, you should have very soft cooked chunks of apples. Slide them into a food mill set over a bowl, and turn it to force the pulp through, leaving the seeds, skins and stems behind.

If your sauce is very thin — perhaps your apples were moist-fleshed varieties — return the sauce to the stove and cook it over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, to evaporate the excess water/juice.

Taste your sauce and season it if you wish, sweetening it with sugar or honey, adding spices like cinnamon, allspice, anise, or five-spice powder. Or leave it just as it is. 

If you make a great deal of applesauce, you can freeze it. I pour mine into zip-lock bags, flatten them, push out the air, and then freeze them on a flat surface so that they're easy to store later without taking up a lot of room in the freezer.

h4. Apple syrup

For this you’ll need a juicer, or freshly pressed apple juice. The apples needn’t be whole — they can be leftover chunk cores with lots of flesh still intact, too. Pass your apples through a juicer to make 1 quart of apple juice. Skim off the larger mounds of foam (don’t worry about getting it all) and put the juice in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil, then simmer until the 4 cups have reduced to ¾ cup. Pour it through a fine strainer to get rid of any little particles. Serve warm, over pancakes, yogurt, baked apples, ice cream, wherever you’re so inclined.

h4. Apple jelly

Reduce the apple juice as described above, then pour the syrup into a bowl and leave it overnight to set. Keep refrigerated until it's all gone — but my guess is it won’t last long. Put it on toast or wherever you enjoy jelly. If you wish to turn it back into syrup, simply heat it.

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