Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fall Favorite - Apples

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. I really do enjoy this time of year mostly for the foods that are in season. Root vegetables, hard winter squashes, brussels's sprouts, and most of all apples. I love all kinds of apples, and I think that there is not a variety that I have tried that I have not liked in some way. Usually, every fall, my husband and I head up to Sebastopol, CA for their annual Gravenstein festival.  It is a great little fest, and I highly recommend it for anyone who loves apples and that small town feeling of a county fair. This year, however, we decided to try something different. This year we went all the way to Camino, CA for the Apple Hill Growers Association harvest weekends. We drove the two and a half hours from the San Francisco Bay area out to Eldorado county and the foothills of the Sierra mountains. Once there, it was a beautiful drive around the winding hills of the Apple Hill area. There were many different farms that had different kinds of activities and events. You can most likely find a farm out there that will fit the kind of day you wish to have.

Many of the farms had large tents with crafts for sale, pony rides for children, corn or hay mazes, and lots of food venders. We wanted a quiet day picking our own apples instead of prepacked boxes and jostling crowds. It took us a bit, but I figured out which farms I wanted to see. The first farm we wanted to visit was Sun Mountain Farms. We finally found this very small and picturesque farm after winding our way around the larger farms that had more for family type entertainment. Sadly, once we started up the driveway, we saw the dreaded sign: Sold Out. I quickly looked back at the map and picked Pine-O-Mine. We raced back down the road and found this farm. They luckily still had apples left to pick. They were a select grower and nestled amongst their tall towering pines were Granny Smith and Fuji trees; two of our favorite varieties for canning. We intended on only getting a few pounds to can as I am running out of empty jars, but we ended up with a half bushel from off of the trees there. Next we ventured to O'Halloran's Apple Trail Ranch. This was another cute farm that had apples pre-picked and sorted into large bins from cold storage. We got another half bushel from these growers. They had all sorts of varieties such as winesap, Rome, and golden delicious among others. They also had pears there, so we picked some of them up too. This particular farm also had pumpkins for ridiculously low prices. Our jack 'o lantern pumpkin was found amongst the sunflowers that dotted their pumpkin patch.

Yesterday was the start of working through the bushel of apples that we bought over the weekend. I love the delicate smell of fresh picked apples, and it was a delightful thing to wake up to that smell in our house. I decided to make sauce today with any of the marginal apples that could cause our good apples to spoil. Applesauce is a very easy thing to make, and it is a great way to use up windfall apples or those with some soft or bad parts to them. Just make sure to completely cut out the damaged parts and compost those pieces. If you are in good with your local grower, this is a great way to save money on your canning as sometimes you can get bruised and windfall apples for a much lower price than pristine apples. Just be sure to ask someone in the know as often times they keep these apples out of sight.

This year I chose to do the sauce in the slow cooker as I wanted to run a bunch of errands. Cooking it this way would free up my time for other things rather than attending a pot of bubbling apple goodness. I made a full recipe from my book; twelve whole pounds of apples were counted out. I made this sauce with a combination of Fuji, for softness and sweetness, and Granny Smith for a firm structure, sour under notes, and lower juice content. I peeled, cored, and rough cut up all the apples. Now I did not get rid of all the cuttings. Those go into a plastic bag in the freezer for later use making pectin for your canning next year or into apple syrup for pancakes. Don't let these things go to waste! Now many people like a totally smooth applesauce, in that case, do not worry about peeling or coring the apples. Just remove the blossom end of the apple and compost that. The blossom end has enzymes that can weaken the natural pectin in the apples. You can then just run the cooked down apples through a food mill right before canning.

The hubby and I personally like chunky applesauce, so the extra peeling and coring are necessary as a food mill is not an option. Once I had the slow cooker as packed to capacity as possible, I added a tiny bit of water to aid the cooking and a very scant cup of sugar. You can feel free to omit the sugar if you want an unsweetened sauce. I also added four tablespoons of lemon juice to help retain the color as well as for added acidity. This is one of those wonderful "set it and forget it" kind of things. I went about my day running errands and picking up around the house. When I would breeze through the kitchen, I would lift up the lid, stir, and chop up the apples in the sauce a bit. After quite some time, the sauce started to finally get saucy and cook down.

After seven or so hours on high, this is what I have. There are distinct areas of sauce and also quite a few big clumps. I could have let this cook longer and continued chopping up the chunks until they were the size I wanted, but dinner needed to be made and these jars needed to get into the water bath. Enter the immersion blender. If you do not have one of these things, I would highly recommend getting one. I never thought I would use one of these as much as I have, but it is a great way of doing many things that would otherwise be a total mess. I am looking at you soup recipes that say to blend them up in a food processor. Now the whole point of not running this through a food mill is that I want some chunkiness, so when I used the blender I only blended up certain areas. I made sure that, even though the immersion blender is a blast to use, I only pulsed it around a few areas.

From here you should taste your sauce. Add sugar if you need to make it sweeter. You can also add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, mace, or nutmeg. I typically choose to not add spices to my canned sauce because I can add it later if needed for a certain recipe. You cannot take it away once it is in the jar after all. Make sure that you leave a generous inch of head space for the jars. I did that this year and still had more siphoning out of the jars than I would like. Perhaps the slow cooker does not keep the sauce hot enough to avoid this problem, or it could be the chunks releasing more of their fluid during the processing. Some day I will figure this out. Twelve pounds made three full quarts and two pints. I also had a little left over for dessert that night. Hopefully this will be enough to get us through to next year... somehow I doubt it!

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