A Good Place To Be

It’s a good day. Yesterday I experienced a big perspective shift that really knocked my socks off. I’ll share it with you soon.

I am a lucky girl. Here’s how I am blessed today:

1) We’re coming up on the half-way point in NaNo, and I’ve realized I will not finish my book by November 30. You want to know why? The story I am telling pleases me greatly. It has been easy to write up until this point. That may change tomorrow, but for now it’s cooking along well. But I will need more than 50K words to tell the story. Like, way more. I’ll meet the word goal, but I’ll only be about 1/3 of the way through the book. So I won’t write “The End” by November 30, but I will still be a winner. In a big way.

2) Last year’s project is speaking to me, also. It’s a story that still wants to be told and desires to see the light of day. I am getting excited about that story, too. And there are two other future works that are talking to me. I am a writer again.

3) Every time I ask my kids what they want for Christmas because grandparents are anxious to finish their shopping, they say “Um, I haven’t really thought about it.” Wow. They aren’t spending all their waking hours (or any time at all, actually) thinking of things they want people to buy them. They’re better at the whole contentment game than I was at their age.

4) I made a giant crockpot full of apple butter yesterday. Want the recipe? It’s easy. And the best part was that the Girl-child helped me make it.

5) I canned the apple butter this morning. I have nine jars lined up like little soldiers on my counter, and all of them sealed successfully. There is no sweeter sound than the ping of a sealing jar. Never canned before? It’s not too hard.  And you don’t need any special equipment to do it, I don’t care what the Ball jar box tells you. A big pot and a dish towel is all you need! Oh, and some jars. And some apple butter. Get peeling!

6) The depression that threatens to swallow me whole around the holidays hasn’t made its appearance, glory to God. It may show up at the door tomorrow, but for today I am not just functioning but thriving. I will take each good day as it come, and we’ll make the most of it.

7) Squish has become my cooking buddy. Yesterday he wanted to make muffins, so we found a good recipe and set to work. They were so good that we’re making them again today! I’ll try to take some pictures and share the recipe.

8) I’ve managed attended a write-in with real people in a real room. Writing has become a very solitary activity for me since I am no longer in close proximity to other writers. I grew up with AJ, and I always had a live and in-person collaboration buddy/idea bouncer off of-er/critic. I miss that. And her. So I attended a write-in. Next time I’ll get brave enough to introduce myself.

9) The last lesson I worked with my computer students on really captured their attention. They took notes, were engaged and interested, and they may remember what they learned for longer than a week. I really felt like a teacher.

So that is where I am. And where are you this fine day?

Yes, You Can!

Ta-daaaa! And you can do it, too!

This is a no-nonsense (okay, minimal nonsense) guide to canning apple butter. Please note that different types of food have different canning requirements, and this method isn’t right for all of them. Before using this method on other treats and tasties, please do a little research, or you may poison someone you care about. Accidentally. Not like that other time.

I was intimidated the first time I thought about preserving the fruits of my labor. I had watched my grandmother in the kitchen as a child, and it seemed that canning involved a lot of sweating, swearing, and steam, and since she used a pressure cooker to can, an element of fear, as well. I don’t go within 100 yards of a stove-top pressure cooker, so I did a bit of research before deciding to attempt canning on my own. I had to figure it all out by reading the jar packaging and filling in some really big blanks.  But you don’t. You have me. You’re so lucky!

And here’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to use a pressure cooker! Apple butter can be preserved using something called a hot-bath, which is nothing more than a large pot filled with water and lined on the bottom with a towel.

If you followed my apple butter recipe and really heaped those apples into the slow cooker until you couldn’t get the lid on, you’ll have enough goodies to make 8 half-pint jars and some left over for yourself. So let’s start.

What you’ll need:

What you need.

8 half-pint jars with lids and rings– I prefer Ball’s jelly jars. They make prettier gifts, but more importantly, the decorative scoring on the sides of the jars provide a better grip with your tongs. They also come with adorable labels and have more pronounced dimple in the lid when they are sealed. You can use rings more than once, but lids must be brand-spanky new.

***Jars are plentiful right now because it is harvest time. Buy some while you can find them easily. For first-time buyers, if you buy a box of jars, they will come with the lids and rings that you need.***

plastic knife – yes, it needs to be plastic. Apple butter is acidic, and a metal knife may lend a weird taste.

ladle – if you choose one that’s too big, filling the jars may get a little messy

hand towels– I have a lot on hand before I start. You’ll notice my collection is mismatched. I have a gas stove and usually set fire to at least one towel every time I can. My sister reads about it in my blog and buys me new ones for Christmas. I love my sister.

large, heavy pot– For my hot bath, I use the largest pot that came with my cookware set. My stock pot is actually bigger, but using something that deep puts you at serious risk for a scald when you try to remove the jars. Not kidding here. Steam will tear you up. The pot needs to be about an inch deeper than the jars are tall.

It's not haunted. It's lined with a towel. You need to do that, too, to protect your jars.

another big pot– this one doesn’t have to be as deep. You’ll use it to sterilize your jars

a tea kettle– I always keep extra boiling water available while I’m canning. You should, too. Better to have it and not need it…

A pair of tongs: Rubber-coated handle is a good thing. Less slippery and won’t conduct heat as quickly.

about two hours– you may not need this long. It took an hour and a half today, but it’s better to pad your schedule the first couple of times.

A word to the wise: Hot goes into hot! Always. Every single time. What this cryptic phrase means is that you want to can your apple butter while it is still hot. Best case scenario, the jar won’t seal. Worst case scenario, you have an explosion. Explosions are bad things. Hot goes into hot. My recipe takes around 13 hours, so I try not to even plug in the pot unless I’ll be ready to can it when it’s finished.

While I’m getting everything ready, I go ahead and fill the hot-bath pot, the sterilization pot, and the tea kettle and start them boiling.

STEP ONE: wash and sterilize your jars. Wash them in warm soapy water, and then put them in the shallower pot, which should now be boiling. Toss in the lids and rings, too, and let them bubble for 15 minutes. If you use your tongs to offer rats to your snake, go ahead and sterilize those, too.

killing germs is a good thing

Step Two: Fill your sterilized jars with yummy stuff to about 1/4 inch from the top.

Step Three: Use plastic knife to get out air bubbles. Carefully run the knife around the edge of the jar. Lightly thump the jar on the counter a couple of times, and run the knife around again. Air bubbles= spoiled food. Get rid of them.

You want a pink knife like mine. Admit it.

Step Four: Wipe the rim carefully. You want to get rid of any food or water droplets that will prevent your lid from making a seal. Once the rim is wiped, center the lid on the jar and screw on the ring.

Clean rim = good seal

Step Five: Add to hot-bath. Once you’ve got all of your jars in the bath (my pot holds four or five), turn the heat up and cover the jars with boiling water. You want to cover them with at least an inch of water.

Step Six: Start your timer after the water in the hot-bath has reached a steady boil. A bubble or two doesn’t count. A good, hard boil means that you can start your timer. Boil for 15-20 minutes. I like having a good chance at a seal, so I aim for 20. Use tongs. The water is hot, the apple butter is hot, everything is all splashy. If you ignore this advice, study up on some good swear words. You’ll be needing them.

Use tongs to set the jars carefully on top of the towel

Step Seven: Monitor your jars. Inevitably, some water will boil off, splash out, etc. You need to keep the water level fairly constant. Add water from the kettle as needed. Jars need to remain upright.

Step Eight: Remove the jars. Again, please use the tongs. You have them right there. Use them. Set the jars on towel on a counter where you won’t have to touch them for a bit. They are hot. And you’re waiting for them to seal.

The most satisfying part of canning for me is the sound of the jars sealing themselves. If you hear a noise like a distant gunshot, chances are good that a jar has sealed. If you are in the middle of a high-crime area, feel free to hit the deck, anyway, because safety always comes first. But if that muffled *pop* isn’t followed by sirens, give yourself a big high-five while you’re down there on the floor. Your venture into canning has been successful.

Seals that have not set within 12 hours aren’t going to. You’ll want to get a fresh lid and try it again from the beginning. Hot goes into hot, remember? And after 12 hours, it’s just not anymore. If you are unsure if your jar has sealed, push down on the middle of it. A sealed jar is one whose lid has no “give.” If it is slightly indented in the middle and doesn’t pop back up when gently pressed, it’s sealed. Congratulations. You’ve done it! If your lid initially has give, but it doesn’t pop back up after you’ve pressed on it, you’ve worked some magic and sealed it at that very second. It counts. Again, congrats!

All you have left to do is label the jars with the product and the date you created it, and you’re ready to make out your gift list. Apple butter stored by this method can keep for a year if it is unsealed. A caveat. Even if you seem to have done everything right, if you open the jar and there are little bubbles in it or if it smells weird, don’t eat it. Not worth it. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I read about it and thought it might be important to pass on.

The Flavors of Fall

I usually don’t post on weekends, but my blogging buddy tweeted yesterday that she went apple picking, and another pal posted on Facebook that honeycrisp apples (which I suspect were the delicacy responsible for the fall of  The Very First Lady, and may actually have been worth the consequences) have hit stores, and I am inspired! One of my favorite fall traditions is making apple butter in my slow-cooker, and the time is ripe.

Let me dissuade you of the illusion that I have always been steeped in traditional homemaking skills. I grew up watching my great-grandmother pick, cook and can her own fruits and vegetables and create beautiful quilts, and my grandmother sewed many of my dresses and was a skillful knitter,  but in my opinion, those skills were for old people. And since my mother was a single-parent who worked 45-50 hours a week, all that domesticity skipped a generation.

When I got married, I didn’t even know how to cook. Hamburger helper and canned green beans constituted fine-dining in those early days. I could scramble and egg and bake cookies, but those dishes do not exactly make for a balanced diet. Over time, I have branched out, and I am happy to say that I am now an adventurous cook, and definitely not a bad one.

Now I am a stay-at-home mom (and arguably rather old),  I am beginning to appreciate those skills possessed by the matriarchs as a lost art. One by one, I am trying to revive them. Since I am but a slow knitter, and I can’t sew a straight line, cooking is currently the skill at which I am most successful. Enter apple butter.

Here’s my confession. I love eating the stuff. And it makes a great gift for family members. At least the ones who know I actually like them and won’t look at the jar and wonder if I’m trying to do them in. Actually, I’m not above messing with anyone’s head, but I hate to waste food, so I stick to the people I like. What I love most about apple butter, though, is not the taste or the mind games. I love the way it makes my house smell. Like cinnamon and the spices. The fragrance of fall. It’s  simply incredible. Unless you burn it, but I’m not going there.

I do things a little differently than my Nanny. She stirred apples on the stove-top for hours on end, until they were a delicious, caramelized mush. But face it. She raised her kids during the Great Depression. They didn’t have access to the many and various ways to do bodily harm that my kids do. I use my crock pot.

I do bow to tradition in one way. I don’t use those gadgets that will peel/slice/core an apple for you in 30 seconds. My apples are peeled and sliced by hand. It takes an hour or two, but here’s the cool part. My daughter joins me. The time that we spend together here is magic, time we spend actually talking. She is now fourteen, and I find myself greedy for these interludes of conversation and laughter. She may eventually become suspicious and wonder why we are making 6 batches of the stuff, when we normally make only two. I hope she doesn’t catch on for awhile.

So here it is, the recipe you’ve all been waiting for. Or skipped all the other drivel to get to:

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

4 1/2 – 5lbs of apples (no exact measure, but you want so many apples that the top doesn’t quite fit on the cooker) peeled, cored, and sliced thin

4 C sugar (you knew it was going to be good, right?!)

3 tsp cinnamon

1/4  tsp cloves

Combine sugar and spices. Pour apples in large bowl and pour sugar mixture over it. Mix it all up.

Dump in slow-cooker and cook on high for an hour

Decrease heat to low and cook for 9-11 hours, stirring occasionally

Uncover and cook for another hour

Whisk until smooth (I sometimes use an electric hand mixer, but really hot stuff will go flying)

Can in half-pint jars immediately (I’ll post instructions in another blog, if anyone is interested