We got a generous taste of early winter over the past few days. A strong storm front moved into our area on Halloween (Thursday, October 31) carried by strong, gusty winds that descended Cave Mountain and stripped away the remaining fall colors from the trees. The winds howled at more than 30 MPH at times throughout the long, dark night. It brought with it over an inch of rain, leaving us with a three-inch surplus of rainfall for the month of October. Whatever slight drought conditions we experienced in August and September were completely washed away in October. As the skies began to clear on Friday morning (November 1), I was surprised to notice a number of snowflakes drifting in on the intermittent gusts of wind that swept through our yard. The dry air that swept in behind the front treated us to the heaviest killing frost that we have seen this season, with a morning low of 23 degrees just before sunrise on November 2. All of this is a sudden change from the sunny, calm, and warm autumn days that preceded it and blessed us with the most brilliant and glorious fall foliage we have seen in our area over the past five or six years. We will always remember the weather we experienced here in 2019 as one of the most pleasant and comfortable years we have enjoyed here at Peeper Pond Farm.
Now that the harvest season has ended, we have turned our attention to helping our good friends, Jeff and Amanda Barger, make Apple Butter at their North Mill Creek Road homestead farm. We helped them harvest their wheat crop last year, and we were eager to work with them and their friends again this year to process seven bushels of apples into rich and creamy homemade apple butter. Processing apples into apple butter is just as labor and time intensive as processing wheat into flour; it’s just done over a more concentrated period of time. The process began on Friday afternoon as we all gathered to peel and core all of the baskets of apples. We used both paring knives and hand-cranked apple peelers to accomplish the task, which required at least four hours of intensive work.
The work resumed early on Saturday morning (November 2), which was dedicated to boiling the apples down into a creamy butter. The boiling process was completed over a wood fire in a very large iron cauldron lined on the inside with copper. The sliced chunks of apples were gradually poured into the kettle along with water and a small amount of vinegar. The vinegar helps reduce the apples into applesauce, which could be later amended and thickened into apple butter. The apples must be stirred constantly to keep them from burning from the intense heat of the wood fire.
Stirring the boiling apples is the most time-intensive and laborious part of the process. We all took turns stirring the apples as they simmered using a traditional, handcrafted apple butter stirring paddle. This specialized device has a very long (at least four feet long) handle to which a wide, flat slotted paddle is attached at the end, perpendicular to the handle. The long handle is needed to allow the person stirring the butter to stand a safe distance from the intense heat of the fire. It also helps to do the work on a cool, fall day, like the one to which we were treated on the day we simmered the apples. Our biggest problem was having to “dance” around the kettle to remain upwind of the woodsmoke carried by the shifting gentle breeze. All the while, the deliciously sweet aroma that rose with the steam from the simmering apples lured us closer to the cauldron.
When boiling a large volume of apples, as we did, a long period of time is required to simmer the apples down into a smooth sauce, which thickens as the water content gradually boils away. At that point, seasoning can be added to taste. Jeff and Amanda prefer a mild, sweet apple butter, so they added a small amount of cinnamon and about 30 to 40 pounds of sugar. Those people who prefer to make very spicy (hot) apple butter will add a larger amount of cinnamon and some cloves to the sauce. The best way to settle on a recipe that you prefer is to experiment until you produce the best results. There are many apple butter recipes to choose from and the process can be done using a smaller and more manageable volume of apples.
We have yet to learn how many quarts of apple butter the batch produced. We had to leave early in the afternoon on Saturday, so we didn’t have the opportunity to see how much apple butter was eventually produced. However, we did receive some left-over peeled and sliced apples, which Barb cooked into six half-pint jars of applesauce. She had already canned two quarts of apple pie filling earlier in the week to save for our upcoming Thanksgiving desert. Harvesting and preserving apples for the long, hard winter, no matter how it is done, is one of the traditional homesteading skills that we and many of our friends and neighbors continue to cherish and practice. We hope you will want to try it, too. It can be a lot of work, but I’m sure you will find the tasty reward to be well worth the effort.