SUMMER FRUITS ARE all about abundance: dishes of berries and cream, baking pans full of peach cobbler, the annual rush to preserve any extras before they pass their prime. I typically haul our canning pot out of storage for late June strawberries and pack it away with a sigh in September after the last stone fruits are gone.
Until this year, it never struck me that fall and winter provide equally good opportunities — sometimes even better.
Winter citrus fruits and pome fruits like apples and pears generally store well; they don’t spoil overnight like those fragile pints of strawberries or yielding summer plums. There’s no race-against-time tension built into their arrival; it’s fine if I use those fruits a few days later than planned.
Then, the weather. A summer heat wave is a huge disincentive for spending hours around pots of boiling water and simmering fruits.
Nothing changed about the harvests or heat index this year. But the food distribution system was far different, as was my state of mind.
The first light bulb went off when a friend drove up from California in February, just as COVID fears began percolating, dropping off a big bag of Meyer lemons at our door. I used some to make marmalade for the first time, and still had leftovers. Preserved lemons made for an easy quarantine project with a big payoff. (The basic recipe is lemons + kosher salt + time; we used the version at Simple Recipes, simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_make_preserved_lemons/.) Preserved lemons are expensive by the jar, so we felt rich being able to chop them into spreads or sauces with abandon.
Once we started minimizing in-person shopping trips and buying food in larger quantities, the fruit started piling higher on our counters. Friends with backyard apple trees offered bags from a record harvest. Farmers and farmers markets created new purchasing and delivery options, most notably for us when Collins Family Orchards started delivering cases to Seattle doorsteps without requiring enrollment in an ongoing CSA program.
Applesauce and pear sauce are easy ways to use up pounds and pecks of fruit. Some recipes for those involve just simmering the peeled, cored and chopped fruit with a little water; others call for cooking it with sugar and lemon juice to taste. Purée it or don’t, depending on the texture you like.
With the mixed blessing of extra time at home, I decided to go further and experiment with apple butter. The thick spread actually contains no butter; it’s just cooked much longer and lower than our usual jams.
It’s been some time since I stepped out of my set routines of summer jam recipes: first strawberry balsamic, then blackcap raspberry, apricot, Mirabelle plum, huckleberry. I retrieved the canning equipment from summer storage, pulled out my Ball Blue Book of preserving recipes, then asked the human research library that is Twitter whether I really had to peel all those apples. (No, but if I skipped that step, I did have to pull out our little-used food mill, the kind I remember my grandmother using to make applesauce.) I didn’t cook the first batch long enough; my colleague Jill Lightner informed me it takes “somewhere close to forever” to cook down. With that in mind, and a good two hours more on the stovetop, Batch #2 was silky and rich.
I sent a jar to my mother for the landmark birthday I’d originally planned to spend at her East Coast house before COVID interrupted such gatherings. As we all get older, such celebrations feel like their own race against time, and it hurts to miss even one.
At that level, preserving fruit is about more than home economics or hobbies. It freezes a moment in time like a sensory snapshot, and lets us share that moment with others. Right now, I’m glad to have the opportunity year-round.
Yield: about 3 pints
4 pounds apples
4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cloves
To prepare pulp: Wash apples. Core, peel and quarter apples. Combine apples and 2 cups water in a large saucepot. Simmer until apples are soft. Purée using a food processor or food mill, being careful not to liquefy. Measure 2 quarts apple pulp.
To make butter: Combine apple pulp, sugar and spices in a large saucepot. Cook slowly until thick enough to round up on a spoon. As mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking. Ladle hot butter into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch head space. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two-piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner.
Note: If butter becomes too thick, add water or apple juice for desired consistency.
(Cook’s note: If you are using the food mill, no need to peel the apples first.)
— recipe from the Ball Blue Book guide to preserving