A bounty year for applesauce

For reasons that remain a mystery, the backyard trees sprouted apples for the first time in 10 years. Homely and organic in appearance, homemade applesauce is a tasty solution for the bounty.

Owen Thomas
Homemade applesauce is relatively simple: just boil down the fruit and add sugar, spices, and a dash of salt.

New England is awash in apples this year. Apple trees that had been dormant for years are suddenly dripping with fruit, thanks to the demise of the dreaded winter moth, which has eaten the blossoms and leaves of apple, maple, hawthorn, you name it, every spring for maybe the past 10 years – unless you spray for them, which we didn’t.

We did put strips of duck tape around the trees in our backyard, and slathered them with a sticky substance that would trap the adult moths as they climbed up the trees to lay their eggs. Each fall I’d rejoice at the number of insects we’d caught, and each spring it would be the same story. The valiant trees would sometimes have to put out a second set of leaves – but never blossoms or fruit.

This year was different. Was it a late or deep frost? A damp spring? Whatever the cause, the five apple trees we inherited when we moved to our home on Boston’s North Shore bloomed and set fruit.

When I say “apples,” you probably picture those gleaming, unblemished, uniformly sized orbs you see in stores. That is not what untamed organic apples look like. Store apples, I’ve come to realize, are gigantic idealized freaks of nature. Most people – and I’m one of them – are appalled when they find a bruise or a tiny hole on an apple. Finding a worm in an apple is ample cause for a heated complaint to the produce manager. The apples in my yard are an education.

These must be the apples our pioneer forebears knew. Apples, it turns out – these apples, anyway – come in a wide variety of sizes, from tiny (golf-ball size) to about the size of a medium store-bought apple. They have mottled green skins, sometimes with a splash of red on them (Cortlands?). Some turn yellow (Golden Delicious?). They are mostly roundish. They have visible insect damage, and perhaps those are squirrel bites. Skunk bites? I hope not. Birds peck them occasionally.

But as our friend who grew up on an Oregon fruit farm said, as she picked up a fallen apple and carefully selected a place to bite into it, “There’s some good on this apple....” That’s all the encouragement I needed. I decided to make some homemade applesauce. 

Here's what you need: a sharp knife, a sink or big bowl to wash the apples in, a pasta pot or kettle with a lid in which to heat the apples. A food mill (what a time-saver!) and a bowl to set it on, and a spatula. Brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg (if you like), and salt (if you want). I cannot say how many apples you will need. I start with a lot and and end up using bits from maybe half of them.

Here’s what to do: Assuming that you have access to some free, homely apples, go outside with a big plastic tub (bigger than a bushel basket, about half the height of a garbage can) and a sturdy basket. Toss most of the apples – you have to quickly spot the "worth it" from the "not worth it" – into the plastic tub. These bad apples will go to the town composting yard. It may seem like a lot, but you have to pick up all the apples anyway, in order to mow the lawn and to keep the critters in the fallen apples from climbing back into the tree. Every once in a while, you’ll spot apples that are large enough and unblemished enough (no visible bites or very many holes, or even none) worth putting in the basket. Most of these apples will be recent windfalls.

Bring the basket inside and wash the apples. I rinse them off and then let them bob in a big bowl of water. I might scrub them a bit, too. I have the confidence of knowing exactly where they’ve been.

Cut up the apples. Because you’ll be using a food mill, you don’t have to worry about peeling them – or about stems or seeds. But since most of the really gross bugs are in the core, I use a chef’s knife to cut slices away from the core; four cuts. I look at each slice, before I add it to the pot that will become sauce. I cut off bits of the slices, sometimes. Many times I discard entire apples. Sometimes several in a row. But I can usually find a little bit of good on each apple. And maybe once every 20 apples or so, I find a perfect one, worthy of a grocery store. The skin is rough, perhaps, but unblemished, and the flesh is unsullied, white and crisp: It’s a miracle! A vindication of nature’s profligacy. There are too many apples even for the insects or birds or squirrels to get to every one of them. Wow.

I cut them up until I’ve got the pot maybe two-thirds or even three-quarters full. I pour a little water in, maybe half a cup or a little more, cover it, and put it on medium heat until it starts to boil. I turn it down to simmer and stir it every 10 minutes at least. My last batch took an hour and 15 minutes before it was mushy enough – a fork should pierce the apples easily. Err on the side of overcooking rather than not cooking long enough.

Turn off the heat, and ladle some apples (two or three ladles full) into the food mill, which you’ve placed over a bowl, and start turning. The mill will separate the skins, seeds, and stems, and you’ll have applesauce. Dump out what won’t go through the mill (compost it), and ladle in some more until you’re done.

While the apple sauce is still hot, dump in some brown sugar. How much? To a good 6 cups of sauce, I added about one-third of a cup, plus a teaspoon of cinnamon, 10 gratings of nutmeg, and eight or 10 shakes of salt. (Sugar and salt, you ask? Salt is a flavor intensifier, but feel free to leave it out.) Use more or less, according to taste, and remember that it’s easy to add more, but impossible to take some back out. Keep tasting as you go. I let the bowl of sauce cool on the counter and then I cover it and put it in the fridge until I’m ready to decant it.

It turns out you can freeze apple sauce in glass jars if you leave enough headspace in the jar for expansion. The water in the apple sauce will expand by 9 percent when it freezes, so fill the jars a little less than 9/10ths full and you’ll be fine. I use a jar funnel and a ladle to fill them, and I make sure there are no air pockets in the jar. I also put some waxed paper on top, touching the surface of the sauce, to protect against freezer burn. I just rip out a square, push it down so it touches and covers the surface of the apple sauce, and screw on the lid, trapping some of the waxed paper in the threads. This is optional, too.  

Congratulate yourself for a job well done, for putting by some delicious food, for connecting with your pioneer forbears. Relax, and rest up. Tomorrow there will be more apples on the lawn.

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