I know a woman who takes a week off from work each December and bakes over 5000 cookies to give away as gifts. She’s a Christmas Cookie Warrior. In fact, I’m trying to arrange spending some time with her during that confection-a-thon to learn a few recipes and document the whole legendary and impressive process for myself (which I will, of course share here). Me? I’m making apple butter to give away, adapted from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, because, and I know this seems impossible coming from Thomas Keller, it’s so damn easy. But, as expected from Thomas Keller, it is so damn delicious. I’m not just saying this because Keller is my son’s boss and owner/executive chef of Per Se in NYC, (French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc too). I had a chef-crush (a non-romantic, culinary-based admiration, if you don’t mind!) on him way back when my son was in culinary school. Pictured here in 2009 on the campus of Culinary Institute of America, I am an unabashed fan, waiting with a dumb smile on my face, for Chef Keller to autograph my just-purchased copy of Ad Hoc. My son, is off hiding somewhere, hoping I won’t embarrass him in front of the chef he hoped, back then, would be his future boss. See, Max, even my ridiculous obsessed-fan smile did not ruin your prospects!
Back to the apple butter. Keller’s recipe couldn’t be easier. It’s all done in a slow cooker! You don’t even have to peel or core the apples!
If you don’t want to take the 8-10 hours needed to finish this in a slow cooker, you can do it on the stove top, as I did, in about an hour and a half, but you will need a food mill, either way you go. I take that back. If you don’t have a food mill, you can peel and core the apples before cooking them, and when they are soft from the first round of cooking, you can simply break them down to a “sauce” consistency in a food processor or blender.
Keller’s math on sugar content is “1 cup for every 2 cups of finished apple puree” but I cut that in half for a tarter, but plenty sweet, final product. You decide for yourself.
Add a mix of wonderful spices that will make your house smell like Christmas, (or Chanuka, because can you imagine how incredible this would taste on potato pancakes?), then a full cup of Champagne vinegar gives it that sophisticated sweet-sour gastrique quality, a little lemon zest and juice and the patience to reduce the liquid out of it to get a “thicker than applesauce but not as thick as jam” consistency. Then it’s ready for the jars, which you can can or not can. If you choose to can them so they don’t have to be refrigerated, and last for up to a year in the pantry, just follow strict directions for proper canning because ptomaine poisoning is not on the list of happy holiday gifts! And if you don’t go through that process, please let your friends and family know that the butter does have to be refrigerated and will last about a month that way.
If you can’t take a week off from work to make cookies, but love the idea of giving a little homemade, edible love for the holidays just the same, (or just want some for yourself to slather over Big Fluffy Potato Pancakes on Chanuka or buttery toast or waffles on Christmas morning), go ahead and make some. It’s Thomas Keller, after all….and it’s easy!
Slow Cooker Spice Apple Butter
Adapted from Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller
Makes about 4 cups
4 lbs sweet, crisp apples (Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Gravenstein, Golden Delicious or Fuji or a combination of two different kinds)
1 cup champagne vinegar
2 cups water
2 ½ cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
Grated zest and juice of one lemon
1. Heat a slow cooker to high. Remove apple stems and cut the apples, including the cores, into 1-inch-wide wedges. Put the apples in the slow cooker, add the vinegar and water, cover, and cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours, stirring every hour until the apples are soft enough to puree through a food mill.
2. Set a food mill with a medium screen over a large bowl and puree the apples. Discard solids that don’t pass through, like skin and seeds. Measure how much puree you ended up with. You should have about 8 cups. Thomas Keller recommends using 1 cup of sugar for every 2 cups of puree. I think this is very sweet, so I use half that much, but you can sweeten to your own tastes.
3. Stir in sugar, and remaining ingredients to the puree, and return the mixture to the slow cooker, and continue to cook uncovered for another 3-4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes or so, until the apple butter is thicker than applesauce, but not as thick as a jam.
4. Spoon butter into jars or other storage containers, cover and let cool. Refrigerate or you may “can” these according to safe canning procedures to store unrefrigerated.
Quick Stovetop Version: Alternately, this recipe can be made on the stove top in much less time. Use a heavy pot over medium heat, cooking the apples for a shorter period of time….or until the apples are soft enough to pass through a food mill in the first section, and then until the puree is thick in the second section. The benefit of using the slow cooker is that you don’t have to be attending the pot as much as you do if it’s on a flame. If you do this stovetop, you must stir more often to prevent burning and to encorage even cooking.
Need an even quicker version? Don’t tell Chef Keller, but you can: warm 1 cup of water in a large saucepan, dissolve 2 ½ cups of sugar in the water. Take 8 cups of prepared applesauce (organic, unsweetened) and process in blender for 1 minute or until very smooth in texture. Place into saucespan with water/sugar mixture. Add spices, vinegar, lemon zest and lemon juice and simmer on medium heat until most of the moisture has evaporated and the sauce has thickened to be thicker than an applesauce, but a little thinner than a jam.