Some years ago, a friend asked me if I would show her how to make applesauce, one of the simplest and safest home canning projects. Before we knew it, there were seven of us spending a series of autumn days in canning parties that inspire intense devotion among the participants. None of us really has the time to allot to it and yet we all do, like religion, week after week in the fall. We meet about half a dozen times during peak apple time. This is our seventh season.
I’m pretty confident that we’re not saving money by making our own applesauce. I’m absolutely certain that we’re not saving time. But homemade applesauce makes snobs of everyone who tries it, and a lot of problems get solved at my kitchen table that have nothing to do with the free market prices of labor or applesauce.
I’ve been asked if we listen to music while we work, but what we listen to is each other. There is so much talking. We swap home contractors and health care providers, we cover school troubles (“my son hit that same slump in fourth grade!”) and health issues (“we tried everything under the sun for that and it was acupuncture that finally addressed it”). We chew over the challenges of balancing work and family, family and parents, success and peace of mind. We chop and measure and taste and adjust for spice and sweetness. Everything gets balanced at that table, and while we all slink in feeling like we can’t spare the hours, we pirouette out completely energized.
It helps that we are spending what feels like epic 'me’ time engaged in making food that we feed our families all winter. That sssukpop of the lids as they are opened brings us back from deep February to the memory of early fall afternoons and long conversations. They say firewood warms you twice, so I hardly know how to calculate the nourishing properties of applesauce made in a group by friends and divvied among their homes. We all confess to many minutes of winter meditation spent admiring the jars on the shelves before we dive in, and next year’s occasions are ever-present in our minds as we track what flavor got eaten first, what was enjoyed most deeply, and what’s still untouched.
All of the people who participate are aces in the kitchen, which definitely elevates the potluck snacks, but most of them never canned or preserved much before this group came together. We take some gorgeous detours into jams and chutneys and butters now that we have our chops down as a group, but the backbone of the operation continues to be applesauce, which is such a basic, safe item to play with that you should feel no trepidation about jumping in as a novice canner.
We’re fortunate to live in a very well-appled part of New England, where pick-your-own farms are as abundant as apple trees in yards, so sourcing fruit is usually the easy part. And it’s likely that working as a group and enjoying the flavors and scents of your shared labors might well translate to what’s abundant in your neck of the woods.
If it’s apples where you are, too, and you want to start your own home canning parties this apple(sauce) season, keep these tips in mind. And then read through my own tried-and-true method to see if it's right for your own group.
Note: A full size canning pot holds 7 quart jars, which will require about 21 pounds of apples. A bushel of apples weighs in around 48 pounds. In my kitchen, we have determined that 5 people (the optimal number for the space; more is definitely not better) can process, from raw fruit to hot jars lined proudly across the counter, 2 to 3 bushels of apples in about 4 hours, pausing occasionally for sustenance and self-congratulation.
Fill big pot #1 to within a few inches of the rim with apple cheeks. Fill the second with peeled chunks. To each pot, add water to come about 1/3 of the way up the side. Place both over medium-low heat and cover.
Stir both pots often to ensure even cooking and prevent scorching—hot spots develop very easily even in high-quality pots, are IMPOSSIBLE to scour off, and make the applesauce taste funny.
When the apples are tender in pot #1, the skins sprung from the meat, attack the pot with the immersion blender until the contents are utterly smooth with no evidence of peel. Work quickly to retain heat, then return pot to a low flame and stir often.
Over in pot #2, once the chunks are tender, use the potato masher to break up the chunks into a rough purée. Now combine the contents of both pots in one (or redistribute among two).
Taste for a balance of sweetness and tartness, and adjust as desired by beginning with a tablespoon each of lemon juice and sweetener until the flavor is just right—or try one of the flavor variations below.
Added after blending and combining, except where noted.
1) Lemon Ginger
2) Vanilla Caramel
Add 1 to 2 inches of vanilla bean to the pot with the raw, peeled apples. Once it’s soft, split and scrape the bean, discarding the pod, and mash the scrapings with the apples. Cook 1 cup of sugar in a small, heavy pan, until you have a richly brown caramel syrup. Carefully (as in, face averted) stir this into the pot of hot, milled applesauce. It will crackle and hiss, form a solid, and then dissolve. Fresh ginger gilds the lily nicely here.
What do you cook from scratch even though you know it doesn't save time or money? Tell us in the comments!
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