I had a love-hate relationship with the basement of my childhood home. I hated that the cellar was always cool, dark, and creepy no matter how many lights I’d turn on. The whole space freaked me out, especially the old coal bin, but nothing made my heart beat faster than those first few steps from the top when the staircase became open underneath.
Goodness only knew what was waiting for me under there.
As it turned out, nothing ever was, but of course I knew what was sitting just behind there up against the wall: shelves and shelves of deliciousness. That’s where my grandmother kept the jarred tomatoes, peaches, “chow chow” (Pennsylvania Dutch-style pickled vegetables), various fruit jams, and so much more.
Enter love — and the requisite motivation to conquer my fear of the cellar.
I wish I could say it got easier after the first time I descended only to find nothing threatening or scurrying about. Nope.
Fears aren’t very formidable opponents if they go away that easily.
It took a while. Years probably. Even writing about it now, I’m right back there, that little girl staring into darkness, heart beating wildly, taking deep breaths as I prepare to run as fast as I can down there, get whatever I was sent for, and run back upstairs. I can proudly say, though, there was never a time I flat out refused to make the trip. Not once. Of course my family never gave me the option of doing so either.
Sometimes you just have to fake the courage and play through the fear.
And sometimes fears don’t get conquered at all. Sure if you’re lucky like me, eventually something gives, and you can walk at a leisurely pace up and down the cellar stairs without an anxious wave sweeping over your body. Calmness and peace isn’t always possible, but the good news is that if you’ve played through the fear, the end result is pretty much the same — you’ll have accomplished what you set out to do, and you should be proud.
I had forgotten all about those creepy stairs until I got to thinking about canning and jarring here. As many of you have witnessed, over the past several years I’ve been moving toward making just about everything from scratch. Canning and jarring, though, still hasn’t been on my radar despite having grown up with it.
Could it have been the subconscious scary cellar connotation that was holding me back? Quite possibly, yes, along with a healthy fear of botulism, but whatever the reason, I recently decided it was high time for me to break out the jars and get moving — to play through.
Fake it till you make it.
And I’m in the perfect setting for it. Here in rural southern Italy, seasonal eating and preserving is a way of life for many as we simply can’t find most fruits and vegetables out of season — and believe me, I’m not complaining. Strawberries are an anxiously anticipated treat and the flavors of everything are at their best when we have them. So it makes sense to stock up on your favorites when they’re around and preserve them as best you can for months when you won’t find them fresh. Besides that, preserves are always a great snack slathered on some fresh bread, and they make thoughtful gifts as well.
Best of all, the canning and jarring process simply warms the soul.
If you haven’t done it, you probably think I’m crazy, but if you regularly make preserves, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Allow yourself to really be present during the process, fake that confidence if you must, but be mindful and appreciate each step on the way to the finished product. For me, every stir of the preserves pulls me that much closer to the generations that have come before me. There’s something fundamentally comforting about carrying out an age-old process while I let my iPod Touch lie silent in the other room and the only sounds I hear are the spitting and bubbling of the preserves and our rooster Jimmy crowing in the distance. Seriously, it’s like he does these things on cue.
Apple butter, for those who don’t know, is a Pennsylvania Dutch creation, a spiced apple spread; there is no butter involved unless you spread that on your bread before putting on the apple butter (yum!). Not surprisingly, apple butter isn’t on grocery shelves in Calabria and good homemade apple butter may not be easy for you to find either, but the ingredients aren’t difficult to locate for most of us. So with a desire for a taste from home, I knew I had the perfect Sunday morning project for me when I revisited Mary’s recipe for apple butter (anche in italiano) at The Flavors of Abruzzo.
Although making apple butter is time-consuming because of the stirring on the stove, it’s actually not difficult at all — the apples are handled within a few minutes at the beginning (no peeling or coring), and you can adjust the sugar, salt, and spices along the way, so it’s hard to mess up the flavor as well. I’ve seen recipes that call for specific kinds of apples, but I took Mary’s advice and just used a mix of whatever was at the market that week — worked a charm. Also, you can easily cut in half or double, triple this recipe depending on your needs.
May this apple butter remind us that facing a heart-thumping fear can indeed lead to sweet, sweet reward — figuratively, of course, but also quite literally if your grandmother happens to store all the good food in the dark, creepy basement.
Homemade Apple Butter
(Adapted from Mary’s recipe at The Flavors of Abruzzo)
- 4 lbs apples
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 cups water
- Sugar (measurements below)
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
*NOTE: I got about four pint-sized (average marmalade-sized) jars of apple butter and one small jar of applesauce out of this recipe, but I believe I used slightly more apples than the recipe called for.
1. Wash apples, cut out any damaged parts, and cut into quarters. Leave the skins and cores as you want the flavors from those, and they’ll take care of themselves later.
2. Put apples in a pot and cover with vinegar and water. Bring them to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until they are soft enough to be put through a food mill. To test this, take out a piece, put it on a plate, and mash with a fork. If that happens easily, they are ready, but if there is resistance, let them cook some more.
3. Remove apples from pot with slotted spoon and put in food mill for processing. My technique is to have an empty bowl on the side for the apple remnants from the top of the food mill once it starts to gets messy and crowded up there; save those remnants because you can run them through a few more times and get lots more puree out of them. If you enjoy homemade applesauce, congratulations! You’ve just made some.
Once you’ve churned the apples down as much as you possibly can, you should end up with very little waste — and if you happen to have chickens, well they’re in for a treat that day.
4. Add 1/4 cup of sugar for each cup of puree (50 grams of sugar for each 300 grams of puree). Stir through and then a pinch of salt and add spices. I say cloves are optional above because I’m personally not a huge fan of cloves, but do feel free to play around with measurements and spices.
5. Taste and adjust.
6. Put puree in a wide, thick-bottomed pot (you don’t want this to burn, so the thicker the better) and simmer on low heat, stirring constantly. This takes between one and two hours, so do set aside the proper time.
7. To test if the apple butter is done, put a spoonful on a cold plate. You want the apple butter to remain solid with no liquid seeping out.
8. Put apple butter in sterilized jars, top with sterilized lids, and boil for 10 minutes. Once they’re done, turn off heat, take off lid, and just let the jars in there until they’re cooled off.
For a fuller explanation, see Canning Basics for Preserving Food. And for lots more canning, jarring, and other ideas for at-home preparations of food, be sure to check out the community at Punk Domestics.