Face Your Fears with Homemade Apple Butter

Homemade apple butter

Homemade apple butter

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.


Apple butter cooking on the stove

Apple butter cooking on the stove

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.


Face Your Fears with Homemade Apple Butter  on Punk DomesticsApple 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)

Homemade apple butter

  • 4 lbs apples
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • Sugar (measurements below)
  • Salt
  • 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.

Apples through the food mill

Apples through the food mill

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.

The jar on the right was gone by the next evening.

The jar on the right was gone by the next evening.

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.Β  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.

Buon appetito!

25 Beans of Wisdom to “Face Your Fears with Homemade Apple Butter”
  1. I think that the universe is sending me a message. This is the second apple butter post I have read recently and I have heard people mention it in casual conversation so much (not a usual thing) that I am beginning to think that someone out there wants me to make apple butter. Okay universe. I got the message.

    Hahaha listen up! Enjoy, Joanne πŸ™‚

  2. 03.02.2011

    Looks really nice – and would give me a nice opportunity to get better acquaited with that indispensable Italian mill contraption. (Never felt quite safe using it).

    Oh you must! It’s a wonderful contraption indeed — was the first thing P’s mom ever gave me and it’s really wonderful with tomatoes for sauce πŸ™‚

  3. I really like apple butter, will try this recipe this weekend


  4. 03.02.2011

    I have to admit that it has been years since I’ve taken advantage of local produce and canned something– like strawberry jam or green pepper jelly. Perhaps, thanks to you reminding me that I can do it, I’ll give canning a whirl this summer when the crops are fresh.

    P.S. During my early years I lived in a house with a creepy coal bin in the basement, too. I shudder just thinking about that space. *ick*

    Go for it, Ally! And too funny about the coal bin memories…seems it scarred quite a few of us!

  5. 03.02.2011

    “indispensible Italian mill contraption?” we have one that we bought in Boise, Idaho, USA!

    A good fruit butter that you must also try is Plum butter, AKA Marmellata dei prugni…

    Sounds great Mimi; perhaps this year πŸ™‚

  6. 03.02.2011

    How lovely! Apple butter…is there anything more homey? I made pear butter (http://www.lemontart.ca/2010/11/pear-butter-with-vanilla-and-lemon.html), which while not quite as homey, is another keeper. I love your jars btw!

    Who says it’s not as homey? I have gotten to love pears more over the years, and that looks like a wonderful way to extend their season to me! Thanks for coming by and sharing, Tami!

  7. Caterina B

    Fabulous apple butter! I, too, am trying to make more and more of our food from scratch. I caught myself thinking the other day while I was at the store , “I could make that myself!” It was pickles. I could and should make my own pickles. And I will. Next summer. I promise! I have to confess I was also buying jam. I do make my own jam but ran out. I also have canned our tomatoes. Now they look at bit strange in the jar and I wonder if I should use them? I followed the recipe carefully. Probably when in doubt, don’t use them.

    I want to do pickles this year too, although I have to plan further ahead and get some dill seeds over here for dill pickles. As for the tomatoes, how strange do they look? Growing things? Color change? I’m with you that I wouldn’t risk it…wonder what happened?

  8. 03.03.2011

    Hubby loves apple butter and once we have the equipment (and storage space) to can this is first on the list of what to make.

    Enjoy Mama Kelly! Love that name πŸ™‚

  9. 03.03.2011

    So glad you faced your fears! There is nothing as wonderful as preserving your own food. I agree it really is a way of reaching through the generations and connecting with our ancestors.

    I suppose people reap different benefits from the same activities, but I definitely feel the connection so strongly…thank you for your back-up on that, Teresa πŸ™‚

  10. Laura

    Thanks for the memories. I love apple butter! I also had a scary Pennsylvania cellar in our 1842 Chester County farmhouse – we had a jelly cupboard down there that was full of grape jelly…we had a huge apple butter kettle and used to have apple butter making gatherings. Did you ever eat scrapple? Thanks for this post – the recipe makes my mouth water.

    I have, Laura, and I’m not a fan — my Pennsylvania Dutch mom LOVES it though so she’s fully permitted to have my share. You know, I’m going to have to do grape jelly next year…with all the grapes around here for wine, can you believe they don’t do a grape jelly? Guess all the grapes really DO go to wine hahahaha πŸ™‚

  11. Gil

    Really sounds delicious! Something else to try when I bug my sisters in PA and get talked into going to Lancaster.

    Yes, Gil, highly recommended!

  12. 03.03.2011

    Funny, my aunt’s funny cellar with preserves and spiders is one of my best childhood memories.

    Well I loved the *food* in the cellar — not so much the atmosphere πŸ˜‰

  13. 03.03.2011

    Maybe it is a PA thing, but you brought back a host of memories for me today. Our cellar steps are just as yours were and I remember that same trepidation at having to go down to the cellar and get something for my mom. I also remember chowchow, canned tomatoes and jams, apple sauce and apple butter, and my mom’s homemade dill pickles in the homely wooden cupboard in the back of the cellar, behind the furnace (where it was dark and scary). Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

    That’s hilarious, Jill…who knew?! πŸ˜€

  14. saretta

    Sounds good to me, but I wonder if your Paolo likes it. So many Puglians hate anything with spices. They hate cinnamon in particular it seems. Fear of new flavors seems to be a big one around here!

    Oh Paolo hasn’t even tried it yet. I’ve never seen him eat any kind of marmalade or jam, so I didn’t have high hopes for this. He did like my cinnamon rolls though!

  15. 03.04.2011

    Lovely post.. I remember the stairs in my Pennsylvania grandmother’s home. It was dark and scary down there too… earthy smells, the dusty coal cellar monster… and dozens and dozens of jars full of goodies. A couple years after she died, I found a jar of pickled eggs that somehow had been overlooked. It was worth the risk to taste her cooking one more time. And they were perfect – pinky purple from the beets, slightly rubbery in the best way possible.

    As for apple butter, I remember the neighborhood getting together to make it in a large kettle, stirring with a long wooden paddle. On the way to school we’d hang out the bus windows and smell that gorgeous smell. And on the way home, we hoped that somehow Grandma had secured some of the communal bounty. Nothing like fresh apple butter. NOTHING. πŸ™‚ Thanks for reminding me, Michelle.

    Hahaha just love this…thanks so much for sharing AmyEmilia!

  16. 03.08.2011

    So what’s the difference between apple butter and apple sauce? Is it that you cook it until it’s thicker, and make it more smooth? I’ve bought it many a time, but never made it. I’ve made apple sauce and strawberry jam, but never a butter.

    Here in California we don’t have basements or cellars, so the scariest thing at Grandma’s house was the long dark hallway you had to go down to get to the bathroom. Still scary, and no yummy apple butter waiting for me at the end! If a long hallway scared me, a cellar probably would have killed me.

    We lived in Alaska for a few years when I was a girl, and there was a cellar there with an entrance from the outside. Maybe for storms? We never went down there, so I don’t even know.

    Haha cellars are strange places to be sure…yes, the difference between apple butter and applesauce is the cooking time as well as the spices. I suppose you could load up your applesauce with all those spices too, but it’s that stewing for hours and hours that really gives it a rich flavor and thick, spreadable texture. Always nice to see you J πŸ™‚

  17. Your apple butter looks delicious and I love your story along with it! I was always afraid of going in the basement by myself (still am sometimes, ha!) and would find myself running up the stairs when going back up!

    My husband and I are getting into canning things more often. So far we did some melanzane sott’olio. We plan on canning our tomato sauce next fall!

    Melanzane are up for us next time they’re in season as well…and tomatoes this year too, which will be our first. Yay!

  18. 03.20.2011

    This is great! Perfect timing to get the recipe. My father just brought a jar on his visit this month, but it will soon be gone and I realize that I miss this taste here in Italy! I also tried a recipe for pork chops with apple butter as one of the main ingredients, which was surprisingly good. The recipe is called Pork Chops “Primavera”, in Italian, yet apple butter is anything but very Italian! Go figure.

    I love the pork and apple combo πŸ™‚

  19. 03.21.2011

    Love the recipe, thanks Michelle, might just try it out…..though not sure my culinery skills are up to it!


  20. 04.06.2011

    Apple cider vinegar is vinegar made from apples (aceto di mele)?

    Yes, that’s exactly what I used, Alessandra πŸ™‚

  21. 08.26.2011

    With a story like that (not to mention my great love for anything made with Apples), I’m very tempted to try my hand at it. Thanks for the recipe and the great story! πŸ™‚

    michelle Reply:

    Hope you enjoy it, Lina!

  22. 10.11.2011

    Its got to be a PA thing. Our family farm (in western PA) had the creepy stairs (complete with monster played by my uncles and grandfather) as well. Every time I read a recipe I can smell the cellar. Their coal bin had been removed before I was born, but they had a deluxe preserving pantry. Root bins for potatoes and apples. Three sections of shelves with a cute vintage flower curtain for jars. And a double wide dairy freezer for ice cream from the Schwanns man and fruits and veggies in the little plastic square tubs.

    Sadly I never learned to can from my grandfather when he passed, which is what I attribute my urge to preserve to.

    Just made my first run of apple butter tonight. We pick and use an orchard mix-whatever looks pretty and smells good with the exclusion of red and yellow delicious.

    michelle Reply:

    Too funny! Also interesting since I *just* picked up a bunch of apples at the market this morning and was thinking about apple butter/applesauce again…thanks for coming by and commenting, Angela!

    michelle Reply:

    Ah and forgot to mention…Schwann’s! YES!



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