I’ve gone a little apple-crazy. It’s not my fault. I blame the bees. Or maybe the snow.
There are two large apple trees in the backyard of my new-ish house (“new-ish?” you ask. “haven’t you
been there over a year?” Well, sure. But until the final pictures are on the wall, I reserve the right to call it new. Hush now, with that judgment of yours, Oh Ye the Organized).
Having two apple trees is not so unusual in these parts; this is New England, after all. I live just 94 miles from the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed. Everyone around here, it seems, has an apple tree or two. Driving along country roads, one often sees boughs hanging heavy with fruit, belonging, it seems to no one in particular. There is always something profoundly sad about those neglected apples.
Someone planted our apple trees. It was a deliberate act, done long ago. All these years later, the trees are very large; one is taller than our house. The trees are a gift from another time. Although whoever planted them was surely thinking about his own root cellar, his own cider press and pies and molasses, it’s still a gift — one generation reaching across the years in the most tangible way. It makes me want to plant a tree. It makes me want to plant many trees. It makes me want to shake everyone I know, say, “let’s all plant trees, together, lots of them, because we won’t always be here, yo, but these trees just might last.”
Last year, though, these trees almost bore no fruit. I saw just a handful of apples, each of which got pecked apart by birds. It was profoundly disappointing to me.
Then this spring, a neighbor got some honey bees on his property.
A few weeks after the bees arrived, the apple trees blossomed like crazy. Now, just half a year later, our trees have exploded with fruit.
What variety are these apples? I have no idea, and it’s almost impossible to know. Once upon a time, the U.S. had more than 17,000 varieties of apples, scattered throughout rural towns in backyards just like ours. As I see it, I have two varieties of those 17,000, and that is good enough for me. They are small and red and fairly ugly. They are twerpy little apples — irregularly shaped, with lots of spots. They are punk-ass little apples, mean-looking little dudes. And yet. They are also crispy and deeply flavored and surprisingly lovely.
Our backyard apples are the opposite of the red delicious apples
you’ll find in the grocery store. I always find those red delicious apples disappointing. They look so appetizing, always. And yet they’re too often mealy and soft, and they can’t hold their own in cooking – they just sort of dissolve somehow. Our runty little apples are like those apples’ doppleganger; they don’t look like anything you’d ever want to eat. And yet they can hold their own, whether you eat them right off the tree, or cook them up.
I borrowed a friend’s apple picker, which she had picked up at Old Sturbridge Village, and have been slowly picking them off the tree this fall. Sometimes Charlotte picked with me; as often as not, I was alone, save for the neighbor’s miniature horse and donkey, each of whom begged for some of the goodies. Then, last Thursday, the picking assumed new urgency.
It snowed. The apples were just reaching their ripeness when the warnings came. We’d have sleet. We’d have ice. We’d have up to 18 inches. It was the kind of weather that ruins fruit, the kind of weather that makes New Englanders grumble and curse the skies and talk about moving to Chapel Hill.
I picked. I picked and I picked and I picked. I picked in the afternoon, and into the evening. I picked as it got dark, I picked as the snows came, I held up my apple picker until my arms were sore. I picked all that I could, filling grocery bag upon grocery bag.
And then, when it was too dark to see anymore, I brought them inside, stared at the snowy bags on the kitchen floor. And I wondered, now what?
I’ve roasted some. I’ve made some apple butter (delicious, but time consuming on the stove top). Mostly, I’ve been making sauce.
There’s a recipe in our book for apple cider applesauce. It’s quite good, flavored with cinnamon and cardamom and star anise. I’ve recently been giving the recipe a new twist, by cooking it in the slow cooker and giving it a vanilla twist. For the past several days, I have made many, many batches. Some mornings, we’ve woken up to fresh applesauce bubbling away; it’s a great way to wake up. But it’s more than we can have on our own. So we’ve given some away — to babysitters, to friends, to neighbors. This morning, Charlotte and I trudged through the fresh snow to deliver warm, fresh-cooked vanilla applesauce to neighbors.
We delivered them in mason jars, and the glass felt warm in my hands. I felt good doing this — like I was paying it forward, passing on the gift that had been left to me in our backyard. Then I came home, and peeled and chopped some more.
The applesauce is for lazy cooks like myself. The effort is in the picking and the peeling. Once that part is done, the rest takes care of itself. It doesn’t require exact measurements; the apples just kind of do most of the work for you. Note that this recipe is based on a 7-quart slow cooker; if yours is smaller, adjust down, particularly the water.
Peeled, cored, chopped apples – enough to fill crockpot to rim.
2 cups water
3/4 cups brown sugar, or more, or less, to taste (how sweet are your apples? Adjust accordingly).
1 and 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Juice of half a lemon when I have it, or not at all if I don’t.
Directions: Mix everything up together. Turn slow cooker on high for at least six hours, or low for at least three hours. After cooking, simply stirring is generally enough to break up the apples; or, for a finer texture, you can mash the apples with a potato masher.