As a kid, I was fascinated by the lives of long-dead historical figures. I devoured those blue-bound “When They Were Young” biographies, absorbing the childhood details of Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton. I was a particular fan of Betsy Ross, in part because I’d taken the walking tour through her cramped colonial home in Philadelphia’s historic district (later, when we were back in California, I delightedly wore the Quaker sunbonnet my grandmother bought me at the museum gift shop).
One aspect that I found particularly entrancing in these “biographies” (looking back, I realize that these volumes were probably far more fiction than fact) was the way in which food preparation was detailed (this is also why I read and re-read all the Little House books).
There’s one scene in the Betsy Ross book that has always stuck with me, in which she (as a seven or eight year old) is given the task of tending the apple butter, as it slowly cooks over an open fire. She uses a wooden paddle to scrape the scum off the top of the butter and a long wooden stirrer, with which to ensure that the butter doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pot. I found this description, of a little girl being tasked with such responsibility, so very appealing. As a child of similar age, I longed to participate in the activities of food preparation, and to have a hand in making things from scratch.
However, in those days, our applesauce came from a jar and the only thing we spread on bread was strawberry jam from a large, blue plastic bucket (the one with a white handle and lid). It wasn’t until my family moved to Oregon a few years later, and we found ourselves in a new/old house with gnarled old apple trees down at the very back of the property, did we even attempt to make apple butter (there is little in the world that tastes better than apple butter made from antique, windfall apples).
These days, homemade fruit butters are an integral part of my summer and fall preserving routine. After the jump, you’ll find my general fruit butter technique, it’s not a specific recipe, but instead a flexible approach that can expand or contract, depending on how much fruit you have. I also have a half pint jar of pear butter to give away. If you want it, leave a comment by Friday, September 18th at 11:59 p.m.
I tend to make fruit butters in a two (or more) day process. Starting with the whole peaches, pears or apples, I simply cut them into chunks (the apples get peeled, but I leave the skins on the peaches and pears) and cook them down into sauce with a little bit of water. When they can be squished with the flat side of a wooden spoon, I puree them with an immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender (working carefully in batches) or a food mill to create a smooth sauce from the cooked fruit.
Now you begin to cook the sauce down into butter. This can take anywhere from three to five hours on the stove top at its lowest setting, depending on the amount of butter you’re making, the width of your pot (wider pot means more space for evaporation) and the level of heat that you cook over. This is best done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, so that you can give it a stir every 15 or 20 minutes. If you have a splatter shield, the kind typically used for frying, I’d use it here, as fruit butters can get a bit sputtery while cooking down.
Alternately, if you don’t have that kind of time, you can put your fruit sauce into a slow cooker and let is slowly cook down overnight or while you’re at work (I don’t recommend letting it go in the slow cooker for more than eight hours, so if you’ve got a long commute, you might not want to do it during your workday). You can also make the sauce one day, refrigerate it overnight and then cook it down into the butter the following day (or even a few days down the line).
While it cooks down, I like to add 3-4 teaspoons of cinnamon, about half a freshly grated nutmeg, some ground cloves and several cups of honey and/or sugar. The amount of sweetener is up to you, although you should add some, as it helps with the preservation of your finished product. I typically start with two cups and then taste, adding more if necessary. However, because you’ve concentrated the natural sweetness of the fruit, you shouldn’t need to much sugar or honey. I also will add the juice of 1-2 lemons, if I find that it needs a punch of acidity. Keep tasting, as it’s the best way to find a balance of spices and sweetness that works for you.
Once the butter is thick, seasoned and spreadable, get your jars out. I find that my typical batch makes 5-6 pints of butter, but your mileage will vary. Pour the hot fruit butter into clean jars, wipe rims, apply lids/rings and process in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes (starting the time when the water returns to a boil). When the time is up, remove the jars from the water and let them cool on a towel-lined countertop. When the jars are cool to the touch, check the seals by removing the rings and lifting the jars by the edges of the lid. A good seal means that the lid will hold fast.
Label your jars of fruit butter with the variety and the date. Store in a cool, dark place for up to six months.