Make the House Smell Good

Apple pecan loaf, hot out of the oven.

Apple pecan loaf, hot out of the oven.

One of the nicest things you can do for yourself, and your friends and family, on a cool and windy autumn day is to make the house smell good with baking.  Baked cinnamon speaks to comfort, home, and autumn here in Virginia, as it must in many other places as well.

We got an early start here this morning with four dozen cinnamon rolls made for friends at our favorite garden center who sponsored a festival today to benefit the Ways and Means Auxilliary of our local Sentara Hospital.  Since it was way too early, and I was too rushed this morning to get photos of those beautiful cinnamon rolls.  We’ll make them again sometime soon and get photos for a future post.  Instead of my usual simple topping of confectioner’s sugar mixed with coconut milk, I was tempted by Michael’s posting of his Devil’s Food cake last night to make a variation on his cream cheese frosting for my simple little rolls.  Short on cream cheese, I added in some sour cream to round out the little bit I had on hand, and made a smaller batch of frosting.  It was the perfect topping to let melt over the hot from the oven cinnamon buns before loading them into the car to head over to Homestead Garden Center, where we added them to their bake sale.

The house smelled so good when we got back, that after washing up all of the pans, I started melting butter again, pulled out the mixing bowl, and began mixing a fresh apple loaf for friends.   They have had a rough week after some medical issues.  Back to normal diet again, this healthy little apple cake will be my gift to them this afternoon.  You know what they say about apples….

Do you see the bits of fresh apple and pecan baked into the loaf?  The topping is cinnamon and raw sugar.

Do you see the bits of fresh apple and pecan baked into the loaf? The topping is cinnamon and raw sugar.

When you think about it, our good health is our treasure.  The more we cook for ourselves and our loved ones, with simple healthy ingredients, the more good health and strength we enjoy.  After many decades on the planet, we realize just how important it is to take good care of ourselves so we can really enjoy the years ahead.

This is a simple recipe, but we break it out into several steps, preparing each ingredient before combining them.  We base this recipe on one of those standard “go to” formulas that we “Zen” cooks cherish.  My formula, good for everything from biscuits and scones to cornbread, cobblers, sweetbreads and fruit muffins begins with self-rising flour, butter, sour cream, and liquid.  Add in what you will, this is the basic mix.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Step 1:  Roughly chop 1/4-1/2 c. of raw pecan halves or pieces while heating a skillet over medium high heat.  Add 1-2 TB of butter to the skillet, and when it melts, add the chopped pecans, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a sprinkle of raw (unrefined) sugar.  Stir as the ingredients come together to coat the nuts.  When the nuts have deepened in color and smell good, remove from the heat and allow the pecans to cool on a plate.  Keep the pan handy to use again immediately.

Step 2:  Thoroughly wash and finely chop (1/4″ dice) 2 medium apples, peels left on.  I used Golden Delicious.  Add about 1/4 c. brown sugar and the apples  to the pan, and return to a medium heat.  Sprinkle with cinnamon, and toss the apples in the sugar as they begin to heat through.  When the apples are well coated and begin to look a little shiny and translucent, remove from the heat.

May I cut a slice for you?

May I cut a slice for you?

Step 3:  Melt 1/2 of a stick of butter.  (An egg in this recipe is optional .  Use it if you like eggs, I normally skip the egg and use 1/4 c. more liquid or apple butter.)  In a large mixing bowl, whisk 1 egg until light with the melted butter, 2 TB sour cream, 1/4 c. honey, and 1 c. apple cider.

Step 4:  Stir the apples into the mixing bowl, add 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. cardamon, and 1/4 tsp. ground cloves. Scoop 2 c. of self-rising flour on top of the mixture; and measure 1/4 tsp. baking powder (and 1/2 tsp. sea salt, optional)  onto the flour.  Mix very gently with a rubber spatula just until the liquid and flour are combined.  Add up to 1/2 c. water as you mix to keep a loose consistency.   Pour in the seasoned nuts, mix gently and pour into a greased loaf pan lined with waxed paper.  Sprinkle the top of the batter with more cinnamon, and drizzle with honey or lightly sprinkle with raw sugar.

Step 5:  Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.  Turn onto a rack to cool, remove the waxed paper, and enjoy with butter, cream cheese, or some fresh apple butter.

Baking this apple loaf is guaranteed to make your kitchen warm and cozy, and to make your  whole house smell nice for the rest of the day.  As the autumn breezes blow, we have all earned a bit of a cozy rest indoors with a good book or blog.  When you feel ready for a little more “Zen” cooking, switch out the apples for peaches or bananas.  Substitute coconut milk or freshly brewed chai for the cider.  Throw in a handful of dried cranberries, currants, cherries, or raisins.  Substitute walnuts for pecans.  Bake it in muffin tins rather than in a loaf pan.  Or skip the fruit entirely, pour the batter into a 9×9 baking pan, and top with your favorite preserves.  It’s all delicious, and all relatively healthy.   We will burn off those delicious calories raking and mulching our leaves one day soon, won’t we?

Happy Weekend!

More leaves falling each day.  Time to dust off the rake and mulch those leaves!

More leaves falling each day. Time to dust off the rake and mulch those leaves!

Photos and recipe by Woodland Gnome 2013

Celebrate the Autumn Harvest With Fresh Apple Butter

September 18 apple butter 006

Tangy, sweet apple butter

Apple butter was always on Grandmother’s breakfast table.  We scooped it onto hot buttered toast, added crisp strips of bacon, and folded it into a sweet and savory breakfast sandwich.  The rich flavor of apple butter still brings memories of family breakfasts full of stories and laughter.

Equally good tucked into a hot buttered biscuit, added to a peanut butter sandwich, or spooned onto fresh pancakes; apple butter has always been a staple food in my kitchen as well.  My mother and grandmother purchased the “Old Virginia” brand, but I prefer to make it myself.

Apple butter is one of those very simple dishes that anyone can make; like cheesy grits or tomato and basil sandwiches.  And, since the apple harvest is underway here in Virginia, fresh, beautiful, local apples are appearing at farm stands and grocery stores by the bagful.

Gingergold apples

Gingergold apples

There are so many delicious apples on the market; it might be confusing to make a good choice.  My advice is to search for the local apples if your state produces them.  Virginia does, and so I pass over those trucked in from Washington State or stored for months in a warehouse somewhere.  That means I avoid the huge bags of Red Delicious apples with their bright waxy coatings, and look for MacIntosh, Granny Smith, or Gingergold.  Apple butter, like cider, often takes on more complex flavors if you mix up varieties within the same batch.  This is a great way to use up apples with blemished skins and other imperfections.  Green summer “cooking” apples work just as well as the later harvests of apples to eat out of hand.

Use an electric crock pot to make the cooking simple.  Your house will smell better while making apple butter than it will when burning any Yankee Candle.

Add ¼ inch or less of water, or apple cider, to the bottom of the pot.  Then add ground cinnamon and cloves to the liquid.  I use about ½ tsp. of cinnamon for a dozen apples, and about ¼ tsp. of ground cloves.  Sometimes I add just a touch of cardamom, but that is an acquired taste.  Next, add about a half cup of dark brown sugar to the water, and turn the crock pot to “high” for eight hours.  I’ve made apple butter with both honey and with white sugar.  It all works fine.  I would never use an artificial sweetener in this recipe.  The sugar, or honey, serves as a food preservative as much as it serves as a sweetener.

Draw a sink of hot soapy water, and wash the apples well.  Unless you grew the apples yourself, or they are certified organic, take time to clean them, rinsing and rubbing each under running water, and setting them aside to drain.

September 18 apple butter 003Trim away any blemishes, holes, or bruised areas, but otherwise leave the peels on the fruit.  Place each apple on a cutting board, and slice from top to bottom just to the right of the core.  Turn the fruit 45 degrees, holding the whole apple together, and slice again.  Continue turning the fruit and slicing two more times until the core stands alone.  Rough chop the pieces, trim away any remaining seeds, and throw the apple pieces into the heating crock pot.  Continue chopping all of the apples you plan to use.  You can fill the pot to within an inch of the top as nothing will boil over.

Sprinkle more cinnamon over the sliced apples, and pour on some honey, if you wish.  Stir the apples to coat them all, cover the crock pot, and walk away.  All you need to do for the next several hours is stir the apples from time to time to distribute the juices and keep them all moist.  This recipe doesn’t call for any added pectin, because the pectin cooks out of the apple peels themselves.

When the cooking time is up you can check to see how tender and brown the fruit has become.  If they aren’t almost falling apart, you can cook a few more hours, or turn off the pot, put a dishtowel over the lid, and leave everything in place overnight.

When the apples are tender and cooled, ladle them into a food processor or blender and process until smooth.  This cuts up all of the peelings and mixes the liquid and pulp equally.  Be sure to drain all of the cooking liquid into the apple butter as you process it in batches.

At this point, you can cover and refrigerate your apple butter, or, if you have time, continue with canning it.  If you’ve made a small enough batch to use within a week or so, just keep it covered in the refrigerator until you’ve eaten it all.September 18 apple butter 002

To preserve the apple butter for winter, bring the pureed apple butter to a slow simmer in a pan on the stove.  Add 1 tsp. of lemon juice to make it slightly more acid.   Meanwhile, wash and boil your canning jars and lids.

The initial purchase of canning jars is an investment which will pay off many times over, as they can be re-used indefinitely so long as they don’t chip or break.  The lids which seal them should be fresh each time you use them, but are fairly inexpensive.

For small batches, I often re-use grocery store jars saved from olives, jam, or roasted peppers.  Their lids can be boiled and re-used at least once.

Please read a good resource on water bath canning if you aren’t familiar with the process already.  I’m going to give a simplified version here.

Basically, fill a hot (just boiled) jar, with hot (simmering) apple butter, wipe the lip of the jar, and top with a hot (just boiled) lid.  (Use a funnel in the jar to save your fingers from burns)  If using a traditional canning jar, screw on the band tightly, and turn the jar upside down on a tea towel on the counter.  If recycling a jelly or olive jar, screw on the boiled lid, and just turn the jar upside down on the tea towel on the  counter.  (Apple butter has a high enough acid content that sealing it in the jar should be sufficient.  If you are more comfortable boiling the closed jars in a water bath for 10 minutes, by all means do so.)

Fifteen minutes after filling the jars and leaving them upside down on the counter, they should have sealed.  Turn them right side up, and leave to rest for several hours until they are cooled.  These can now be stored in a dark pantry or in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.

This same basic process works for apple sauce.  Leave out the spices and use honey or white sugar.  It probably won’t need to cook as long before you puree it, because you aren’t caramelizing the sugar.

A Householder's Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and BeyondWhy make and preserve your own apple butter when the grocery down the street stocks it?  This is an interesting question, and deserves an essay of its own.

In fact, if this question interests you, I highly recommend A Householder’s Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and Beyond by Harriet Fasenfest.  Harriet does a wonderful job of making the case for preserving your own local harvest of food.  She looks at running a home from the point of view of an economist; in other words, she examines how we can each best use our own resources to care for ourselves and our family.  She also takes great joy in the process of raising fruits and vegetables, working with local farmers, preserving the harvest, and cooking at home.

Harriet, based in Portland OR, has organized her book by the month of the year; and gives practical gardening advice, tips on organizing the pantry, recipes, family history, and insightful essays on everything from GMO seeds to the world economy.  It is a thoughtful read whether you are just starting out in your first home or whether you are adjusting to the demands of retirement.

So please, try making a batch of home made apple butter this autumn.  It costs little, but will bring you so much pleasure.  Substitute pears or peaches if you prefer.  But try this simple treat for yourself and your family.  You deserve it.

All photos by Woodland GnomeSeptember 18 apple butter 005

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