Wow!  Its already the end of November.  Now, according to me, it is acceptable to begin the Christmas madness (1 month is enough don’t ya think?).

So what are you going to do for Christmas (or other holiday) presents this year?  If you are like me, money is not exactly growing on trees, you never know what to give people anyway, and the idea of getting within 5 miles of a mall brings on intense anxiety.  What to do then!?  Make homemade gifts of course.  Yes, they may not last as long as a store bought gift, but they are so much more personal…and tasty too!

Don’t know where to start?  Let me help you.  Since I am going to be making most of my gifts this year anyway, I will share them with you as I make them this month.  Not all of them will be edible, but all will be made with food.

Excited?  I am, so lets get going!

We better start with something that won’t go bad quickly and canning apple butter is just the thing.  I love this yummy fruit butter (especially when these muffins are involved) and I have been making it myself for several years now.  I enjoy this project, but it is hard for me to not be greedy and keep all the apple butter for myself.  I guess writing this will keep me accountable since certain apple butter loving family members will be reading.

The process of canning is probably the most difficult part in this process, but it yields a great portable/shipable gift.  If you do not feel like going through all the canning nonsense, you can just fill mason jars with the apple butter and refrigerate, just make sure you tell the people you give it to to do the same.  I often preserve what I plan to give away and refrigerate and/or freeze what we will be using at home.

Supplies are an important part in canning.  You obviously need some mason jars, lids, and a large stockpot.  Other helpful tools include a jar lifter, lid lifter, funnel, bubble remover, headspace tool and I recently found this neat-o basket that is making this process a lot less stressful.

As for making apple butter, I often don’t follow any recipe but if I do, it is the one below.  Sometimes I make apple butter in a Dutch oven, other times in my extra-large slow cooker to make a big batch.  Using a Dutch oven results in a quicker, chunkier, and milder butter while the slow cooker takes longer enticing more intense flavors and a smoother texture (I puree it slightly with an immersion blender halfway through cooking).  I love using a variety of apples, but always include a good helping of tart Granny Smith apples.  In my last batch I used Pink Lady, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Gala, Jazz, and Braeburn.  I am not a huge fan of peeling apples but don’t love all the waxy junk on the peel so I usually do.  If you are lucky enough to live in an area where apples are grown, go the the farmer’s market and get some apples and you won’t need to peel them if you are not up for it!

Apple Butter

Makes about 4 cups (I recommend doubling)

From Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (yes…I love this cookbook)

Note:  Be creative!  Adjust the spices as you prefer, use apple cider vs. apple juice, use different apple varieties, try different citris zests/juices (I have even used grapefruit before), double the recipe to double your gift-giving.  Use this recipe as a starting point. When cooking in a Dutch oven, the most I am able to make is about 4 pints while in my slow cooker I can make 6.  If using a slow cooker, I recommend cooking on high for about 7 hours or low for 10 and it is best to blend it some with an immersion blender about halfway through cooking.  Here is a link explaining the canning process if you decide to do that.

4 pounds apples (see text for more thoughts on apples)

1 orange

3 cinnamon sticks

6 whole allspice berries

6 whole cloves

3 cups good quality apple juice

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

Peel, quarter, and core the apples.  Cut each quarter into thirds, then slice each third into pieces about as thick as your thumb.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the orange in wide strips.  Break the cinnamon sticks into smaller pieces.  Gather the orange peel, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves into a circle of cheesecloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine (or just a strip of cheesecloth).  If you don’t have cheesecloth, a scrap of porous white fabric will do.

Place the cut apples, spice bag, apple juice, and brown sugar in a 5-to 7-quart heavy-bottomed pot.  Cover, place over high heat, and bring the mixture to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered for 2 hours.

After 1 hour, remove the spice bag, squeezing any juice from the bag back into the pot (if using a slow cooker I would remove this before blending).

After 2 hours, some of the apple pieces should still be intact, while others will have broken down.  The mixture will be fragrant, bubbling, and developing a rich color.  Reduce the flame to low and cook, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours more.  During the last 30 minutes, stir the apple butter occasionally to prevent scorching.  At the end of the cooking tme, the apple butter should be thick and jammy, a dark reddish-brown in color, and deeply aromatic.

Depending on the apples you use, you may need to add water in the final hour of cooking.  If the pot looks dry, add water 1/4 cup at a time, just enough to help break the apples down.

The apple butter may be slightly on the sweet side when eaten warm from the pot, but as it cools, its flavors come into their own.  The apple butter will keep in the refrigerator for 2 weeks, can be frozen for 3 months, or, if preserved, stored in a cool pantry for 1 year.