Gravenstein season ended months ago. “U-pick” opportunities are over. But the Bay Area apple harvest doesn’t end officially until Nov. 30, and fresh late-season varieties are available. So go ahead, schmoosh some apple butter! Recipe included.
The Coastside is all about pumpkins, Brussels sprouts and artichokes. Apples? Not so much. We once had a trio of apple trees in our back yard in Montara. They were chronically confused, dropping their leaves at least twice a year and yielding sporadic crops of tiny inedible fruit. Out they came when we re-landscaped.
If you want to find apple orchards with fresh product in the Bay Area, you’ll have to travel. And do it quickly. Most are located to the north in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley or to the south in and near Watsonville. You’ll also find orchards in the Sierra foothills west of Sacramento, but that’s kind of a schlep from the Coastside for apple butter on the hoof.
Be sure to call ahead to check inventory and availability at your orchard of choice before trekking for apples this late in the season. And remember, there’s always Safeway.
We chose the Russian River Valley for our late-season apple sojourn. OK, we also stopped for tastings at the Radio Coteau and Merry Edwards wineries, but apple butter sourcing was a key element of the trip. And Radio Coteau was offering tastings of its Gravenstein cider. We also were pleased to see folks out enjoying a sunny day in Sonoma County mere weeks after the disastrous fires of October.
Why look for apples in wine country? Before Sonoma County became one of California’s largest producers of wine grapes – even outstripping the Napa Valley – it was better known as the nation’s biggest producer of Gravenstein apples. During World War II, tart and sweet Gravensteins from Sonoma were the primary source of apple sauce and dried apples for U.S. troops.
As of 2014, roughly 2,000 acres of apple orchards remained in Sonoma County, down from a peak of 14,000, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension. Why the decline? Wine grapes and lavish estates are way more profitable uses of increasingly expensive real estate. It takes a dedicated grower like Dave Hale to keep the tradition alive.
We stopped by Hale’s Apple Farm two weeks ago to pick up ingredients for The Geek’s apple butter fest with our oldest grandson, Thing 1. The Gravensteins, an early season apple, were long gone, but we selected 10 pounds of fresh Baldwin, Rome and Sleeping Beauty varieties. That’s a lot of raw apple butter. Pink Lady, Black Twig and Fuji also were available that weekend.
The Hale family has owned this little slice of apple heaven for five generations, or well over 100 years. The stand resides in a rustic barn amid Dave’s 20-acre orchard on, appropriately, Gravenstein Highway, at the north end of Sebastopol. While most of the trees were picked clean, a handful were still laden with late varietals awaiting harvest, and their was plenty of fresh product in the barn. It was quintessential fall nostalgia for a couple of Midwestern natives who have spent the bulk of their adult years in California.
Yet the apples were merely a means to an end. And that end was apple butter, which offered a little something for everyone:
- For The Geek, it was all about creating a recipe, breaking out the family food mill and making memories with Thing 1, age 3 1/2. The Geek fondly recalls using that mill to make apple butter with her grandmother at about the same age.
- For MontaraManDan, it was all about the sweet November smell of apples simmering in the oven, and the joy of an alternate schmear for his breakfast toast.
- For Thing 1, it was all about cranking the two-in-one apple peeler/corer and schmooshing the fruit into a warm slurry, under Gramma’s supervision. And the finished product must have satisfied his pint-sized palate. He insisted on bringing home three jars full to share.
Sound like fun? Here’s the recipe. And by the way, butter is NOT an ingredient. Who new?
Old fashioned fall goodness -- cinnamony apple butter simmering on the stove.
- 6 pounds mixed apples (2/3 sweet and 1/3 tart), peeled, cored and quartered
- 4 cups fresh apple cider
- 1 ⅓ cup raw (turbinado) sugar
- 3 3-inch cinnamon sticks
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar (optional)
Mix the apples, cider, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and salt in a large oven proof pot. Bring to a boil on the stove top and cook over medium heat until the apples are mushy and the liquid is evaporated, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Discard the cinnamon sticks. Use an immersion blender to puree the apples directly in the pot. Alternatively, puree the apple mixture in batches using a blender and return pureed apple mixture to the pan. You can also do this the old fashioned way and use a food mill to puree the apples, in which case there is no need to peel the apples beforehand.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Put the apple puree in the oven and bake uncovered, stirring every 30 minutes until the mixture is very think and a deep amber color. This will take another 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir in the vanilla. If the jam is too sweet, stir in some lemon juice or cider vinegar, one tablespoon at a time until you are satisfied with the taste. Let the apple butter cool in the pan and then transfer it to jam jars.
Apple butter keeps for 1 month in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.
Notes: This recipe is based on a Bon Appetite recipe that The Geek tried a few weeks ago. Not entirely satisfied with the flavor or the method in that recipe, this one changes up the spices, adds more sugar, purees the apples to make it smoother and bakes the puree in the same pan it was cooked in. Less dish washing is always a happy thing.