Saturday, October 22, 2011

When life gives you Apples, Make Applesauce

I don't know about you, but applesauce was almost a kitchen staple when I was a kid. It was that go-to extra side dish- many meals ended up following the pattern "meat-starch-vegetable-applesauce" unless it was one of the frequent pasta nights.  As an adult, I've passed by applesauce more often than not. This week, however, I just couldn't think of something interesting to serve with pork chops- until it hit me- we have extra apples, most of the family likes applesauce on pork chops, and fresh applesauce beats the canned stuff any day of the week. So clearly, it was time to break my applesauce drought...

Applesauce is fairly simple in theory, but takes a little manual labor to make it happen, so it can be tedious to make large amounts in one shot without a little mechanical help. If you want to make a relatively small amount- say five or six apples worth- it si considerably less daunting. Real applesauce fans will make a huge batch while apples are in season and can it so they have a year's supply. To do mass quantities like this, you'd want to have a juicer/strainer stand mixer attachment and/or a food processor, and probably one of those simple apple corer tools to take away most of the tedium- however, for a small batch, a peeler, a paring knife, a big spoon, and a kitchen strainer will do just fine.

The first, and probably most important part is selecting your apples. Apples can be remarkably different in flavor, sweetness, and texture. You can easily tailor your applesauce for your needs by selecting the right apples. You'll want to stick with sweeter apples rather than tart ones like Granny Smiths. Many recipes out there  suggest combining several types of apples to get the flavor you want. In general, if you start with sweet enough apples, you won't need to add any sugar. I chose to use Gala apples for a few reasons- we always have Gala apples around the house since they are my wife's favorite variety, and I'm aiming at making an applesauce to use more as a condiment or salsa to pair with a grilled pork chop- so I like the fact that Gala apples are not too high on the sweet spectrum, and have a nice floral flavor. I also added two Fuji apples just to bring up the sweetness a little bit. Remember to taste your apples before committing so you know for sure what kind of flavor profile you're going to end up with.

 The first step is to peel and core your apples. This is the part that can get tedious if you're making a few gallons in one shot- but for a few apples, it's generally not a problem. Just use your kitchen peeler to take off the skins, then cut them into quarters and use a paring knife to slice out the stem, core, and seeds. It is more tedious than using one of those circular apple coring tools, but still fairly easy. If you're pressed for time, cut your apples into smaller pieces before cooking them to reduce the cooking time. Once your apples are cleaned, put them in a pot large enough to handle them and a decent amount of water.

Add enough water to cover the apples, and bump the heat up to high. Just to add a little extra flavor, I'm also adding two cinnamon sticks. If you feel the need to add sugar, this is the time to do it- but honestly, you shouldn't need it- you'll get better results by choosing better apples than by doctoring up the sugar content. Apples that taste great on their own shouldn't need help- and if you do add sugar, it's just one more thing you can easily mess up if you don't balance it right- once you add too much sugar, you can't take it back, and it's easy to misjudge how the end product will taste after it cooks.

Let the pot come to a boil and keep it there- keeping a close watch in case the pot boils over. You'll want to cook the apples down until they are soft all the way through, and even beginning to fall apart on their own so allow about 15-20 minutes depending on your stove, and on how large your apple chunks are. If you're not sure if they are ready, try to poke the thickest apple pieces with a fork or knife- you should be able to push through all the way with almost no resistance. The water should begin to take on a golden color, and your whole house will probably smell like apple pie- which isn't a bad thing. If you used cinnamon sticks, you'll want to pull them out before continuing.

The next step is to turn our soft apples into apple sauce. The easy way would be to use a food processor or blender for a few seconds, but I hate having to spend more time cleaning a tool than actually using it- and I want my applesauce a little on the chunky side, so I'm going old school, and mashing them by hand. If you have a potato masher, that's probably the best tool for the job. If you've got more persistence than brains, do as I do, and just smash up the apples with the back of a slotted spoon. It's really not that bad, but it does take some work to do, but cleaning a spoon is much less effort than cleaning a while food processor. Don't strain out the water yet- just mash the apples where they stand for now, until you get them to the consistency you like.

Next we will want to separate the apple pulp from the liquid. This is fairly easy- just take your average kitchen strainer, line it with a coffee filter or paper towel, and spoon in the apple mash in batches over a container large enough to collect the liquid.just let it sit until most of the water drains out and stir- the solids left over is your applesauce. You'll probably have to strain a few batches to finish the job.

Don't throw out the liquid part either- it is a very welcome byproduct of the process- apple juice! Set it aside in a sealed container and chill it. You've just made healthy apple juice with no added sugar, and no preservatives. What you choose to line your strainer with will determine how clear your apple juice is- if you like cloudy juice, you may want to forget about lining the strainer completely. The background notes of cinnamon seem to work just as well in the juice as it does in the sauce. My batch produced a nice golden colored juice that looked, at a glance, just like a nice glass of white wine.

So you now have fresh applesauce. As I mentioned, it makes a great companion to grilled pork- even when still warm, or you can chill it and serve it as a side dish. It won't keep for very long without preservatives unless you freeze it, but you'll probably like it enough that it won't last (unless you made way too much!). If you go with fresh apples, and keep the additives minimal (if any), you can even use this as baby food for infants that are ready for solid food. Kids of all ages usually love commercial apple juice, and they'll probably love the fresh stuff even more.

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