[2008 apple sauce, October 2008.]
When I was growing up we had in the backyard from roughly June through October (or, some variation of): plums, nectarines, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, walnuts, almonds, apples, many other vegetables during the summer months. Typical to oblivious children, I don’t think my brother and I really appreciated — or even were aware of — how fortunate we were to be assigned the ‘task’ of picking blueberries, our adopted dog Taffy always close by, stuffing two berries into our mouths for every five we threw in a bowl. But, then, isn’t that the true beauty of a fortunate childhood — to be so fully in the moment you have no need to think of the next day or even the next few hours? It is enough simply to be with your dog panting quietly on the dry grass in the shade, listening to the crows call overhead, eating fruit.
My mom sometimes made strawberry jam from the garden strawberries and the kitchen smelled delicious, all hot and steamy from the big pots on the stove. As I grew older I used the blackberries in pies or maybe even a tiny batch of jam once in awhile or as the perfect garnish for the mini angel-food cakes I’d bake for my dad.
Every year, though, for a long time, she always made applesauce.
I loved apple sauce days; I can’t remember if I ever really helped out more than to just peer into the bubbling pot every so often, but I know there was lots of peeling that went on and the process took at least an entire day, possibly more. All the the fruit came from our trees in the ‘orchard’ and I still pilfer apples from the lone tree still standing when I got home in late summer. It was a bit of work of course but I loved eating that apple sauce come the holidays — and when we had it with a weeknight dinner it elevated the meal into something special.
Last year I too made a lot of applesauce with boxes of Inverness apples a few over-zealous trees produced without aid of water or fertilizer. It’s true that that coastal fog is good for something, and over in West County (i.e. Sebastopol) the Gravenstein apple trees survive and thrive simply on the fog that inevitably blows in during the early evening. My home town once was known for its apples; in fact, it was given the moniker of “Apple town of the world” for all the sauce, juice, and dried apples its trees produced.
Now, though, when I go for my runs along the back roads — over to Pleasant Hill, mostly — it breaks my heart a little to see a lot of the orchards replaced with vineyards. I’m not denying grapes are pretty to look at, but those 100-year-old apple trees are not just special but indicative of the whole region. And they have so much character. (Not to mention: with California in yet another of its perpetual drought cycles self-sustaining agriculture which doesn’t tax the ever lowering water table is key.) Those trees have been around far longer than most of the area’s current residents and while it’s true one can’t stop the march of progress, and change is mostly a good thing, I do wish my beloved apple trees would endure for yet another 100 years.
Apples, particularly Gravensteins, defined my childhood. I attended Gravenstein elementary school after all , and participated year after year in the Apple Blossom parade each spring (playing clarinet for marching band). I’ve baked pies to enter in the Gravenstein Apple Fair in August and have eaten apple crumbles piled high with whipped cream as I wandered the booths, sampling honey and funny-tasting cheese.
So you could say I have a soft spot for apples, and one way I like to cherish them most is to turn them into sauce. Now, my applesauce isn’t as chunky as my mom’s — not because of any particular affinity for smooth sauce; more likely it’s that I put a bunch of apples on to cook down and wander away to do laundry, bake something, read the paper, or or or, and return to a very velvety apple puree — but I like to think it’s still pretty good. I don’t add anything (if I have enough to give away I let the recipient doctor it to his or her own taste) because I think apples are sweet enough as they are, and if they’re good apples you really just want that pure apple taste.
I’m sure most of us will serve apple sauce this Thursday as part of the Thanksgiving feast and I entreat you to make it from scratch. All you do is take about five or so apples (depending on how many people you’re feeding you can use more or less) and peel, core, and slice them. Put in a pot with about an inch of water and bring to a boil; then simmer until the apples are soft enough to mash. Additions might include a bit of cinnamon or ginger, brown sugar, molasses, or honey, depending on your taste. The beauty of making it yourself, too, is that you can make it whatever texture you so choose.
If you’re fortunate enough to have leftovers, a lovely, light dessert for the post-Thanksgiving blues (or if you’re finally sick of pie) is a bit of apple sauce chilled and topped with buttery bread crumbs, nuts, and whipped cream. But, if you’re like me, you’ll probably be scraping the bowl in which the applesauce was served wishing for just one more spoonful.
Apple Sauce with Butter Pecan Crumbs, from gourmet.com
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped pecans or walnuts
1 slice firm sandwich bread with crust, coarsely ground in a food processor (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup applesauce
Garnish: lightly sweetened whipped cream
Heat butter in an 8-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook nuts and bread crumbs with a pinch of salt, stirring constantly, until golden, 2 to 3 minutes.
Spoon applesauce into a goblet or other glass, then sprinkle with crumb mixture. Top with whipped cream.
Vegans: sub margarine for the butter and skip the whipped cream.