The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Ode to the Apple: Making Applesauce April 6, 2014

In a recent blog post, I talked about the apple as a sacred tree in that it provides us with bountiful, amazing cider. In this post, I’m going to walk through the art of making and canning applesauce. The applesauce I made when I was taking photos for the blog is hands down the best applesauce I have ever tasted in my life! I really like making applesauce because it connects me with the sacred apple tree (more on that in an upcoming post), its very healthy, and it can be shared and enjoyed with others.

Apples free from a neighbor's yard

Apples free from a neighbor’s yard

Finding Apples

The first thing you need to do for a good applesauce is to find your apples.  In my crazy quest last summer to pay homage to the apple, I tasted apples from literally hundreds of trees.  I realized then that not all apples are created equal.  A good applesauce requires a really delicious apple.  These apples a friend and I gathered from my neighbor’s house.  We have no idea what variety they are, but they are literally the most delicious apple–a little tart, a little sweet, excellent creamy flesh.  I used these apples to make my perfect applesauce.

Now you shouldn’t have to buy apples–lots of old apple orchards are out there, and most people (at least in this area) have apple trees in their front or backyards.  I have found that if you go ask to pick apples, most people will be happy to let you (especially if you offer some of the bounty in return).   You can also find apples in local parks and the like.  If you are gathering lots of apples, make sure you get some sturdy bags (we gathered with 50 lb feed bags – pictured in the photo above) because we were also going for bulk for making cider.  The other thing about making a good applesauce is that sometimes a combination of apples can yield the best results.  So I used a few kinds of apples for the sauce, but the bulk of them came from the incredible tree of the neighbor’s!  You should pick apples from the tree–pull gently and the apple will come off easily if the apple is ripe.

Lots of Apples!

Lots of Apples!

Besides being free, there are a lot of other benefits to gathering your apples wild.  First, they are almost certainly not going to be sprayed with pesticides–and since apples are one of the fruits that hold in the most pesticide, this is something you absolutely do not want to have in your fruit.  Second, you can find varieties wild that you can’t find in the store, allowing for very unique flavors (my friend and I found one apple tree that literally produced apples that tasted like cotton candy last year!)  Third, you are eliminating the use of fossil fuels associated with transporting apples over great distances (depending on your mode of transportation, you might still have some fossil fuel expenditure, but it shouldn’t be nearly that of a commercial grower).  Most of my apples were gathered within 3 miles of my home, or were gathered where I was already heading (e.g. I went to campus for the day, and stopped at the orchard on my way home to pick apples for an hour before heading home).

 

Coring and Peeling your Apples

You can core and peel your apples by hand. I used to do this until I discovered this great little device called an “apple peeler and corer.”  I found mine on Etsy for $10. I don’t actually know why anyone would do anything else–this is SO fast.  I can do enough apples for a huge pot in about 45 minutes–and its a lot of fun to use.  The one thing I will mention is that you want fresh, firm apples to use this little device. If they are too soft or mushy, they will fall apart and cause frustration.

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

The peeler, corer, and slicer works like magic, and it creates these awesome little apple spirals.  It also creates a great deal of apple peel, which I dehydrated and have been using for tea.

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Cooking Your Sauce

Now that you have some cored, peeled, and sliced apples, you are ready to start cooking down your sauce.  One word of warning – applesauce easily burns!  Stir it frequently! The one thing that can do you in is having too high of heat and ignoring your applesauce.  I bought a beautiful long wooden spoon from a local craftsperson at the farmer’s market, and I use that spoon to lovingly stir my applesauce so that it doesn’t burn.

To speed up the cooking process and make sure my apples on the bottom don’t burn, I usually use my immersion blender to chop up the apples  (otherwise, this can be a really long process!)

Apples being processed

Apples being processed

Now how much you want to cook your applesauce down is a matter of personal preference. I prefer really chunky applesauce, so I cook mine a lot less than some others do (the store-bought stuff is all way overcooked, IMHO).  Here’s what mine looked like about halfway through the cooking process:

Cooking down the applesauce!

Cooking down the applesauce!

At this stage, I added a bit of freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon to the sauce.  I also added a little honey for added sweetness–but my apples were pretty sweet, so not much was needed.  Once I had it tasting exactly how I wanted it, I was ready to can!

 

Canning Your Applesauce

Standard hot water bath canning applies here–you hot water bath can your applesauce for 15 min. One of the important things to remember is that applesauce EXPANDS A LOT during canning, so you want a full 1″ of headspace on your pint jars.  I have not had applesauce explode on me yet, but many people I’ve spoken to about it have!

When you are finished, you will have some of the most amazing applesauce you have ever tasted.  It is likely you will be unable to eat the drivel that they call “applesauce” in the stores ever again. And you’ll be one step closer to self-sufficiency and more sustainable living!

 

Enjoying your Applesauce

Canning any kind of food preserves that food at its peak freshness, saving it for you to savor in the cold, dark months of winter.  As I finish this blog post, I eat a bite of my most delicious applesauce straight from the jar, and look back with fondness on those wonderful apple-filled months leading up to Samhuinn.  I think there is real magic in making and preserving applesauce–apples are such an abundant gift from the wild and we can preserve that gift for years to come.

 

Ode to the Apple: Harvest, Pressing, and Fermenting Apple Cider March 9, 2014

Crab Apples ripening at Bittersweet Farm in Clarkston

Crab Apples ripening

I’ve been meaning to write a series of posts on the apple tree for quite a while, and here in the depths of winter, I have finally found time to do so!  And while my timing is off season, I think it also gives us a look forward 8 months to a wonderful harvest in the year to come.

 

Ode to the Apple

Last year,  I was introduced to the  introduced me to the blessing and magic that is the apple tree.  This process started with an Apple Wassailing in early January in 2013 (which we again did in 2014).  But it wasn’t till later in the season, in early spring, that one of my friends really introduced me to the blessing and incredible nature of the apple. As my friend and I would be driving around or out on a foraging expedition, he’d point out the apple tree and say “Look, there’s an apple tree!”  While I smiled and nodded, I didn’t quite understand his fascination with the apple tree early in the season. I enjoyed apples, I cooked with them,  I ate them regularly, but I hadn’t spent much time communing with those trees.  So while it was clear I didn’t have his level of reverence for the apple at that point, I was excited to learn more.

 

My reverence significantly deepened and changed as the season went on, and I began to understand the sacred majesty that is the apple tree.  As we explored the landscape of

Harvesting crab apples at Bittersweet Farm

Harvesting crab apples

South-Eastern Michigan through the summer months, I realized just how many apple trees there were, and I started noticing them in every yard, on every street corner, even all through my campus.  As we watched the trees go from blossom stage (with their tasty blossoms and forage for bees) to fruit stage as the season went on, the magic of the apple tree continued to manifest. Apples were literally everywhere–their abundance ripening for the harvest!

Harvesting Apples

This past year, we had probably the most abundant harvest of apples that anyone I spoke to had ever seen–bushels and bushels and bushels of apples, so many that the trees were heavy laden with fruit (and in some cases, such as my neighbor’s home) succumbed to the pressure and cracked under the weight.  2013 was certainly the year of the apple!  And so, when apple harvest began in September, we harvested. We harvested every chance we got–there were so many bags and bags and bags of apples! Apples of all kinds–crab apples, sweet apples, yellow apples, green apples, red apples, apples from my campus, apples from the neighbor’s house, apples from friends and families, apples from abandoned orchards deep on the edges of parks, apples in the middle of town….everywhere we went, apples were to be found!  We harvested right up into November, even after frost when the apples went soft, they are still good for cider making.

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

Late Season Cider Apples (and a small bag of tiny, very tart crab apples)

One of the things about harvesting apples, I learned, is that when the apple tree is ready, she gives her fruit freely.  A simple tug will have the fruit falling right into your hand.  If you tug, and tug, and the apple still is not coming off the branch, it means that the apple is not ripe and you may damage the branch by trying to harvest it.  When you see apples starting to fall to the ground around the tree, you know the tree is ready to give her bounty.

 

The second thing I learned about harvesting apples is that location of the fruit on the tree matters.  Fruit located in the south will ripen and be ready for harvest before fruit in the northern part of the tree (same with sunny/shady locations).

 

The third thing I learned about harvesting apples is that different kinds of apples make different kinds of products–you can make a good fresh cider out of sweeter apple varieties–any variety with a high sugar content will do the job  (crab apples work well for this, but require a lot more work because of their smaller size).

 

A final thing I learned about harvesting apples is that cider apples don’t really have to be perfect–you can pick up ones on the ground, that have blemishes, and so on, because they will be pressed anyways!

 

Pressing Fresh Cider

And then came…the pressing and the fermenting!  I’m going to walk you through the stages of pressing with lots of photos.  The press and apple grinder (scratter) were both handmade by my friends (commercial options are also available for those of you who want to press but don’t have the skill to build your own).

In order to effectively make fresh apple cider or plain apple cider (which refers to the hard stuff traditionally), you need a few things: 1) a lot of apples, which can very likely be procured for free; 2) a grinder to turn apples into pulp; 3) a press; and 4) some means of fermentation.  Let’s start with the pressing process.

Grinding up Apples

Grinding up Apples

Adding Apples to the Grinder

Adding Apples to the Grinder

The grinder chips up the apples into small pieces so that they will press better.  Apples of any size or kind can be used (we also pressed some quinces that day).  After the apples are ground, we add them to the press.

Press setup before pressing

Press setup before pressing

Adding Apples to the Press

Adding Apples to the Press

The press works in layers–each layer of apples is added and then wrapped up in a cloth.  (In previous times, these presses could be very large indeed, and instead of cloth, which was too valuable, people added layers of straw between each layer of apples).

Adding apple pulp to press

Adding apple pulp to press

Layering fabric around apple pulp

Layering fabric around apple pulp

After each square of apple pulp and fabric (which holds the apples in the press), boards with groves are added.  The groves allow the apple cider to run out into the bucket.

Adding boards to the press

Adding boards to the press

After the press is setup, you simply crank the jack and it slowly presses the liquid out of the apples.  Since apples are up to 80% water, you can get a surprising amount of juice through this process!

Pressing!

Pressing!

You can see that my friends strain the apple cider as it leaves the press–they are collecting it into a food-grade bucket. At this point, its customary to enjoy the fruits of your labor with a taste of the fresh cider.

Best taste ever--fresh cider!

Best taste ever–fresh cider!

Some of pressed cider is frozen for enjoyment year round (I still have quite a bit in my freezer!)  But the rest is put into carboys for fermentation into hard cider.

Finished cider

Finished cider

The pressings, after we are finished with them, are returned to an orchard and placed around the trees.  This way, as many nutrients as possible are added back to the trees.

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

Old pressings are returned to trees (compost)

I am still learning the fermentation process, so I’ll save that for another post when I understand it better and have more experience (I’ve only made dandelion wine so far!).  But I recently helped bottle up some of the finished cider, and I am storing more of it for my friend in my living room!

Fermentation after several months

Fermentation after several months

Bottled hard cider!

Bottled hard cider!

I was honored this year to be introduced to the incredible nature of the apple tree–in Michigan, the apple is so abundant, so giving, so gentle. And the fruits can be turned into so many amazing foods–fresh eating, fresh cider, hard cider, cobblers, pies, applesauce, and so much more!  I’d also like to acknowledge my friends for allowing me to take part in this process and for introducing me to the sacredness that is the apple tree.

 

I think that the process of realizing how much the land–right outside our doorstep–has to offer us and how much free bounty is there for harvesting, we can’t truly appreciate the trees and the wisdom they offer.  Without my experiences this year in seeing the apples go from dormancy (wassail) to flower to fruit and being part of the harvest, I wouldn’t have understood the apple as it changed through the growing season.  Had I just bought apples from a farmer when they were ripe, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to commune with the trees during harvest, to learn how to harvest from the tree, and to give back to them.  I had grown up with apples nearby, but it wasn’t until this year that I was able to understand why the apple was such an important part of so many cultures, why it was such a sacred tree, and how it is one of the trees that can help us substantially make the shift back into a sustainable relationship with the lands around us.  These opportunities represent learning experiences on many levels, and I am honored to have been able to have this experience.