Standing Up

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Like so many since last Friday's event in Newtown, I've done a lot of crying.  I cried for the children. I cried for the teachers. And oh, how I cried for the parents.

Having a child in that age group made it too big for me to process, and initially I opted for an ostrich approach. 

Until the first "hey, did you hear..." from a fellow spectrum parent.  The first whispered rumor that the shooter had Asperger's. 

The whisper grew into a roar, and suddenly an entire community was painted as potential killers by a clueless, ratings-hungry media.

We applauded the voices of reason who challenged the blathering heads on the ridiculous notion that autism causes premeditated violence - but they were too few to stem the ignorant tide. 



Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Soledad O'Brien in a CNN interview: "Autism not a mental illness, it is a neurodevelopmental disorder." 

Nine days ago I was optimistic.  1 in 88 is a powerful number, and awareness is growing.  I could see a day that awareness grew into understanding.  I could see a day that my son would be able to hold his head high and choose to disclose his diagnosis without fear of repercussions.

And then a careless news machine - desperate to scoop the latest in a heartbreaking string of tragic shootings - threw responsible journalism out the window and told the world that autism was to blame.  Who cares that this man had documented mental health problems unrelated to his spectrum diagnosis?  That's complex and nuanced and takes time to verify.  It's not a sexy sound bite.

And I wasn't going to write about it, because this has been thoroughly covered by more eloquent writers than I.

Except that now my baby has a target on his back.

There's a man on Facebook offering - for every 50 Likes on his page - to track down an autistic child and "burn it."

There's another insisting autistic people be tracked down and submitted to what he claims is a cure in order to "save the children from psycho killers."  (For the record, Facebook's response was that labeling an entire population as potential murderers based on their disability is not hate speech.)

One parent had Child Protective Services knock on their door.  They had been called by the school their son attends with the idea that he might present a threat.

Think about that for a minute.  The school. Where this autistic child is supposed to be understood and educated based on that understanding. Called in the authorities because this week's flood of misinformation put it in their head that his diagnosis made him a threat to other students.

Lest you suggest I'm over-reacting, let me make this clear: I saw these examples in one hour on one website, and I wasn't even looking for it.  It doesn't take much to imagine the scale of the internet and extrapolate the scope of this ugly campaign. 

We are genuinely afraid for our children's safety.  We are forced to wonder how long it will be before one of these delusional monsters walks into the nearest school for autistic children with a loaded gun.

It's time to stand up for my son, and push back at the misinformed masses working so hard to paint him as a monster.  I am only one mom with one voice. But I found others like me, and we are working to be heard.

Last night, I saw something wonderful.  A beautiful message from a fellow parent.  I was inspired, as were many others.  We came together to share our own positive messages, and by the end of the night a new page was dedicated to them.  By the time it was 15 hours old, it had over 1000 fans.  A website is already in the works. (Update: It's live! AutismShines.com)


Less than a day in, our campaign of positivity is already getting negative feedback.  One parent called us "sick" and wanted us to take down the page because she was so hung up on her opposition to the phrasing she overlooked the message.  Another suggested we shouldn't be claiming that people with Autism are peaceful and joyful and loving because "some of the can be combative."

To which I say: what can your point possibly be?  You don't get to discount the truth about Autism because some individuals occasionally experience a negative aspect of the disorder.  If combativeness is a litmus test for legitimacy, then you'll have to dismantle the NFL. We accept their "combativeness" as the cost of doing business - even when that cost is murdered wives.  So why is it a problem when someone whose torturously overloaded sensory system accidentally injures a well-meaning caregiver while in the throes of a genuine neurological crisis? 

I encourage you to visit the Autism Shines page on Facebook. Look at the beautiful children who should not have to grow up fearing for their safety.  Look at the adults brave enough to overcome their fear and publicly acknowledge they are on the spectrum.

Look at them and understand they are people.  Just like you.  People who - just 9 days ago - were living their lives. Just like you.  People who need you to hear the truth so they don't have to walk around with a target on their backs.

The Great American Experience

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This post isn't exactly late so much as it was withheld because I wanted to take time to digest the experience before I wrote about it. It's hard to believe two months have already flown by. Sorry it's long winded; this is as much about the autism and sensory experience as it is to document what was, for us, a major family milestone.   I promise more than half of it is just photos.

When summer was half over and I was wondering not just when to schedule Bear's first trip to Great America, but how to afford it, I got an email from the local special needs support group about Autism Awareness Day at Great America, sponsored by the Autism Society of Illinois.  The kicker?  Huge ticket discount. 

The bonus was that one of our nearest and dearest (hereafter: Dear Friend Ava/DFA) - whom Bear adores - could come along to be an extra pair of hands. An experienced spectrummy, Sensory Processing Disorder pair of hands. So, we went for it. 

I should mention I was nervous about going in July with a child so sensitive to heat.  Thankfully it was a manageable 85 that day, plus I bought a personal mister fan to help control his body temperature.  He freaks out if someone else sprays him with water; but, he is perfectly happy to spray himself.  Worth noting I've seen several products like this on the market; I bought this one because the fan blades are kid friendly soft foam.

The Autism Awareness Day flyer indicated there would be a quiet area with sensory activities set up for spectrum families that day.  At the time it sounded like this amazing selling point... afterwards I couldn't help feeling they'd thrown us a bone. A moldy, half-chewed bone, at that. 

I was optimistic when we arrived to a half-empty parking lot.  That optimism lasted about 10 minutes - as long as it took us to get from the car to the lines of people and wall of deafening sound at the gates.  I didn't remember that the park blasts music and sales spiels at the gates to advertain the masses in the endless wait to get through the metal detectors and bag search.

We didn't even make it to the lines before I saw Bear's face change from happy excitement to panic.  I grabbed his headphones and got them on him as he was saying he wanted to leave. Thankfully the headphones did the trick.

***

MISS: It was Autism freakin Awareness Day.  Third Annual Autism freakin Awareness Day.  Surely in the three years that the ASI collaborated with the park someone, at some point, could have mentioned that the deafening music and wall of people at the entrance was going to be a non-starter for spectrum families?  It doesn't matter how much they discount our tickets if our kids go into sensory overload at the front door.

 ***


We figured out that strollers can only go through certain (longer, slower) lines and split up in order to get Bear through as quickly as possible.  So, AGeekDad and DFA took Bear while I tried to keep The Dude calm (he cried for a good portion of the hour long wait).  I already regretted the whole idea.

After making it through the gate we had to stand in another line to get his Ride Accessibility Pass, but it was quick and easy.

***
HIT: Great America's attitude about requesting a RAP for my autistic child was "No Problem!"  Just to be safe I called ahead; I barely even finished saying "my autistic son can't cope with the crowded lines" when the very sweet woman said "Of course he can't!" and gave me clear instructions for how to obtain the pass.  She even made a point of making sure I understood he qualified for the pass any day, not just Autism Day.

We used it sparingly because we did not want to take advantage of the privilege; he did well with short waits sans crowds and I wanted to give him the opportunity to be successful with that.  With the exception of one ride where the clueless operator never paid attention to the accessibility entrance, the pass was a godsend for Bear.  He could not visit with Six Flags without it.  So grateful to the park that they practice what they preach on this one.
***

It had been nearly 2 hours since we parked the van and we hadn't even made it past the entrance. This is when I noticed a lonely sign for Autism Awareness Day near the gates. I started to realize that sun-faded placard was all the awareness we were likely to get.

Since I wasn't in the mood to wait in a half hour bathroom line to use a baby changer, I nursed and changed The Dude on a park bench while AGeekDad and DFA took Bear on the carousel.  I'd hoped to go on it as a family since there isn't much for an infant can do, but this was Bear's day and I had to unclench my compulsively planned hopes for the day and go with the flow.


Bear decided to take the train next. It was nice for all of us to sit down together.
 

We headed to the kiddie area, but realized it was nearly 1:00 and decided to have lunch before Bear dysregulated from hunger. He was understandably too excited to want to eat.


Passing Kidzopolis on the way to eat worked to our advantage, because we had the promise of the rides Bear had just seen to get him through lunch.

To an neurotypical parent this looks like a kid eating pizza.  But spectrum and sensory parents will recognize this moment for what it is: is a long fought, hard won victory I wasn't sure I would ever see. The whole Six Flags thing was practically worth this moment.  My Bear picked up a piece of pizza. And then he ate it.

Almost worth the price of admission.

We earned an Advanced Parenting Merit Badge with the Dude: High Chair Daddy



After lunch we hit the kiddie rides.  After a brief struggle in which DFA miraculously convinced him he could not strip naked to run through the sprinklers, he opted for the planes.

DFA is the best. sport. EVAH.

The Dude was being a remarkably good sport considering it was his naptime...  until he wasn't. (And the answer to the obvious question is no, after paying for Great America tickets we didn't have a spare hundred bucks for a Dudesitter.)


At this point Bear was short circuity and insisting on the apple ride. Once again DFA saved the day, taking Bear on the apples while I circled the area just outside Kidzopolis trying to get The Dude to sleep.  AGeekDad took off to locate the mythical Autism Awareness Day Quiet Area; we all agreed it was time to give it a shot.


***

Sidebar: I had this crazy idea that amusement park planners would take into consideration that people in the kiddie area are probably going to have infants.  Infants who did not want to be in strollers all day. Why on earth must every square inch of grass a baby might crawl on be behind a barrier?

***

MISS: I was feeling desperate and overwhelmed by the constant noise.  And I don't mean the mechanical ride noises and riders screaming - that's bad enough by itself.  I mean the loudspeakers blaring obnoxious music everywhere you turn.  I kept thinking I would be able to find a quiet spot under a tree to give my poor overloaded brain a break and baby a chance to sleep, but every spot that even hinted at being such a refuge was ruined by loudspeakers mounted in the trees or on lamp posts. Thankfully the Dude's exhaustion was stronger than the noise, but I was really struggling.  Last time I was at this park (over 10 years ago) I had to leave early because the sensory overload triggered a horrific migraine.  Starting to think I have to give up my love of roller coasters.

Regardless, I had to wonder why the Autism Awareness Day organizers had not also suggested that the constant auditory bombardment would be a problem.  It seems to me that turning down - or better, turning off - the loudspeakers for one day, and replacing some of the obnoxious advertisements with an explanation of the relevance to Autism Awareness Day might actually spread some awareness. 

***



We followed the signs to the picnic area being used for Autism Day. 


Turns out, it's a concrete pavilion wedged between the backs of some rides and the train tracks, with all the noise you'd expect in that situation.  They had a crawling tunnel and some other stuff set up on the concrete between some picnic tables.  Bear and an older boy (I'm guessing 12ish, definitely nonverbal) played in the tunnel together and blew bubbles while a very nice volunteer from ASI talked to me to make sure our family has the services Bear needs, offer us educational advocacy and sign us up for emails about local events.  They also made sure we had gotten an RAP, which I thought was great because not everyone would know about that.

That was it. I was underwhelmed. We left.

Bear had spotted the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine ride on the way to the quiet break and there was no convincing him otherwise.  This is the one ride we tried where the operator seemed oblivious to the accessibility entrance, but luckily the line was less than 10 minutes.


I wanted to go on at least one ride, so we decided to give Roaring Rapids a shot.  Bear had seen it from the train and said he'd like to try it.  DFA understandably can't stand walking around in wet clothes, so she volunteered to hang with The Dude while we took Bear.


***

HIT: This was the first real test of the RAP.  I piggy-backed him up the long exit ramp, presented the pass and we were whisked right in. No one batted an eye.

***

MISS: One reason I thought Bear could manage this ride is that it's relatively slow and we could talk him through it (e.g. "here comes a little bump! Wheee - wasn't that fun?!").  When he's well regulated he can cope pretty well with things as long as he gets a heads-up. 

What I didn't count on was the station partway through the ride that seemed to have someone in it timing big jets of water for optimum rider soakage.  I heard the noise but didn't have time to lean forward to take the hit for Bear.  His face told me everything and I went straight into damage control mode.  Between being snuggled up sharing the seat with his Daddy and my repeated suggestion that was fun/silly/felt good because it was so hot, he calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the ride (I, however, remained at DefCon 5). 

Park employees seem to be in pretty close communication; would it be so hard on Autism Freakin Awareness Day to communicate the raft number to the guy in the water jet booth so as not to soak the little autistic kid with a giant jet of cold water?  Maybe that's too much to ask, I don't know. Going on the ride was a calculated risk, and it was a lesson learned.

***

I was constantly doing a cost/benefits analysis on how good a ride might be versus how much farther the experience would push his dial towards the red zone. My own sensory issues aside - not to mention a cranky, hot, stroller-bound baby - I was on red alert for Bear's sake and did not really enjoy myself.  But DFA and AGeekDad kept reassuring me that they were having fun and - most importantly - Bear was. And that's all that mattered.

We stopped for a quick snack and I watched Bear while he had a grand time hanging out in his own world.  Still hard to decipher everything I was feeling.  There was a lot of being proud of him.  A little bit of wondering if the people who saw him dancing and spinning next to the pretzel stand understood they were getting a lesson in awareness. There was some sadness that he needs to disappear like this, coupled with gratefulness that I do get him here in my world a lot of the time.


This may be the first time he's ever said "Mommy, I'm tired."  I gave him a lift to the next ride.  


He started insisting that roller coasters are scary and that he didn't want to go on one.  DFA told him the Little Dipper is a ride for kids and he eagerly followed her aboard. Afterwards he said he loved it and she told him it was a roller coaster.  His carefully considered, utterly adorable response was "So, if I liked this ride, and this ride is a roller coaster, then I must like roller coasters!" 


Bear was allowed to choose one midway game, and he decided on Whack-a-Mole.  Probably because it was the first thing he saw after exiting the Little Dipper.  DFA won and gave him the stuffed animal, whom he promptly dubbed Henry.


Bear and his "Afa."  Seriously, could we be any luckier to have this amazing woman in our life?


***
 Sidebar: You can see it in this photo, so I should mention it now... his velcro shoe ID tag doesn't work well with his sandals and I couldn't imagine going to a theme park without him wearing ID.  You can see the black strap on his right ankle - I bought a cheap velcro watch band and slipped the shoelace ID tag onto it. It's not a perfect solution (the watch band was too big), but it worked well enough to convince me it's worth the money to order a proper ankle ID bracelet.  He said it itched at first, but he got used to it very quickly.

***

The Whizzer is another kid friendly coaster, and Bear jumped at the suggestion to ride it next.


The Dude nommed on Henry while we waited for Bear, DFA and AGeekDad to ride The Whizzer.



It was getting late but Bear had seen the pirate ride on the website and he had not forgotten about it.  I took him on  Buccaneer Bay; this time I managed to get soaked shielding him from the cold, annoying water drips that hit you as the boat exits the building. He was predictably fascinated with the hand crank water cannons.



At this point Bear was so done he usurped The Dude's stroller.  We decided to indulge in a treat DFA had told us about before heading home.

Funnel.  Cake. Sundae.

The Dude alternated between doing a happy dance at being free from the stroller and trying to steal the food.  He was perfectly happy to give up his stroller seat to his big brother and enjoy DFA snuggles for the walk back to the car.



Tired Bear is tired.



We headed for home nearly 8 hours after we arrived.  I couldn't believe Bear had lasted so long. I know it was because we had DFA to help and I don't think we'll ever try the park without her.

In general I was happy that Bear had a good time, but annoyed that Autism Awareness Day didn't have a darn thing to do with it.  I feel like enticing spectrum families to go on a crowded Saturday is a bad idea, unless the "awareness" goal is to make park attendees aware of what parents struggling with an overloaded child looks like. If they really want to do us a solid then give us a discount good for any time so we can choose a quiet, low traffic day.

My best friend is always telling me that I have to stop holding others to my high standards for project and event planning, because I will always be disappointed.  This is one of those times.  I know I should be grateful that there is any collaboration at all to make ticket prices more affordable for families guaranteed to be struggling with treatment costs.  But I can't help feeling like it wasn't very well thought through and certainly not well executed.

Even something as basic as a sensory survival guide for visiting the park would have been incredibly helpful.  Information like "all the restrooms have automatic toilets and hand driers" can, for many of us, make or break the day. 

If the goal of this event is to provide an opportunity for spectrum families to do something special with our kids, then they've got a long way to go.  If the goal of this event is to pay lip service to awareness and to get some publicity photos for their marketing portfolio, then they're doing just fine.

Bottom line?  If they're not going to change anything about the actual park experience to genuinely make it more accessible for autistic guests, then I'd rather pay a higher ticket price and take Bear on a cooler day when the park isn't so crowded.

The Great Apple Butter Sensory Experiment

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Apple Butter Hand Pies

If you're curious how I came by the need to use up epic quantities of apple butter by fabricating hand pies, you can catch up with parts 1 and 2 of The Great Apple Butter Experiment.

If you just happen to have apple butter on hand and want to do something besides enjoying it on toast/pancakes/waffles/ham/pork chops/in pumpkin bread/with a spoon, read on...

Did somebody say sensory diet?
I stumbled across this application when searching for ideas on how to use up a few, um, dozen jars.  Preferably, I was looking for a kid friendly idea I could get Bear involved in.  I wasn't sure about this at first, but I figured if it's good enough for Martha, it's good enough for me. 

Recipe Sources
Though I openly worship at the shrine of Martha, I did not use her recipe on this particular project.  I already had the apple butter and I already had a preferred pie crust recipe.

Pie Crust versus Hand Pie Crust
When I decided to make apple butter hand pies I had recently fabricated nearly 200 mini pasties for a Halloween party (pumpkin pie, apple and a traditional vegetable beef. Yes, it was totally worth it.).
Tasty, tasty heavy work.

Thing is, I made them with a finicky delicate pain in the ass standard pie crust recipe, blissfully ignorant of what should have been this blindingly obvious fact: hand pies typically call for a sturdier, kneaded crust.

If you're confident working with typical pie crust then by all means, go for it.  I can personally attest that the tender, flaky results are worth the effort.

But if you are not either A) experienced with pie crust, or B) a certifiable foodie, then Imma recommend you check out Alton Brown's hand pie crust recipe


Step 1: Crust
Make a bunch of pie crust.  Hand pies are labor intensive, so I won't do less than a quadruple batch. I want plenty to freeze for later so I can experience the pleasure of eating one without hours of work.

I'm a big fan of the food processor for blitzing up pie crust.  My processor easily holds a double recipe, so I can have 4 to 6 crusts worth of dough (depending on how motivated I'm feeling that day) thrown together in under 15 minutes.

I recommend prepping all the dough rounds before you start filling.  I do this in batches, stacking the rounds between wax paper in the fridge.
Never again
The size of your round depends on how big you want your hand pies.  For mini (two or three bite) pies, you can use a big cookie cutter.  I was going for the "suck it, Hostess" size and found the lid to my smallest sauce pan worked perfectly.





Step 2: Filling and Shaping
Mixing egg wash for fine motor practice
Just follow the basic rules of filling hand pies and you'll be fine:

- use less filling than you think you need
- leave the edges clean so the pie will seal
- a little egg wash for glue
- gently press the air out as you fold over
- cut a steam hole



Why yes, this IS too much filling
I received these nifty hand pie presses as a gift, but they only work for one size.  It happens to be the perfect portion for an apple butter hand pie and it's easy for kids to use, so I went with it.

If you don't have one just do what I do the other 90% of the time I'm making variously sized hand pies - fold over and gently crimp with a fork.


Bake or freeze? Eat or save?
Line your pies up on a sheet pan.  Make a couple of steam holes either with a knife or scissors. Place pan in the freezer until the pies are rock hard.  I put them in a plastic food storage container, but a freezer bag will work as long as you don't bang it around too much (the edges will crack off).

Until you've had a lot of practice, you'll probably find the assembled pies start to get overly squishy waiting for the pan to fill.  When this happens I stash the pan in the freezer and simply move the newly assembled pies to it as I complete each one. And it probably goes without saying that I only bring a couple of dough rounds out of the fridge at a time.

Because the apple butter doesn't offer resistance like other fillings, it can be a pain to cut the steam holes without squishing the pie.  I like to let them firm up in the freezer just a bit before cutting the holes.  The trick, of course, is not forgetting to cut the steam holes before they freeze solid.


Step 3: Baking
So excited to eat it we forgot to take a picture first
Bake them off in a 400 degree oven. Times will depend on size and if you started from room temp, fridge temp or frozen.  Start checking on them around 20 minutes; if starting frozen will generally take around 30.  In this case the filling is already cooked, so it's all about browning the pastry.

I like to bake off about a half dozen and freeze the rest.  That way we don't eat ourselves silly and have hand pies at the drop of a hat for weeks.

I love to pop one on my small stoneware pan and stick it in the toaster oven.  Paired with some warm cider or hot chocolate, you have the perfect snack for kids getting off the bus on a cold day.  Or bake off several in the oven for the whole family to enjoy after a Saturday afternoon of sledding. 


Regarding Yield
I can't offer a reliable count on yield because it depends on how big you make your pies. I get roughly four 6" pies from each individual pie crust batch.  I used about 16 ounces of apple butter to make about 16 pies (which makes sense now that I think about it - 2 Tbsp is a reasonable filling quantity for a 6" pie).

If you are going to have the kids help build hand pies there's one last piece of advice I have to offer: make sure you've got more jars on hand than you think you need.  I used two jars to make the pies... and Bear simultaneously ate two jars.  Because all that sensory diet stuff works up an appetite.


The Great Apple Butter Experiment: Part 2

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Making and Storing

Start here: The Great Apple Butter Experiment: Part 1, Ingredients and Preparation

MAKING APPLE BUTTER
Before embarking on this experiment I read dozens of apple butter recipes and learned there are two very different ways to prepare it, and it's a decision you need to make in advance.  We tried both and while the results are equally delicious, I came out with a strong preference for one method.

I was frustrated that none of the dozens of websites that talked about making apple butter actually laid out the pros and cons of the two methods so a novice could make an informed decision.  It will become clear why I feel this is an important consideration and why I decided - if all else fails - this can be the mark I leave on the apple butter blogoverse.  (Shut up. It could be a thing.)


Option 1: Stove Top Method
Place all the ingredients in a large, deep, heavy bottomed pot.  It's important that the vessel be as deep as possible. 

Simmer for 1.5 - 2 hours, stirring constantly, until apples are broken down and it reduces to the desired consistency*.

Keep the heat as low as possible (if you've got a simmer burner, use it).  The higher the heat, the more it sputters and splatters. It sticks to skin and burns badly.  If you have a splatter shield, use it.

We ended up wearing long dish gloves over long sleeves, because even using a deep pot and a long wooden spoon, we still suffered spatter burns.  At least one person caught some on the face.  I was cleaning apple butter splats off the walls, cabinets and ceiling for weeks.

We think the recipes that claim 1 to 1.5 hours with this method must have very deep pots that can contain the spatter that comes from more intense bubbling with higher heat. Or possibly, asbestos skin.  We found that the heat had to be very low not just to minimize the risk of burning the apples at the bottom of the pot, but for it to be safe to stir it. That stretched the reduction time out for 2+ hours.

We did eight 10 pound batches of apple butter in one day using this method. It took about about half a dozen women taking turns with the constant stirring to pull it off.  

Stove Top Pros:
- can do large quantities in a single day
- can have multiple pots going at once (if you have people to stir)
- can get a batch done quickly (relatively speaking)
- constant monitoring offers tight control of final consistency

Stove Top Cons:
- labor intensive (you really do need to stir it constantly for 2+ hours)
- spatter burns are practically guaranteed
- not only is it not kid friendly, it's almost 'do not attempt with children on the premises'


Option 2: Crock Pot Method
6 quart slow cooker fills completely with 10 lb recipe
Place all the ingredients in the crock pot.  Lid on. Turn on high until you achieve bubbling around the edges, then switch to low.  Let it go until the desired *consistency is achieved.

If you want to feel like you're doing something, give it a stir every couple of hours.  Time will vary depending on your type of slow cooker, the moisture content of your apples and how thick you want the final product to be.

I like to take the kids apple picking on a Saturday, set this up Saturday night after dinner and have apple butter ready the next morning (leaving Sunday afternoon for preserving).
 
Minimum cook time is probably 8 hours, I average 12 and have gone as long as 16.  If it's not thickening up for you by 8 or 10 hours in, crack the lid to facilitate evaporation.

This photo of my last batch was taken 13.5 hours after the one above. I did end up cracking the lid the last couple of hours to achieve this final thickness because it hadn't reduced enough overnight.
Finished apple butter

Crock Pot Pros:
- safe and easy
- low maintenance
- kid friendly

Crock Pot Cons:
- takes a really long time
- due to appliance load on average electric circuits you generally can't do multiple simultaneous crock pot batches, so one weekend = one 10 lb apple batch


*Consistency
You have a choice in the consistency of the final product.  Once the apples have really started to break down, you need to decide which way to go with it.

1) Rustic chunks - leave it alone, it will do that on its own.
2) Mostly smooth with small chunks - use a potato masher
3) Very smooth - use a stick blender (or alternately, puree small amounts at a time in a blender)

Worth mentioning... if the apples you use are all softer varieties (often described as good for sauce) you will get a much smoother final product.  If you want a chunkier product, make sure to include some firmer varieties that will hold their shape better (often described as good for baking).

Important: Go easy with the mashing or blending! Leave it a bit chunkier than you're looking for because the apples will continue to break down.  More than once I've gone overboard (because frankly, stick blending is fun) and wound up with a final product as smooth as baby food. Great if that's what you like, but I find it unappealing.  I like a chunky sauce.

If you choose option 2 or 3, the newly mangled fruit releases more liquid and more time may be required to finish the reduction.  I tend to do it 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through the expected cook time to account for that.

Which method do I use?
I'm inherently lazy and love to involve my children in the kitchen, so I prefer the crock pot method. I love that the combination of apple machine and crock pot make this a kid friendly activity we can manage in a weekend.


STORING APPLE BUTTER

Now that you've got a couple of quarts of newly minted apple butter, I suppose you're wondering what on earth to do with it. Because who can eat 3 quarts of apple butter in the 3-4 weeks before it will go south in the fridge?

You have two options for long term storage. And yes, I have a strong preference for one of them. I'll (briefly) address them both because I suspect most people are not interested in my preference.


Option 1: Freezing
Portion your apple butter into appropriate freezer storage containers.  If you want some for easy use in recipes you can portion into jumbo muffin tins and then chuck the frozen pucks into a freezer bag. This is nice to do with at least some of it because you don't have to open and defrost an entire container to get a small amount for a single recipe.

Pros:
- quick and simple
- anyone can do it
- no special equipment necessary
- estimates vary, but I've read it can freeze 6 to 12 months

Cons:
- freezer space is generally at a premium
- 6 months isn't long enough if you make a lot
- the defrosted product will likely be a bit thinner/watery, may need to take into account depending on final use


Option 2: Canning
I knew all along I was going to can (aka "preserve" aka "put up") my apple butter because I grew up in the boondocks canning with my mom and already had the equipment and experience.

Canning basics are amply covered in many places, and I'm simply going to link to a credible source or two rather than offer my amateur take on it.

Suffice it to say I like that I can store canned jars in my pantry for a long time. Some estimates say 1 year, most say 2 years, I just used some that was 3 years old with no problem. It tasted like the day we made it.

Storage Containers

 4 oz and 8 oz jelly jars are the perfect size for canning apple butter. They're also perfect for gift giving and you don't have to can them to do so. BUT...



Gift Giving and Food Safety
Many people will assume something in this type of jar is preserved (canned) and expect it to keep a couple of years in their pantry.

If you choose to give gifts without canning, PLEASE BE VERY CLEAR with recipients:

- that it is not preserved
- that is must be refrigerated
- when it expires (about a month from the day you made it)


Regarding Food Safety. Seriously. Read This Part.
Just a few days ago I was horrified to find a food site discussion thread in which many home cooks confessed to skipping the canning process on the assumption that it would be fine, having just cooked the apple butter and it being hot and all. 

I know you're probably thinking "I can see their point. Botulism is something they just say to scare us and the odds of getting it are so low it's not worth the trouble to worry about it."  Except that it is.  Know how I know?

I am an OCD nutjob.  I use plastic gloves with raw meat, have designated cutting boards and sterilize cooking utensils in the dishwasher.  And I am NOT a germophobe - I firmly believe the science that demonstrates growing immune systems need a hobby to mature properly, and I wouldn't be caught dead doing all that hand sanitizer at the park type nonsense.  But there are some things you don't screw around with, and food safety is one of them.

This is Karma. She's dead now.  She broke into the heavily defended garbage can and ate something. The vets bills were around $2000.  She lived just long enough for the culture to come back and tell us it was clostridium botulinum. You know it as botulism. The same microbe that can thrive in improperly processed canned food.  The same reason you don't give honey to infants under a year old.

No matter how careful you are, you have to assume the spores are there.  And I'd rather tell you about the unfortunate death of my beloved dog than have you tell me about the tragic death of your beloved grandchild. So don't take shortcuts with canning - either do it right or don't do it at all.  And FFS make sure anyone to whom you give jars of homemade food know precisely how and for how long they can be stored.  Are we clear?  Good.  Moving on.

Labeling for Storage
I can't see going to all this trouble and then slapping on labels with masking tape and a Sharpie. Avery 5294 are self-adhesive 2.5" printable circle labels that work perfectly with standard wide mouth canning jar lids. There's even a free Word template so you don't have to fuss with formatting the circles yourself.

You can get as complicated as you like with graphics, just be sure to include the important information if giving away (things like expiration date, Keep Refrigerated if not preserved or Refrigerate After Opening if it was). I used free clip art of an apple 'cause I'm fancy that way.


A Note On Yield
Our extensive experimentation revealed that we get slightly less than 8 oz of apple butter for every 1 pound of apples.  So, an average 10 pound batch will generally yield 8 - 9 jars (16 - 18 if you're using the 4 oz model).  Your mileage may vary, but for me it's been a reliable ballpark for jar planning.


Now that you've successfully made and safely stored a supply of delicious apple butter sourced with local ingredients, you're probably starting to wonder what you can do with it.

Tune in next time for the final chapter in the epic Apple Butter trilogy: Apple Butter Hand Pies.

The Great Apple Butter Experiment: Part 1

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ingredients and Preparation

A while back one of my girlfriends asked me about apple butter.  She shared the same frustration so many of us have with supermarket foods: the store options all contained High Fructose Corn Syrup.

I felt naked, y'all. Because while I do have significant square footage designated to canning equipment and supplies - and I may lose my redneck license for admitting this - I'd never actually made apple butter

But I'm game for anything in the kitchen, so we quickly decided to conduct the experiment together. Which turned into making it a great big thing with half a dozen girlfriends, which turned into a comic opera of planning and procurement. Not that any of us minded. Countless people asked for the recipe at the time (and since - can't believe it's been 3 years).  The catch was that we experimented with multiple versions across multiple batches, so it took a while for us to taste them all and decide which version we preferred.

Now that we've finally eaten our way through all 94 jars and I put this year's apple picking on my calendar, my thoughts turned to the pile of apple butter post-it notes stashed in my recipe binder.

(Yes, I said 94. Jars of apple butter. Because the crazy people who live in my head believe anything worth doing is worth way the fuck overdoing.)

Anyway.

After painstakingly reviewing dozens of recipes on the interwebz, carefully choosing our ingredients and making 9 variant batches, this is the recipe we settled on:


Honey Apple Butter

This is the 100 pounds of apples that made our first 94 jars.
INGREDIENTS

10 lbs apples1,2; peeled, cored and sliced3
3 cups apple cider4
1 1/4 cup honey5
2 tsp cinnamon6
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg7
pinch of kosher salt


Notes

(1) I recommend sourcing your apples like this. But if you don't have a small child to provide free labor, your local orchard and/or farm stand will be happy to sell you bulk apples.  Many will offer a steep discount for a bushel of bruised specimens, which is ideal for this application.


(2) To ensure a well rounded flavor profile, get several varieties of apples.  Most orchards post a chart of which apple varieties are best suited for which culinary applications.  Here's an example - but varieties vary by region, so check your local sources.


What 10 lbs of apples looks like
(3) You can manually peel, core and slice your apples if you don't plan to do this very often.  If you work with fresh apples on a regular basis, I strongly recommend getting a hand crank apple peeler/slicer. I got this model at my local Meijer for $15, and it was worth every penny.

(4) Fresh pressed apple cider is probably available from the same place you got your apples. If not, grocery stores usually have fresh apple cider on a seasonal basis. Check the refrigerated section. (If you're really lucky, you have a friend with a cider press... but that's a whole 'nother thing.)

 (5) Look around for an apiary - you'd be surprised how easy and affordable it is to find fresh, local honey.  The one near us charges by the pound - we just bring in our own mason jars and stick them under the tap.

(6) These spice quantities are based on apple butter of average (thick applesauce) consistency and is well spiced. If you prefer less bold flavor and/or plan to reduce to a very thick consistency, simply dial back on the honey and spice quantities.

(7) You wouldn't go to all this trouble and use canned nutmeg, would you?  I didn't think so. Not sure where to find the real stuff? I get it from the Atlantic Spice Company - it's a great price but enough to last a lifetime, so you may want to coordinate with friends.

PREPARATION
Now that you've sourced all your ingredients, it's time to prep the apples.  This is another place where that free child labor comes in.  (But only with the relative safety of an apple machine for small kiddos, or if you're lucky enough to have ones old enough to trust with knife work.)

I never cease to be amazed how fast the "silly apple machine" works through 10 pounds of apples.  Even hampered  assisted by my awesomesauce sidekick, a total clutz like me can whip through each apple in under a minute.

Someday I hope to get my act together enough to make apple jelly from the peelings... but that's another episode.

No problem if the apple goes on the crank a little crooked and a few seeds get left behind - just clean it up a bit before you drop it in the pot.  I like to cut them in half just to facilitate the fruit breaking down, but it isn't really necessary.

Tune in next time when I actually tell you what to do with that giant pile of honey, spices and peeled apples...




The Great Apple Butter Experiment Part 2: Making and Storing

The Great Sensory Experiment: Apple Butter Hand Pies
 
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