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

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

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.


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.

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

- 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.