Each year, I make more. I have not yet reached the apple butter output of nearby villages in Brittany where le pommé (the local term for apple butter) is simmered and stirred overnight as it bubbles in a huge copper cauldron over an open fire. But then, my recipe is more American than French, based on a short recipe in the back of The Joy of Cooking.
The pommé tradition in Brittany is now the stuff of local festivals; few people (and none I know) still make it at home, which makes me pass for some sort of culinary rock star when I share mine. Plus, I have to say, mine’s better. Stirring a copper cauldron with a big oar-like wooden spoon (you can see the process here) has an artisanal charm, but it doesn’t always prevent the pommé from singeing on the bottom, which in turn gives the whole batch a burnt-like flavor. I’ve wondered if burnt apple is an acquired taste, sort of like tripe and stinky cheese. (If so, I haven’t acquired it yet.)
6 1/2 lb. (3 kg.) apples, washed
2 cups water or apple cider
light or dark brown sugar, or granulated sugar
½ cinnamon stick*
QUARTER the apples directly into a large stockpot—no need to peel or core. Add the water or cider, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook 30 minutes to an hour, or until the apple quarters have turned to mush. Pass the cooked apples through a food mill or put through a sieve or strainer to remove the seeds, cores, and peels. You will have a smooth, possibly slightly pink, applesauce (which you could eat as-is or lightly sweetened, if you want).
MEASURE the applesauce back into the (rinsed) stockpot and for each 1 cup (225 ml.) of applesauce, add ¼ cup brown sugar or granulated sugar. Stir to combine, and add the half cinnamon stick.
COOK the applesauce over low heat 3 to 4 hours (that’s right, that long), stirring occasionally, until it is reduced by at least one-third and has thickened to a spreadable consistency. At the start of the cooking time, you can stir the mixture every 5 to 10 minutes, but as it thickens you will need to stir more often to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. This sounds more laborious than it actually is—basically, you just need to be nearby to give the pot a quick stir once in a while.
MEANWHILE, get 6 to 8 half-pint (8 oz/200 ml.) jars ready (rinsed, sterilized if desired), and place 2 or 3 small saucers in the freezer.
TEST the apple butter for doneness. When the apple butter starts to look thick and dark and begins to glisten, take one of the saucers out of the freezer and spoon a small amount of apple butter onto it. If a ring of thin liquid forms around the apple butter, then it’s not ready yet—keep cooking and stirring. You may have to test the apple butter several times this way before it’s done. You can also test with an instant-read thermometer: the apple butter should reach 220-221˚F (105˚C); but the best way to test such a thick spread is with the plate method.
LADLE the apple butter into jars once it’s ready. Fill almost to the rim of the jar, wipe the rim and the sides of the jar to remove any drips, then close the lid and turn the jar upside down. Cool upside down to create the vacuum seal.
*As I mentioned above, I go light on spices because I like for the flavor of the apples to come through. I find the taste is rich and satisfying enough with just a hint of cinnamon, but if you want an apple butter with more spice you can add: 1- 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon AND/OR ginger, ¼ to ½ tsp. ground cloves AND/OR allspice.