A Paen to Making Applesauce
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Why Experimental Science is Fun
I stayed up late last night making applesauce. The Winesap apple tree that shares my yard has produced hundreds of apples this year, despite vigorous pruning and minimal attention. Deluged in apples, I set about making applesauce.
Applesauce is a very basic, very plain food. There doesn't seem to be any mystery or much in the way of careful technique required. You just cut up a bunch of apples, add a little water, and cook carefully until they turn into mush.
But the entire process is very satisfying. The sounds and touch are wonderful: my knife cuts cleanly into the apple, making a small knicking sound as it strikes the cutting board; the water gurgling over the cores and peels before draining away; even the slight stickiness of fresh-cut apple juice on the hands is somehow warming to the soul. There is no cleverness or false subtlety in an apple. It is simply an apple.
In early America, I am told, apples were a staple; one of the essential crops of the earliest settlers. As such, apples become low status. I'm sure "Oh no, apples again?" was a frequent comment in frontier America.
Today, apples are still common, but life doesn't depend on them. We see them in the stores, on the produce racks and in cans and jars. The only exotica among them are the Granny Smiths, which are often flown in from New Zealand; or the "old style" apples such as Winesaps or Jonathans, which some small arcane apple orchards still grow.
Applesauce inherits all of these qualities from the apples. It too is common, and never the centerpiece of anyone's dinner. Children eat it, and it is put on potato pancakes; but face it, applesauce is plain stuff.
This is why I wanted to make applesauce. To make something with my own hands that was beneath ordinary recognition. To make a food that is completely automated by the big companies that make commerical applesauce. It's the same motivation that drives some people to grind their own flour from whole wheat berries. The same motivation that causes others to grow gardens, and the more eccentric among them to raise their own goats. I don't have much sunny yard space, and I certainly don't have time enough for goats; I do have apples.
So, I cut up and cored fifteen apples into my dutch oven, added half a cup of water, and simmered them for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes to avoid scorching. A lovely, light, floral-apple scent comes from the pot as they cook.
I poured the mash into a strainer, and put the strainer into a large glass bowl to let it cool for a few minutes before pushing the mash through the wire mesh. Soon, a slightly sirupy apple expression (free run apple juice, heavy with pectin) collected in the bottom of the bowl. This I poured off into a glass and drank -- it was nectar!
Sieving the mash (pushing it through the sieve with the bottom of a glass) took about 10 minutes, and I was left with 2 cups of warm applesauce and about 3/4 cup of apple skins and remaining pulp.
As I was tasting, it occurred to me that if I skinned the apples, I wouldn't have to do the sieving at all. It would save a few minutes of work, and avoid using the sieve altogether! Since there was only 2 cups of applesauce, I decided to try my new method on another dozen apples.
I repeated the process; this time carefully peeling all the apples beforehand.
However, I discovered that I couldn't smash the cooked apples into proper sauce consistency without the sieve. No matter how long, or how hard I worked the mash with the glass bottom, I still had identifiable chunks of apple remaining, and not the pleasing consistent smooth texture of good applesauce.
I retrieved the strainer from the wash basin and pushed the mash through. After a few minutes, I discovered that I still had apple pulp remaining. Removing the skins had only reduced the pulp volume and not eliminated it.
Apples have a significant amount of fiber in them! The unstrainable evidence was there in the bottom of my sieve. I have to admit, I didn't expect that at all! Furthermore, when I combined the apple-skin sauce with the skin-free sauce, I saw that there was an enormous difference in color between the two: the skins give a rosy color to the applesauce, while skin-free applesauce is a beautiful light yellow color. There is also a slight difference in taste, but it's very, very slight.
Standing there in the kitchen, late at night, listening to the crickets outside, I couldn't help but be impressed by what mysteries apples still hold. They're so familiar, yet still surprising.