Crabapple butter: an autumn recipe

It was an unpredictable summer. The heat came in spurts throughout June and July, but interspersed with such unseasonal stretches of cool that I became paranoid that summer would end before we made good on our August vacation. I suppose it was a fitting follow up to the most capricious of winters and volatile of springs, but it took walking around the neighbourhood in late-night twilight to convince myself that we were still closer to the solstice than the equinox despite the weather. There was fruit for Transfiguration ripening on the trees and flowers for Dormition blooming through many a front lawn; I arrived home refreshed nigh an hour before midnight, my calendars realigned. My husband called off the search party. Next time I'll bring my phone.

Our crabapple tree, unfortunately, had no such wandering affirmations to confirm the continuity of summer. Those dips and dives that killed July's mosquitoes led it to give up on the season entirely, and well before August's end. I watched the apples blush with incredulity nearly a month earlier than normal, and ended up scheduling an emergency apple picking a full two weeks before September, lest our entire crop end up scattered on the driveway. Our tree might have felt rather silly once a sultry September rolled in, engulfing its prematurely fruitless branches with an abnormally late dose of humidity, but these are the times when it helps to be non-sentient.  Accusations aside, we were left with a conundrum: there was no way we could consume enough of the beef in our freezer to make room for this many apples worth of sauce before said fruit went foul on the counter. It's the risk you take when you agree to buy half of the "large cow" straight from the hands who raised it. One of these days, I'm really going to have to get over my fear of canning. In the meantime, there was another course of action available to me: trying my hand at crabapple butter.

I had made apple butter once before, but two years is a long time to try and retain a recipe recited from a series of text messages from a friend who knew a friend in the know, so I put out a call on Facebook for something a little more concrete. A friend came back with this recipe, which, paired with a sugar-to- apple ratio from this recipe and my own method of making apple sauce, was enough to get me started. I loved the idea of adding orange zest instead of lemon to account for the extra tartness of the crabapple, and the aroma of spiced apples simmering for hours is always welcome in my kitchen.

Here's what I came up with:

Crabapple butter

Stock-pot full (16 qts) of crabapples, washed and sorted but not cored, peeled or stemmed 
Baby-fist-sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
3 cinnamon sticks
6 cloves
water (enough to fill pot ~1 inch)
brown sugar (1/2 cup per 1 cup of apple puree)
the zest of one orange or one drop of food-grade wild orange essential oil

Simmer apples and spices on low heat, stirring occasionally, until apples are soft (can be smushed against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon), about 12 hours. Remove from heat, and let sit, uncovered, to cool for a few more hours, stirring occasionally. Apple mush can be warm, but not hot. Remove cinnamon sticks (don't worry about cloves & ginger pieces) and put through saucer/food processor/anything that'll removed the cores, peels, and seeds.

Move strained sauce to slow cooker, measuring as you transfer. My yield was 14 cups. Add 1/2 cup brown sugar for every cup of sauce, and mix in orange zest. Turn slow cooker on low and prop lid open with chopsticks. Cook about 8 hours on low, stirring often to encourage evaporation.

According to Mother's Kitchen, who provided the recipe above, an apple has been buttered when it acts like this: "the fruit butter can hold it's shape on a spoon, to check it put a small amount on a chilled plate. When the liquid doesn't separate and create a rim around the edge, and it holds a buttery, spreadable shape when you pass your finger through it, it's ready to can." Once butter consistency is reached, taste and adjust spice if needed (use powdered cinnamon, clove, & ginger). Either process to can or cool and freeze.

My final yield - much easier to fit in the freezer

Globalization has taken some of the shine off the exotic allure of the spice trade, but there's still something compelling about seasoning apples from my own backyard with flavours from far away. It takes me back to a time when acquiring cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cloves from Indonesia, and ginger root from India came hand in hand with tales from the silk road, world events gathered at oases where caravan met caravan to water their animals. I wonder if the average well-to-do Englishman appreciated the weeks and months those spices had spent in saddle bags atop horses and camels, or barrelled in the hulls of sailing ships, bartered from harbour to merchant to peddler to servant to cook before landing in his Christmas pudding.

I checked the packages of my own modern spices: beyond the Kirkland Saigon Cinnamon, all I can garner is the addresses in Ontario where the product met its current container. The label at the supermarket told me the orange I zested came from South Africa; apparently the groves of Florida and California have also suffered from precarious cooling throughout the growing season, leading such grocery giants as Loblaws to cast their net a little further to accommodate our continuing citrus demands. I'm afraid I reacted more with disgust at the added carbon footprint than the awe Perrault's Cinderella felt upon being presented with such exotic fruit at the prince's ball. Oranges have become all to common in the twenty-five-thousand mile diet. (Update: the following autumn, I used wild orange oil instead of zest - food-grade essential oils are hard too find, but the improvement both in taste and aroma is worth the hassle). And my post's meanders are bound to irritate some poor googling chef in search of recipes rather than wider socio-economic-environmental musings (my apologies).

Apples for another project - just too pretty not to picture
So there you have it: a seasonal recipe created at an unseasonable time due to unpredictable weather. To give some perspective on quantities, my iPhone camera was included in my little culinary adventure. The pictures aren't great, but they do capture some sense of the reduction process, from first picking and sorting to saucing and, finally, butter. My stock pot holds about 16 quarts and my slow cooker maxes out at 5 quarts. The containers where I stored my finished product hold about 2 cups each, which should give a good indication of my final yield.

Looking at that motley crew of salvaged Ukrainian tupperware and plain-jane rubbermaids really make me wish I'd thought ahead and bought some little glass jars with flounced gingham covers. Between the orange and the ginger, this apple butter tastes like Christmas, and cooking crabapples peels makes for too lovely a hue not to match with red and white ribbons. Next year, my family might find themselves with home-made kitch in their stockings (try to act surprised). In the meantime, I'll enjoy spreading jewel-toned spicy goodness on my toast. It's especially nice with rye.

May the season give you something to savour, no matter what twists it took to get us here.


  1. This sounds absolutely fantastic!! We've had really crazy weather too and my crabapple tree was ravaged by goats just as it was budding. Sigh. But it seems to have recovered and is budding again. I hope, hope, hope that I will have enough of a crop this year to try apple butter when our Autumn rolls around. :-)


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