I haven’t posted in awhile. Life’s been busy, in the way that most people’s lives get filled with last-minute events, daily obligations, and–oh, yeah–Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. I had planned to write about Thanksgiving. I thought of describing our wonderful feast, the warmth and comfort of surrounding ourselves with a crowd of our favorite people, the sparkling table, and the fun of creating new culinary treats from all the leftovers.
That would have been a nice post. But I didn’t write it. Instead, I want to write about applesauce.
One of my favorite childhood memories centers around my grandmother’s applesauce. She would start the preparations early in the day, peeling and slicing a large pile of fruit. Some of the apples might be bruised or soft–“all the better,” she’d say; those less-than-perfect specimens would add sweetness, balancing the tart flavor of their firm, crisp cousins. Next, she’d bring out her trusty double boiler, an old, dented, aluminum contraption that didn’t quite balance flat on the burner. With enough water in the bottom, the apples would be loaded into the upper chamber and set over a low heat. Throughout the day, she’d lift the lid, stir the apples, and possibly add a bit more water. There was no other ingredient besides fruit in my grandmother’s applesauce. The apples broke down slowly, releasing an aroma that filled the house. Somehow, she was always able to organize the rest of her cooking so that the applesauce would be ready just in time for dessert. By evening, the pot would contain a simmering reduction of pure apple essence. Each of us would get a bowlful, ladled out while it was still steaming. A generous pour of heavy cream served the dual purpose of cooling the applesauce and infusing it with an inimitable richness and velvety texture.
Simplicity, patience, and an appreciation for imperfection were attributes that my grandmother modeled every day. My grandparents were married in the depths of the Depression. My grandfather suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1941, several months before my mother was born. He spent the last four years of his life in a nursing facility. My grandmother went to work running an engine lathe at a General Electric plant, producing jet engines for the war effort and visiting her husband in the hospital every day. She was poor, struggling, and full of spirit. There were days when she didn’t have enough food to feed her two young children. As a result of surviving those years, my grandmother developed a passion for home cooking and an abhorrence for waste of any kind. Her applesauce, which elevated humble fruit to a child’s idea of magic, is a total embodiment of her approach to life.
There’s a batch of applesauce simmering on my stove right now. It isn’t as simple as my grandmother’s, nor is it as pure. I start by heating half a stick of butter and a cup of brown sugar in a giant cast-iron skillet. Once everything is melted into a caramel syrup, I add a huge pile of apple slices, coating them with buttery sweetness. After an hour, the apples will have transformed into my own version of fall harvest heaven.
Although my applesauce has taken on a bit more of an indulgent nature than my grandmother’s, it’s still made with less-than-perfect fruit. Today, I peeled about two dozen frozen apples, which had turned icy in the back of our spare refrigerator. A few others were bruised and ugly, but perfectly fine for cooking. They’re the last remnants of a plentiful season at our farm. Every now and then, I’d come across one firm, crisp surprise. All of them ended up in the pan together.
Abundance. What does it mean in this season of excess? For us, tonight, it’s warm applesauce, a pot of potato-leek soup, and croutons made from Friday’s sourdough bread.