Every year around the 2nd week of August, Gravenstein apples make their entrance at our farmer’s market in Marin County, California. Gravenstein is an apple cultivar that originated in the 17th century or earlier. The fruit has a superbly tart flavor cherished for cooking, and it has such a short harvest! Blink and you miss it — which makes it all the more precious. My culinary co-conspirator Julie Burford is our spy. When she sees the apples come in, she orders 40 pounds from the farmer. We are preparing to preserve!
A community tradition in the kitchen
We started doing this 9 years ago. A dear friend of Julie’s was an expert at putting up all sorts of goodies, so we decided to be brave and learn how to preserve from the best. We had never preserved anything before. Some people go for jams; we agreed on applesauce because we had Julie’s mother’s recipe.
Apples in hand, we assemble all of our canning equipment: the jars, the big pot, the lids and tongs. (You can purchase a set-up in my shop.) Friends and neighbors are invited, but the rule is that you have to put in sweat equity in order to get your Gravenstein applesauce! If you want some, you have to pitch in.
In 2010, our second year, my brother was visiting. Why not 80 pounds, he inquired? He went directly to the farm and bought 80 lbs. It took us 2 days. Now we have our 40 pounds down to a science. Julie’s husband Stan Burford figured out that the best way to peel the apples is to get an old-fashioned, hand-crank potato peeler. The peels come off easily, with not too much skin. Perfect!
Easy, soul-satisfying work
Stan peels. Julie and I, and whatever friends show up (sometimes my husband Gregg comes) slice, stir, and pour into jars. We form an assembly line. What used to take a full day now takes 4 hours. We start at 9 and we’re done by 1pm. And we have 24 gorgeous quart jars full of Gravenstein applesauce!
This year a friend absolutely wanted to participate, though she was not well, but said, “I absolutely am coming over to make applesauce.” We provided a stool, a cutting board and a knife for her. She operated a little bit more slowly than usual, but she was in it! For her jars! She didn’t want to lose her equity stake.
Julie says “One of the great thing about this is that we’re preserving for the future.” A very empowering thought. We had had a rough week in our neighborhood this year. Julie and Stan had lost their beloved dog, Josie, and everybody had something major going on. Being in community, in the midst of our annual tradition, felt wonderful. Making applesauce has a beginning, middle and end; having your hands in it from the raw apples to filling the jars with the perfectly seasoned sauce is soul satisfying It used to be the only way you got to eat apples in the winter! My great grandmother used to call it “putting up.”
Never preserved before? Learn the basics in this short video.
Every year, I swear to god, I dip my spoon into Julie’s big green Le Creuset pot for the cooking of the applesauce, and every year I say, “OMG, it’s the best yet!” It tastes so amazing. I think it’s because there’s so much going into it. I can never overstate the Vitamin L factor. The growers, all the heart and effort and people in the kitchen. I always send a jar to my brother in memory of the year of the 80 pounds… and Julie sends one to my mother. Gregg and I SAVOR the rest of our share, each bite brightening the dark days of winter.
And while you may not have access to Gravensteins, you can search for local, tart varieties. On the East Coast that could be Winesap, Pink Ladies, Black Arkansas or Granny Smith apples. It can be fun to form your own special tradition with local heirlooms. What’s available where you live?
And here, my friends, is the best applesauce recipe EVER!
Here’s an example of equal parts observation and inspiration. I went over to my friend Wendy’s house because she was testing an apple crumble recipe. As I was tasting, I started dipping my bites into a slowly burbling pot of raspberry sauce and going nuts over the flavor. After I left, Wendy tried the combination, pondered how nicely the tart and sweet tangoed together, and came up with this recipe — a combo that was meant to be!