to cranberry or not to cranberry

it’s thanksgiving here in the united states and while it’s an unusual one, there are still some things i can’t not have around this time of year – one of those things is cranberries.

when i was a kid, we only had the jellied cranberry sauce that came in a metal and typically would slide out with a sucking sound and plop down in a chunk with the lines from the metal tin molded into the side. at some point, someone introduced homemade cranberry sauce and my family began to have both at thanksgiving. i liked the homemade kind because it tasted more intensely of cranberry and was more tart than the canned kind.

then at some point, someone else decided to do something else with cranberry and they made cranberry relish, which was cool and tart and textured like a pickle relish.

this year, i decided to try making cranberry relish and found out it was super easy. most of the recipes i looked at called for what seemed like a lot of sugar so i started with half and found out it was exactly the amount i like.

to make your own cranberry relish, dump a 12 ounce bag of cranberries in a food processor. then, take a juice orange and cut the ends off just until you see the flesh. leave the peel on and cut the orange into pieces and throw them in the food processor. then you run your food processor until it’s a even consistency similar to relish. scoop it out into a bowl and add one half-cup of white sugar and stir it gently and well.

this gave me 3 half-pint jars and it can be frozen for later use! i have used it on my all-corn cornbread after a thin layer of the apple butter i made and i’ve also added some to a bowl of my homemade apple sauce, which tasted great, too. you can also use it on chicken or turkey sandwiches, and i bet it would taste good on pancakes.

apple butter and apple sauce

it’s fall here, which means apples are everywhere. i’ve always loved apples but for some reason i’ve been really craving them lately and finding myself eating 2 or 3 a day and still feeling like i want more. this year, with how much we’ve been inside, i’ve been channeling my creative energy and love of food into cooking.

last weekend i was thinking about apple butter – that thick, spiced spread with a concentrated apple flavor. i had no idea how to make it but thought it couldn’t be difficult, so i researched some recipes and came up with something i thought would work.

it did work and i had so much fun with it that i decided i would try to make applesauce, which you’ll see below is basically what you make on your way to apple butter.

when you’re making apple anything, the most important part is the apples. for the butter and sauce, i chose a mix of apples – honeycrisp, pink lady, and fuji for both, with some gala apples thrown in to the mix for the apple sauce because i was curious. you could probably use pretty much any kind of apple you wanted, but i woud avoid red delicious apples, which are red, but definitely not delicious.

the next most important item is your spice blend. cinnamon is a classic and almost compulsory, and while you can make it however you want, i’m not sure we can be friends if you skip the cinnamon. other spices that would work well here would be allspice, clove, and nutmeg. i use some nutmeg because it’s what i have and it’s slightly less pungent than clove.

after these items, you will need to consider what sweetener and what liquid to use. yes, you can use white sugar and water and you’ll get a perfectly fine product – these both cook so long that the flavors will definitely fill out that water – but i prefer to use apple cider for my liquid and maple syrup for my sweetener. you could also use apple juice or pear juice/cider for the liquid and honey or agave for the sweetener. don’t worry about the flavor of the sweetner coming through too much; these recipes don’t call for a lot and when it all cooks together, you’ll taste the apple.

the last things you need are some kitchen gadgets. you need a peeler and a knife or apple corer to peel, core, and cut the apples. i cook my apple sauce and apple butter in a slow cooker. if you can afford it, invest in a slow cooker/crock pot – they are invaluable in the kitchen, particulary if you like warm, hearty meals like beef stew or stuffed peppers. you could also do this stovetop, but you need to be extra mindful because it can easily burn. also, you’ll need something to mash the applesauce and puree the apple butter – i use an immersion blender, but you could use a regular blender (for the apple butter) or a potato masher (for the apple sauce).

both of these recipes are nearly identical except for the spice mix and amount. i wanted my apple butter to have a stronger, deeper spice flavor and less so for the apple sauce, so there’s less spice in the apple sauce.

to make both, start with 6 pounds of apples that you’ve peeled, cored, and chopped. i estimate an apple to be about half a pound, so i use 12. you can use any amount you want (and that will fit in your slow cooker) just peel, core, chop and throw it into your crock pot.

next i add the liquid and sweetener. i use half a cup of cider and a scant quarter cup of maple syrup. you might be tempted to add a lot more of both but don’t or you risk it being too sweet and too runny.

lastly, i add the spice mix and this is the only place where there’s something different in the recipe. for the apple butter, i add a rounded teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg. as with the liquid and sweetener, be cautious about going overboard. you’d think 6 pounds of apples might need more than a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg, but if you go overboard with the spices, you’ll kill the apple flavor and offend your taste buds.

once everything is in the slow cooker, it’s time to get it cooking. i cook on low for 10 hours. you can do high for shorter times, but i haven’t tried it and don’t recommend it – i think you risk hot spots that will burn the sugars in your ingredients, though rationally i know this is unlikely and not part of the design of a slow cooker.

after about 6 hours, you’ll have what something like you see in the picture above. i didn’t see any indication in any of the recipes that i researched that you need to stir this, but i did every 2 hours or so – both to see how things were going and to help distribute the ingredients.

after 10 hours, grab your immersion blender. this is where you’re going to process the apple sauce or butter and make it the texture and consistency you want.

for the apple sauce, i use the immersion blender to puree the sauce to a fairly even consistency. it’s entirely up to you how much or little you want to puree it. after it’s processed, i let it cool and then package it up – more on that in a minute. you’ll get around 8 cups of apple sauce with this recipe.

for the apple butter, there are a few more steps. after the first 10 hours of cooking, you’ll want to use your immersion blender to puree the apple mixture down to a smooth consistency with no lumps. it will look like the picture above.

after it’s all pureed, you want to turn your slow cooker to high and leave it uncovered. this step is to cook off some of the excess water and concentrate your apple butter. most of the recipes i researched said this would take about 2 hours, but this time it took me 3 to get it to the thickness i wanted.

once it’s to your desired thickness, you pack and store it. this recipe gave me 6 half-pint jars of apple butter. that’s about three cups.

a couple of quick notes:

you can cook your apple sauce for a shorter amount of time. really all you need is the apples to be mushy enough to mash up to sauce, and you might prefer the slightly brighter taste you’ll get from cooking it a shorter time.

speaking of brightness, you can add some lemon juice to either recipe to brighten up the flavor. keep it to a tablespoon at most unless you really want the lemon to shine. i didn’t use lemon in either of my recipes.

you can can these recipes if you want, or you can simply freeze them and then take them out as you need them. i’ve never canned so i chose freezing. i’ve had the apple butter since it was frozen and thawed and it was wonderful. i have some frozen apple sauce and i imagine it will be just as good, too.

i hope you enjoy making these things as much as i did!

herb simple syrup

i love fresh herbs and use them as much as i can. i also love a gin gimlet but sometimes i want a little sweetness, so a while back i thought i would try to make an herb-y simple syrup.

simple syrup is super easy to make, and all that it takes to make it herbacious is to throw a handful of fresh herbs in it while you cook it. so far, i’ve made three batches – rosemary, thyme, and today i made rosemary and thyme together. i know that’s not a lot of variety, but i love both herbs and i think they go well with gin and lime.

if you want to make your own, all you have to do is mix equal parts water and white sugar in a small saucepan (i use 1 cup of each) and add in a handful of fresh herbs. rosemary and thyme work well and i imagine you could also use basil, marjoram, or mint but i would stay away from sage – i think it would be overwhelming and might easily turn “off.”

here’s what it looks like in the pan:

once it starts to heat up, the sugar will melt into the water and the mixture will become clear. i like to bring it to a light boil, then reduce it and let the herbs steep in the syrup for 8-10 minutes.

after it’s done steeping, i strain it through cheese cloth to get most of the plant matter out. there is some fine particulate the the occasional leaf that makes it way through it, but it doesn’t bother me so i only filter that one time. i store my herb-y simple syrup in the fridge in a little squeeze container which makes it easy to squirt just a little dash of it to my gin gimlet.

this is what it looks like after being filtered through the cheesecloth:

all-corn cornbread

i’ve had cast iron skillets for years and until recently i had never cooked cornbread in one of them. but i found myself craving cornbread so i started to look at recipes (i’m a great cook but not a great baker so i like to refer to recipes). what i didn’t like about the recipes i was finding was that they had both cornmeal and flour as dry ingredients – sometimes even more flour than corn – and frankly, i want cornbread, not corn-and-flour bread. (also, it happens to be gluten-free if you don’t use flour so it’s an easy way to include your GF friends in on something you bake)

i found a few all-corn cornbread recipes and amalgamated them into my own recipe. i’m going to give it to you below, along with directions on how to cook it. because this doesn’t have any flour, the texture of the finished bread is a lot more crumbly than you might be used to – that’s because it’s just corn and it’s a feature, not a flaw, so get used to it.

you’ll need:

— 2 cups of cornmeal – you can use any grind you want, but i think the most pleasant is a finer grind. i often replace 1/2 cup of the finer cornmeal with some coarse cornmeal to give it some texture. the more coarse the mix, the more crumbly it’ll be

— 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda – this is for leavening. i’m sure there are replacements or switcharoos, but i try not to fuck with the stuff that’s supposed to make it rise into something bread like

— 2 eggs – make sure you bring your eggs to room temperature before you cook them; it’ll give you a better cook as the cold from the eggs won’t cool off the pan as much – that goes for your eggs for breakfast, too

— 4 tablespoons of sweetener – you can adjust this to taste, but this amount will give you a subtle sweetness. i use maple syrup as i don’t like honey and i prefer not to use refined sugar. don’t use mrs. butterworth or log cabin or that fake shit – real maple syrup

— 1 and 1/3 cups of buttermilk – this provides the liquid and the acid for the leaveners, so you don’t want to substitute with plain milk. you can, however, acidulate your own milk with vinegar to get the same effect (google it) – also, back off the liquid a little bit if you use honey or maple syrup (or another liquid sweetener)

— 6 tablespoons of butter

— 10-12″ cast iron skillet

the steps could not be any easier. make sure you follow in the order i present them here.

  1. heat your oven to 425F and put the cast iron skillet in the oven without anything in it
  2. whisk all of the above ingredients, except the butter, together
  3. when the oven has come to temperature, remove the skillet and drop the butter into the hot skillet
  4. swirl the butter in the skillet until it’s all melted then pour off the melted butter into your batter – you don’t have to get it all out, you want some lining the pan
  5. mix the hot butter into the batter and then pour the butter back into the cast iron skillet
  6. bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until it’s light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean

this is the cornbread i made today. it’s a little darker than i might usually expect cornbread to be, but i think that’s largely due to the maple syrup (versus white sugar).