For the past several months, I have been fantasizing about transforming piles and piles of fresh apples into quarts and quarts of chunky, cinnamon-infused applesauce. My parents generously offered me as many apples as I wanted from their miniature backyard orchard. But I turned them down, because part one of the applesauce fantasy (inspired by childhood trips to Hauser's orchard in Bayfield, Wisconsin) involved Mike and I going to an orchard to pick the apples ourselves, climbing up apple trees and sharing a romantic moment as the autumn sun streamed through gnarled leafy branches. Originally I wanted to pick Regents, a crisp variety with a balanced flavor that makes it my favorite eating apple. Plus, Regents literally keep for months and are supposed to cook up into a nice applesauce. But since I had trouble finding an orchard that offered u-pick Regents, I decided to split my apple purchase between pre-picked Regents and u-pick Firesides (a sweeter, not quite as crisp variety) at Apple Jack Orchards in Delano.
The drive out to the orchard was just as bucolic as I had pictured. It never fails to amaze how quickly the big box stores of outer Twin Cities suburbia yield to cornfields, horse pastures, and old tumbledown barns, and the maple trees along our route were laden with red leaves shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. But as we approached the orchard, I realized that this outing was not exactly going to be the idyllic apple picking of my youth. There was a sheriff's deputy stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, languidly directing traffic with one hand while eating an apple turnover with another. There were cliques of teenage girls in flimsy ballet flats and flowery scarves, toting bags of kettle corn and frantically texting on their glitter-encased iPhones. There was the massive line for the tractor ride; the gift shop hawking innumerable apple-themed home décor items; and the café, also with a massive line, dishing up mac n' cheese, hot dogs, and apple spice doughnuts. U-pick apples seemed to be a minor and peripheral part of the Apple Jack Orchards agritainment empire.
"Are you okay?" Mike asked, as we trudged through the u-pick section of the orchard, which was the size of my parent's backyard. Instead of a proper bushel box, we had been provided with small plastic shopping bags. This was sadly appropriate, partly because most of our fellow pickers seemed to be satisfied with two or three apples, but also because no one would buy an entire bushel considering the steep price per pound. Most trees had been plucked clean by the hordes, and I was starting to give up hope of finding any apples to pick at all, much less finding a tree that I could climb up.
"It's just not what I was imagining," I answered, as I watched the cars circle the lot in search of a parking spot and breathed in the cloying aroma wafting over from the kettle corn tent. "This is like the Disney World of apple orchards."
We finally found a tree with some apples, once we climbed high enough to be beyond the reach of little hands. It was still a beautiful day, and we supplemented our u-pick apples with a half peck of impeccable Regents and jug of cider. We enjoyed the first of our apples on a bench overlooking the river, and once I mentally tuned out the mobs of screaming children, it was almost idyllic.
Farming is a difficult, uncertain business, and if kettle corn and tractor rides provide Apple Jack Orchards with a steady revenue stream, more power to them. But considering the city-slicker prices we paid for our apples, my applesauce should be eaten from a fine china plate with a silver spoon. Next year, if my parents offer me free apples, I'm taking them up on it.
But unlike the apple picking experience, the applesauce recipe I developed turned out to be everything I hoped for. Since I used a sweet apple variety (Firesides), I didn't need to add any sugar. However, if you use tart apples, or prefer a more dessert-like sauce, you can add sugar to taste to the finished sauce. I peeled my apples using this method, in which you quarter the apples before peeling them--this was easier for me than peeling the whole fruit. Texture-wise, this applesauce is fairly chunky. I ran my first batch through a potato ricer and was rewarded with a slightly smoother sauce, but since I like chunky applesauce anyway it wasn't worth the hassle for subsequent batches.
Finally, if you're looking for information about Minnesota apples or general apple preparation tips, this guide from the University of Minnesota Extension is a great resource.
Yield: about 4 1/2 cups applesauce
- approximately 3 pounds of sweet apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 10 cups)
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- pinch of nutmeg
Place the apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and 1 1/2 cups water in a Dutch oven. Stir thoroughly to coat apples with spices.
Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low.
Cook, stirring every ten minutes, until most of the apples have formed a mush and the few whole pieces that remain can be easily halved with a spoon. (This took 1 hour and 45 minutes for me, but based on the variety of apples you use, your cooking time may vary.)
Mash the apples with a potato masher to break down the remaining intact apple pieces to form a chunky sauce. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree in batches in blender.
Cool and store in airtight containers in refrigerator or freezer.