Writing again

Applesauce & Magic

This is my usual day for posts about my stories, but today I want to talk about apples and real life instead.

My love for apples is no secret, and I love them best as apple sauce, which isn’t quite as boring as it sounds. For one thing,  Real Applesauce tastes nothing like the putrid crap sold commercially.  Properly made, apple sauce tastes like your favorite apple pie melting on your tongue and dissolving into pure happiness. For another thing, there’s more to applesauce than taste for me. There’s memory and meaning.

I make applesauce the way my mother-in-law taught me before she was my mother-in-law. There’s a story about magic in that sentence, one I want to share with the world.

Back then SpouseMom was just my boyfriend’s mom. Even when I didn’t know her well I liked her. She’s a woman who carries around herself an aura of patient, welcoming courtesy, someone whose tolerance and dry sense of humor makes people comfortable even in situations that might be unbearably awkward.

SpouseMom is pretty damned special. I’ve learned many important life lessons from her. Apple sauce was among the first.

I can’t remember why I was at Spouseman’s house on my First Sleepover Visit to his family home. I recall it was during the college years in late summer or early fall.  I was probably stealing extra time away from my own turbulent household in the weeks between camp counseling and back-to-school in South Bend or on a long wekend.  “Boyfriend” was a good excuse to avoid the ever-present stormy atmosphere at home, a trump my parents could not outplay with their usual strong hand of guilt cards.

Anyway,  I was at not-yet Spouseman’s house, and I learned many things from SpouseMom on that visit. I learned it was possible to be a guest in someone’s home and not be nervous about my behavior all the time. I learned it was possible to have guests and not hover over them all the time. I learned that Spouseman had awesome parents.

And one afternoon SpouseMom had just put some kind of easy one-pot thing into the oven without drama or complaint. And then she handed me a saucepan. “Fill it up with apples for the tree out back,” she said. “We’ll have apple sauce with dinner.”

Dinner would be ready in an hour. Now,  I’d made apple sauce with my mother more than once in my life by then. It was a Full Scale Cooking Operation. It was a Major Project. Complicated Equipment was involved. The investment of time, energy, effort and emotion was huge. The results were never entirely satisfactory. It was in a word, stressful.

Just. Make. Applesauce. For supper. It didn’t compute. And yet…

SpouseMom seemed confident, so I rolled with it and dutifully went out to fight for low-hanging fruit with the neighborhood birds, bees, and flies.

The tree was an heirloom variety I’ve immortalized in Heartwood because I fell in love with it that day. Golden Transparents ripen early, sweet and winey, and they’re so tender they bruise from rough handling and brown up at the first touch of air. But oh, the sauce they make, and the hand pies, and…well. Enough about the apples. Onward to the saucing.

I brought in a pan of scaly, bumpy backyard apples, SpouseMom handed over a peeler and picked up one herself and showed me how to peel and quarter the fruit in no time flat.  In five minutes, pish-pash-posh, we had the apples ready to go. Twenty minutes after that, I had my first taste of homemade apple sauce cooked without any bitter aftertaste of stress. It blew my mind.

Lesson learned: kitchens can be places for making family as well as food. They’re where you can try new ideas and share quiet time making things easier by making them together.

I make applesauce all the time now. The big trick is to use apples whose flavors I already like. I like my sauce to  taste like a fresh apple pie without crust that dissolves on the tongue, so Jonathans, Arlettes, and Winesaps are my go-to choices. And I think of SpouseMom with love and gratitude every time.

Here’s the practical side of the magic. Peel/quarter/cut out the seeded centers of a few apples, toss ’em into a stovetop pan, and turn the heat to medium. A splash of water or cider or other tasty liquid in the bottom helps if the apples are a dry variety. Sugar & cinnamon optional. Leave plenty of space above the apples because they bubble up before they collapse into sauce.

Simmer with a lid on until they’re so tender they start to fall apart. How long? That’s the tricky part. It depends on the apple variety. Golden Transparents? Less than 10 minutes. Granny Smiths? I like to live dangerously and turn the hear up to high, or else they take a half hour or more to break down.

Once the apples are steaming and squishy, stir it all up, mash out any major lumps with a potato masher or a spoon, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer another 5-10 minutes or as long as you want to boil off liquid. The natural sugars caramelize so it turns a deeper pinkish brown color. Keep cooking long enough, and you have apple butter spread. True story.

And here are some alternatives to apple sauce I’ve discovered for myself over the years:

(1) bake the prepped apples in a covered dish until they’re as tender as you like. The higher the temp the quicker the baking time. (Spouseman calls this “lazy sauce”) Beware the boilover effect, though. Burned apple on the bottom of the over smells NASTY.

(2) nuke the prepped apples in a covered dish in the microwave for 5-10 minutes . Note: I usually only do this when traveling because I hate the loud hum of the microwave and it only saves ten or twenty minutes. And in winter at home, why not warm the kitchen and make the whole house smell yummy?

Apple sauce isn’t showy, and it doesn’t make much of a spectacle on the table, but to me it will always be just a little bit magical.


By K. M. Herkes

Author, gardener, and cat wrangler.