On the last day in September, just as fall was beginning to take a strong hold, nothing felt more important than going apple picking. The forecast showed rain and storms over the orchard we considered up north in Ferndale, so we headed east over the mountains for the promise of sun.
Growing up, my family made trips to eastern Washington for apples every year - big, heavy cardboard boxes of them that we’d pick up at a farm stand and load in the back of the car. The drive home smelled sweet and sticky, and my brother and sister and I would wriggle with anticipation of what we knew was to come: homemade applesauce.
My mom always made it with an old-fashioned saucer. And when I visited for dinner a few weeks ago, I learned that she still does. It was the one her mother used on their farm in the midwest, and her grandmother before that. You have to put a little elbow grease into it, mashing the cooked apples with a large wooden mallet and pressing them through a sturdy metal sieve. I remember my mom standing on her tiptoes as she worked, her ponytail bobbing back and forth. “I don’t know how people do it these days,” she recently told me. I love that it’s never changed.
She’d stock the outside freezer with jar after jar of it, and we’d eat it all fall and winter long - always cold and often with little bits of unmelted ice in it. (It was never defrosted in time for dinner. "Oh, I forgot the applesauce!" she'd say, scurrying off to the freezer.) I liked the little bits, breaking them up with my spoon and letting them melt against the warmth of my tongue.
When she sent my family home with several containers of her latest batch earlier this fall and Crew gobbled them all up in no more than a week, I decided it was time to make my own. I don't have my mom's old-fashioned saucer, but I do have a slow cooker and I'm guessing you might too. I threw a few of my favorite fall flavors into the pot along with the apples and love the way it turned out. As did Crew! Gobbling resumed as soon as I set a bowl in front of him.
My secret here is a date. Just one. Chop it up finely and over the 7 hours that this cooks, it gets soft and pillowy and melts into the apples like marshmallows, giving just a hint of sweetness that is nutty and rich. The vanilla bean seeds are well worth the effort too, freckling the apples as you stir them in and granting the most enticing aroma as the batch breaks down and caramelizes.
I've tried this with several types and combinations of apples. Toss in some heirloom varieties if you can! The flavors are unbeatable. And be sure to choose ones that will mellow and give way easily. I've used both peeled and unpeeled apples here and find them both delicious. My mom never peels her apples (time! hassle! less color!) and the little flecks throughout the sauce are pretty endearing. You'll get the benefits of vitamins and fiber from the skin too.
I'd like to think we'll be back to the orchard next year. And year after year after that. Maybe one day, Crew will remember what it was like to pluck the plump apples from the trees and stack them in his basket just so. Or he'll recall the sound of them bouncing around in the back of the car with the bumps in the road. Perhaps he'll think of how sticky his hands got when he helped toss the chopped pieces into the pot or how heavy the lid felt when he lifted it on top. And maybe, when he's all grown up, he'll come home to the familiar smell of warm apples and spices cooking on a chilly fall day and wriggle with anticipation too.
slow cooked vanilla bean applesauce // makes about 3-4 cups
Consider making this on a day you've got company coming over - your house will smell amazing! It goes with just about any cozy fall dish. Use whatever variety or mix of apples you like here, preferably ones that soften easily.
Also, I've mentioned this in a previous post, but if you're new to retrieving the seeds from a vanilla bean, here's a little how-to: Lay the bean on a cutting board and split it down its length using a paring knife. Open the "flaps" on each side of the split as much as you're able. Extract the seeds by holding the tip of the bean against the cutting board and scraping the dull side of your knife down the length of the bean. Here's a little tutorial that may help.
8-9 medium to large apples, peeled or unpeeled (it's up to you!), cored, and cut into chunks
1 Medjool date, pitted and finely chopped
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of sea salt, to taste
Place the apples, date, vanilla bean seeds, cinnamon stick, and sea salt in a slow cooker; stir to combine. Put on the lid and set it to Low for 7 hours, stirring every 2 hours or so. If you'd like to cook it a little faster, set it to High for 3.5 to 4 hours, stirring every hour or so. Discard the cinnamon stick. Transfer softened and caramelized apples to a food processor and pulse or purée to desired consistency. (Our little one likes it pretty smooth, so we usually give it a good long whirl.) Serve warm or allow to cool and transfer to the fridge.
All photos taken at Stutzman Ranch in Wenatchee, Washington