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My daughter's family recently bought a house on the outskirts of Duluth. My two granddaughters, Addison and Evelyn, were excited to tell me about it. In addition to bigger bedrooms, it has a huge yard "and a magic forest," Addie claimed, speaking of the wooded area.
“Papa, our new yard has five apple trees," Evelyn was excited to share. "We can pick some apples, and you can make apple pie."
I'll admit to being rather particular (snobbish, actually) when it comes to the apples I use for pie. Granny Smiths are always my preference. I like the tart flavor, and they don't get mushy like some other varieties do when baked. But Evelyn tugged my heartstrings the day she was born.
If Evelyn wants apple pie made with her apples, then that's what we'll use – no matter the variety. As long as they're not road apples. That might sound silly, but this is the prankster who, at four years old, pulled a rubber chicken out of her coat, shook it in my face, and cracked up laughing! I proceed with caution. Moving day was still six weeks away. I wasn't even sure if they'd have apples left by then.
When moving day came, there was plenty of strong help and vehicles. The crew quickly moved a family of four and two cats, across town.
After the work was done, we had a feast of pizza. Then, the kids gave us a tour of the property. It was the first time I had noticed the apple tree next to the house; it was thick with bright red orbs. "Wow, that tree is really loaded with apples," I said. "Have you tried them? Are they any good?" Sydney said they were.
The apples were pretty well-thinned out lower on the tree; Sydney said the deer were eating them. "It's not just deer," I said, pointing to the ground, and laughing. "That's bear poop."
Sydney seemed a bit alarmed. "Bears are coming this close to the house?"
"Of course, they are," I said. "You have a tree full of apples, and bears love them." I smiled at my daughter, "Welcome to country living in northern Minnesota, kid!" I reached up into the tree to grab an apple.
I polished the apple on my shirt, and took a bite. It was so crisp; it snapped with each bite. "This is a really good apple," I said. I finished eating the apple and chucked the core off into the tall grass on the yard's edge. Then I picked another, rubbing it on my shirt.
The flavor was sweet but a little tart; the texture was perfect. I was trying to identify the variety. I asked my daughter if she knew, but she did not. Finally, halfway through the second apple, I figured it out. "Oh my, these are Honeycrisp apples!"
"Is that good," Sydney asked.
"Good? It's awesome! I think they're the best apple for eating," I answered, "and Honeycrisp are usually the most expensive apples at the store." I looked at the tree again. Some branches bent over from the weight of so many apples, especially toward the top, where the deer and the bears couldn't reach them. “You should pick the apples and sell them," I suggested. But, when you've just moved a family of four to a new house and still don't know where anything is, picking apples is not a priority. I picked a dozen apples to take home with me.
The following Friday, we brought a big pot of chili to their house. After supper, I presented an apple pie. (Of course, I brought the ice cream, too.) Everyone loved the apple pie. "Are these apples from our tree," Sydney asked. I told her they were, indeed. "This is really good," she said! "But I thought you always used Granny Smith Apples?"
"I do use Granny Smiths," I said. "Honeycrisps also make an excellent pie, but who wants to pay the price?"
A few days later, with my apple picker, I went to their house to pick apples with my granddaughters. Addison took an apple from my box, "Papa, this one is no good. The birds have been eating this apple," she said, showing me the marks. We took the bad apple into the house.
In the kitchen I washed the apple, cut out the bad spots, and cut it into slices. The three of us ate the bad apple. "See, we can still use the apples even if the birds pecked at them." Then we went back to the apple tree.
The girls gathered apples that fell to the ground, while I used the picker to reach into the tree. "Ev picked up an apple, wrinkled her face, and showed me. "Papa, I think a bird pooped on this one."
"Birds will do that," I said with a smile. "It will wash off and be fine; go ahead and put it in the box." We kept working until we’d picked all the apples I could reach. "I need a longer pole to get the top apples," I said. With nearly a bushel of apples; that was enough.
When I got home, I realized I had way too many apples. So I kept what I could use and gave the rest to a friend. Lana and I had the same intentions; applesauce!
Lana peeled and cored her apples before cooking them. "It took hours, over a few days," she said. I used Mom’s method.
I washed and quartered the apples. Then, tossed the pieces, seeds, skins, stems, husks, and all, into a pot. I put several cinnamon sticks and some nutmeg in the pot, too. Adding a cup or two of water, I covered the pot and cooked the apples until they were mush. The pot needs to be stirred often to prevent the apples from burning on the bottom. It takes about forty minutes to thoroughly cook the apples down.
While the apples cooked, I got our vintage green Cosco stool, pulled the steps out, then climbed up to the cabinet above the refrigerator. I had to shuffle through several items. (Bottles of wine and hooch.) There it was in the back of the cabinet; my antique colander and pestle. I pulled it out.
The aluminum colander is cone-shaped, with a handle on the top side. It sits in a three-legged stand. The top of the wooden pestle has a ball to use as a grip. Next, I pulled out my turkey roaster from the very back of the bottom corner cabinet.
I set the colander assembly in the turkey pan, then scooped two cups of apple mush into the hopper. Instead of holding the grip, I rolled the ball against palm of my hand, making a circular motion with the pestle inside the cone. The wooden shaft rolled the apple mixture, pressing it through the tiny holes.
The turkey pan catches the applesauce as it runs outside the cone. The colander works like a sieve, capturing all the skins, seeds, stems, and husks. I ended up with three gallons of perfectly smooth apple sauce. I hadn't made a large batch like this for probably thirty years! "What will I do with all this applesauce," I wondered? "I don't have that much room in the freezer - I know, I'll can it!"
With the green Cosco stool, I retrieved my pressure cooker from the top shelf of the pantry. Of course, I hadn't done any canning for thirty years either – but canning is like riding a bike; you never forget, right?
I had everything ready to start the canning process. Oops. Having not canned anything for thirty years, I no longer own canning jars! Not a problem.
When I was a kid, Mom would save empty jars for canning. Mayonnaise, peanut butter, jelly; any jar would work, so long as the canning lids fit. But, of course, when I was a kid, all these products came in glass jars. You just can't use plastic jars in a canner. Now, I'll try anything once, but not that. "Hey," I had a thought. "People have given me various home-canned goods; I still have those jars."
I shuffled through the cabinets, finding nine jars with lids and rings. Some were pints, and others were half-pint jars. I know you're not supposed to reuse canning lids, but I didn't have any new ones. Besides, growing up, money was tight; Mom sometimes reused them. "You have to check each jar, whether it's a new or used lid, to make sure they sealed properly," she would say. So, I had nothing to lose. In a worst-case scenario, the lids would not seal. Then I would have to refrigerate the applesauce, get new lids, and re-can it tomorrow.
Although I had more product than jars, I had a blast canning the applesauce. It reminded me of days long ago. Following Mom's advice, I checked all the lids after the jars had cooled. Only one half-pint jar had a bad seal – the rest were good. So, I ate the unsealed jar of applesauce. I had applesauce in the refrigerator to be canned, but I wanted even more.
John had extension poles in his garage. I used them to pick all the Honeycrisp apples left in the treetop. I stopped at the store to buy more jars with new lids, then went home. Finally, at nine-o-clock p.m., I got started.
I put the pot of cold applesauce on the stove to reheat it for canning. While it warmed up, I cut more apples and put them on the stove to cook, and boiled water to sterilize the new jars. Speaking of which, I ran out to the van to bring the two flats of new jars inside. Unfortunately, I wasn't watching my applesauce closely enough; It started to boil.
Like an erupting volcano, bubbles of steam rose from the bottom of the pan, pushing upward. Then bursting through the surface, splashed applesauce like hot lava. I shut off the gas burner and tried to stir the pot. A glob of hot sauce landed on the back of my fingers. "OUCH!" I rushed to the sink to rinse my hand under cold water. To make matters worse, I scorched the bottom of the pan, ruining the rest of that batch. "Is this project going south on me?"
The jars I had canned the night before were still sitting on the counter. Then, suddenly, I started hearing the sealed lids pop. One, then another. A few moments later, another, and another. "You've got to be kidding me," I complained with concern. "They were all good this morning."
I removed the rings to recheck the sealed lids. They all seemed to be tight, but these were used lids. As I checked them, I heard two more seals pop. I started laughing as I figured out the source.
The new jars had been kept outside in the van. The cold air had contracted inside the jars, making the lids grip the jars. Then as the new jars warmed in the kitchen, the air expanded, and the lids would pop as if they had been unsealed. My canned applesauce was fine; my concern was for naught.
By now, the new batch of applesauce was ready to run through the colander. I smiled as I watched the smooth applesauce run outside the colander and into the turkey roaster pan. When all the apples were strained, I canned the applesauce; of course, I saved a good portion to sample the next day.
I cleaned the kitchen while I waited for the pressure canner to cool down. Then, I removed the jars from the canner, setting them on a towel by the full jars I had canned the day before. Next, I washed the canner and used the green Cosco stool to put it back on the top shelf of the pantry. I would let the jars cool down, then check the seals in the morning.
It took me four hours to clean, cut, cook, press, and can another batch of applesauce. I would have had more if I hadn't scorched the rest of the first pot.
I looked at all those jars of applesauce on the counter. It was one in the morning, and my hand hurt. "A small price to pay," I said as I turned off the kitchen lights and started walking down the dark hallway. "That applesauce is going to taste amazing this winter.” Not just applesauce, but Honeycrisp applesauce.