An Apple a Day

It seems that Jennifer and I are making an annual tradition out of apple picking in Woodstock, IL. It’s a good outing for a fall Saturday, and an opportune excuse for having some girl time without the constant conversation from the spouses.

Good intentions aside, we never can seem to pick the best weekend to go. Last year, we were completely unprepared for the cold, wet day ahead of us; we learned just how hard it was to pick apples with numb fingers. This year, we left Chicago with optimistic thoughts, both saying this exact sentence: “There’s no way the weather will be worse than last year!” and with good reason – Summer had decided to roll into town for one last hoorah, and we knew that this year the ground was dry, the gloves would stay home (just like they did last year!), and we’d be wearing sunglasses.

What we didn’t realize was that we’d be sweating as well as fighting “the crowds” and the truck carrying multiple groups of fellow pickers around the orchard (as if it’s hard to walk through it, or something). We also didn’t realize that, as opposed to last year’s plethora, this year’s orchard was slim pickin’s, in fact most of the apples were all over the ground.

Despite all of said adversity, we triumphed and each left with a full peck of apples and a little less water weight. If you couldn’t have guessed, we did not seek out any hot apple cider or coffee like we did last time. We did, however, manage to find apple cider slushies, and those were the meal ticket.

Now the question is, what to do with all these apples? My initial inclination was to make caramel apples since I never got around to that last year. But for whatever reason, I’ve had plenty of bad luck with caramel. Come round three, the apples were getting tired of waiting in the fridge and despite the graininess of this attempt at caramel, I dunked those apples into the caramel, let it harden, and didn’t look back.

For some reason, even grainy caramel is tasty, and thank goodness, the apples don’t discriminate.

What are you doing with your apples this year?

Caramel Apples
Adapted from Cooking Light, September 2010; makes 4-8 apples

time commitment: 1 hour, plus time for caramel to harden in fridge

printable version

4-8 wooden sticks
4-8 small, firm apples
1 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
1/4 c water
1 c half & half
1 t vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1/2 c peanuts, chopped finely (optional)

push wooden sticks into top of apple and keep in refrigerator until ready for dipping.

put sugar, corn syrup, and water in large saucepan; boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. boil, without stirring, until it becomes light golden brown (9-10 minutes).

combine half & halff, vanilla, and salt; slowly stir into saucepan. boil until candy thermometer reaches 235 F (30-45 minutes), stirring frequently.

pour caramel into a bowl sitting in a hot water bath. swirl apples in caramel, roll in peanuts (if using), and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Apples

fresh-picked apples

While it might be a slightly less-tangling tongue-twister than the original, I can attest to the difficulty of the actual task at hand – apple picking. Now on any other day, I might have reacted differently. But two Saturdays ago on a chilly Halloween morning, we were struggling through the bazillions of apple trees at Royal Oak Farm Orchard trying our damndest to fill up our alotted “peck-sized” baggies in the shortest amount of time possible.

Now what’s so bad about apple picking, you might ask? Well nothing, on most occasions. But combine Jennifer’s lifestyle of “playing it by ear” with my lack of preparation and inability to see past the pure excitment of simply going to an apple orchard in the middle of nowhere, and you are left with two girls traveling blindly into the Chicago outer suburbs on a cold, windy day, sans gloves, warm coat, or appropriate mud-sloshing shoes.

gorgeous apple tress

Which correlates to quickly shifting from excitement to downright pain as our hands became more numb with each apple we chunked carelessly into our bags. And while we desperately wanted our bags to magically become full, we were also saddened by the weight of those bags as we attempted to carry them with our hands in our pockets. Needless to say, the bags’ drawstrings eventually became too painful to hang from our elbow creases, and we were left with no option but to carry our bags with one hand vulnerable to the country “breeze” and cold.

Sometimes, we (meaning Jennifer) had to climb up into the trees for the perfect apple. This was before the cold became somewhat unbearble. The higher up in the trees, the more untouched apples loomed over us, snickering all the while as we stared, eyes full of sadness, knowing we would be settling for the apples closer to our coat pockets.

Jennifer climbing for apples

While there were loads of apple varieties, the ones we really wanted were months and months away:

no candy crisps = sad

We saw a few families out for picking, complete with wagons and multiple peck-sized bags. They also donned appropriate clothing – gloves that I specifically imagined myself wrestling a 10 year old to the ground for. But then I realized that, in doing so, I would become clothed in mud – mud that would not only be cold, but also wet and sticky.

I took the “high road” and we managed to fill our bags and stock up on super cheap winter squash (25 cents a pound!) before darting sheepishly into the warm gift shop where apple cider, fudge, and sugared donuts awaited.

making apple sauce

It may not have been the best day to pick apples, but we made the most of it. Through clenched, clattering teeth we laughed (at ourselves, for being so silly and unprepared) and picked until apples were literally toppling out of our bags. And when we arrived back home into the city, dry and warm, we went our separate ways – both wondering what in the world we’d do with all these apples.

homemade apple butter

Homemade Apple Butter
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks; makes ~40 oz

printable recipe

It might look like it takes a long time, and it does, but apple butter is outta this world. It’s a perfect way to use a bunch of apples and a great way to make the house smell scrumptious.

4 lbs of apples, unpeeled & uncored, cut into quarters
1/2 gallon of apple cider
~2 c sugar (or less, if desired)
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t cloves
juice of 1 lemon

special equipment
food mill or very fine sieve
canning jars, ~40 oz in volume
large pot for sterilizing jars


  1. Prepare jars by running them through your dishwasher and using heated dry. Keep door closed until you need the jars.
  2. in a heavy pot over med/med-hi heat, add apples and enough apple cider to cover the apples. bring to simmer. skim foam as it appears (but don’t worry too much about getting it all). cook apples until tender throughout, about 20-30 minutes.
  3. take apples out of pot and, in batches, run through a food mill (or fine sieve, but it will take a while using that method) and into a large bowl. after running all apples through, it will look like applesauce – because it is… applesauce.
  4. put applesauce back in large pot over medium heat. bring to simmer (~220 F). while stirring, add in lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. continue to simmer over medium/medium-low. continue stirring occasionally and keep mixture around 220 F. it will take 1-2 hours from here. the applesauce will thicken up, darken, and eventually start popping and making bubbly noises. once it’s dark and reduced significantly, remove from heat (it will thicken more after this point as well).
  5. fill your biggest pot with water and bring to a boil. the water will need to cover the jars when placed in the pot.
  6. remove jars from dishwasher and fill apple butter to within 1/4 inch of jar top. wipe rims clean with a dry paper towel and screw lid on tightly. using tongs or jar holder, place jar into boiling water for 10 minutes. take out and let cool completely. over time, you should hear the jars pop which means they are sealed and ready to store!