I went to school in an apple orchard when I was a child. The school’s small-scale farm-like buildings – bungalows and commons, each with a different purpose – were nestled within a grid of old apple trees. Their gnarly trunks and tangled branches befit their age, which was considerable, we were told. In the fall, the trees dropped plentiful fruit to the ground where it decomposed and left a distinctive, earthy smell and dampness in contrast to the brittle leaves that crunched under our feet.
There was a harvest of course. Bushels of apples somehow found their way to the school’s commodious kitchen, where resourceful cooks turned them into vats of apple butter. That apple butter was a daily feature on our dining tables where we took turns serving food family-style. The apple orchard is gone now, the victim of one of those notorious ice storms Western New York experiences nearly every year. And so is the dining hall, with its neat rows of tables and benches inside and its porch that looked out over the orchard. The sense of place had been extraordinary, as it captured the cycle of the year and our communal relation to the landscape and each other.As for the apple butter, I’ve never had the urge to replicate it since our local orchard stores the harvest so that we can have fresh apples all year round. However, the memory set me off experimenting with other fruit butters, notably one with aromatic local Bartlett pears, whose season is fleeting and is worth capturing for the pantry.
3 lbs ripe pears (I used Bartlett)
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ c slightly fruity but slightly dry white wine (I used Reisling)
Sugar (about 2 c, to be measured based on volume of fruit)
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
½ cinnamon stick
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Peel and core the pears and chop them, dropping them into a large wide saucepan with the lemon juice and wine (which will help keep the pears from browning). Bring to a simmer on the stove and cook gently until the fruit breaks down and is soft, about 20 minutes. Puree the fruit in a food processor (or use an immersion blender) until smooth, measure it and return it to the pot. Add half the volume of sugar (I had 4 cups of puree and added 2 cups of sugar), the vanilla bean and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook the mixture down until it mounds on a spoon but is still spreadable. (Don’t cook too long or you’ll get fruit leather!)
While the mixture is cooking, prepare jars and two-piece lids for water bath canning. Remove the cinnamon stick and the vanilla bean, scraping the seeds into the pears. Ladle the hot pear mixture into jars, leaving ¼” headspace. Cap and process for 10 minutes after the water comes to a boil. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let sit for 5 minutes before removing to a counter to sit undisturbed until cool.
Makes 5-6 four-ounce jars.