It's autumn. Not just on the calendar, but for real. The trees are turning, the nights are getting nippy enough that even I close my window at bedtime, and local apples have replaced ones from New Zealand in the stores. (The stores I shop in, anyway.)
Last winter I discovered Stephanie O'Dea's FABULOUS website and blog-- This chick made a 2008 resolution to use her crockpot every day all year, and as a result has amassed a fairly incredible body of recipes, from classy "company" kinds of things to breakfast foods to basic staples like yogurt and cooked beans and applesauce and stuff. (She also has a cookbook about to come out...) She's inspired me to use the crockpot a lot more than I ever did before--in fact, as I type this, I have a pot full of Chicken Piccata going upstairs that'll feed us for the next 5 days as an entree and soup.
I found her site when I was hunting around for an applesauce recipe. Basic motivation: my kids would happily take applesauce for lunch every day, and I just can't justify those little disposable cup things any more--wasteful and just ridiculously expensive. My daughter's preschool (both kids were there last year) has a "waste-free lunch" policy, which freaked me out to begin with but which, once I got going and realized how much cheaper it was than the other way, and how not-difficult-at-all it was to make happen, was actually another of the good catalysts to getting me on board with the whole Green thing.
Even buying applesauce in the "big" jars at Trader Joe's, though, only gets us through maybe 2-3 days, and still leaves me with all these admittedly very nice and reusable glass jars--but there are only so many of them I can deal with, you know? And I hate to recycle even something as infinitely recyclable as glass with that kind of frequency unless utterly necessary. So I wondered how hard it would actually be to make my own applesauce in the crockpot. Not hard at all, as it turns out.
I have one of those goofy core-peel-slice apple things that my mom gave me years ago, so since the only labor-intensive part of applesauce-making is really the peeling and slicing of the apples, it's a piece of cake. And my kids enjoy the gizmo too, so it becomes fun. (Until three apples or so later when Short Attention Span Theater kicks in.) So, this is more or less what I did:
--Core/peel/slice thinly as many apples as will fit in your crockpot reasonably well. (I have a big crockpot; I have about 7.5 lbs sliced apples in there now.)
--Add a few tbs brown sugar and/or maple syrup (opt.)
--Add spices--I used about 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp allspice, and 4 good shakes ground cloves.
--If apples are sweeter variety, add a tbs lemon juice
--Add 1 tsp vanilla extract (opt.)
--Add 1/4 cup water
--Cook in crockpot on very low heat 3 hours to overnight. (Depends on your crockpot. I'd suspect overnight would be too long for most.)
This is all an approximation--I tend to "measure" spices in the palm of my hand.
Like many recipes of this nature, your own appliances will dictate what works for you. I have a 6 quart crockpot with a not very good seal on the lid (so it loses moisture it shouldn't)...for me, the ideal cooking process is to put it on low for about 3 hours, and then turn it to "warm" for 6-7 hours or overnight. I also put a towel over the top when I do this to keep any more moisture from getting out.
You could, if you wished, also stop it after the few hours on low and you'd have a really lovely spiced apple side dish kind of thing...not applesauce, but completely delicious. Or you could just scoop some out at that point before lowering the heat and letting them sit all night. The only catch there is that you'd want to do it quickly, or leave the heat on a little after you did it, because the crockpot loses a lot of heat whenever you take off the lid.
HOMEMADE APPLE BUTTER
I discovered this recipe by accident the first time I followed someone else's directions for making applesauce: I left it to cook overnight, for about 8 hours on low, without the towel on top to hold in the moisture. Guess what? If you leave your applesauce on too long, you get apple butter. (To make it really smooth, you'd need to hit it with an immersion blender or electric mixer or something.)
Don't get me wrong--it's DELICIOUS! But you get much lower yield, and its flavor is very pronounced and strong and it may want a little extra sweetening if that's your thing. And it keeps a long time, too. Delicious in yogurt, on oatmeal, on toast, wherever you want it...
I love autumn.