I grew up in Indianapolis, fortunate to be in central Indiana, which is one of the places in North America that produces quite wonderful apples. As a young child my sphere of awareness encompassed the route I walked to and from my grade school and my closest playmate’s house about three blocks away. Anything beyond those borders was like a foreign country, so when we’d go on fall outings to the apple orchard I always felt especially excited and worldly. In fact, the apple orchard was only four miles from our house! When I was fourteen we moved due north to a new house that was only one and a half miles from the same apple orchard, except by then the apple orchard had been replaced, sadly, by a private school and campus that gave my point of view a rude awakening.
Applesauce is good and I grew up eating it, but really good applesauce can be hard to find. While my mother was a very good cook she was not terribly creative in the kitchen, as she cooked to please my father and his tastes were simple and consistent. Meat and potatoes for dinner, cottage cheese with some canned fruit or a wedge of iceberg lettuce for a salad, ice cream for dessert. Bacon and eggs with toast for breakfast, you get the idea. Mom baked an occasional cake or batch of cookies, but she didn’t make her own bread, she didn’t do any canning and, although it pains me to say it, I honestly don’t remember whether or not she made her own applesauce.
I began cooking in earnest during my junior year of college, when I lived in a house off campus with two other women. Although we shared our living space we did not share any of the tasks of keeping ourselves fed. Of the three roommates, I did the most cooking, and because our house was surrounded by grapevines and blackberry bushes and we had both an apple and a walnut tree in the front yard I had incentive to learn how to make jelly and jam and things with walnuts. Not that I put walnuts in my applesauce (nor grapes nor blackberries for that matter), but by then I was living in Oregon, where the apples are far more plentiful, varied and delicious than the ones in Indiana. As I began to experiment I quickly discovered that there are infinite possibilities in making and flavoring applesauce, just like with so many other foods that we might never imagine could taste any different than what we’re used to.
When my own kids were growing up it became a holiday tradition for me to serve what came to be known as “mom’s special applesauce,” made special because I added a few red-hot candies to the mix – mind you, it only took a dozen or so of the tiny bits to do the trick, enough to turn the mix a beautiful pink and give it an extra kick of cinnamon and sugar while not overpowering the apples. We had it every single year until the time when my son was in college and he and his roommates hosted a Thanksgiving party where Robbie was making mom’s special applesauce. He was also in charge of the turkey and the stuffing and I don’t even know what else, so when one of his buddies asked how he could help, Robbie said, “Sprinkle a few of those red-hots into the applesauce and stir it up, ok?” But the guy misunderstood him and tossed in the entire bag of red-hots, which turned the applesauce the color of a fire truck and made it too sweet to be edible. Ever since then I can’t even talk about applesauce with red hots in front of my son, and I’ve lost my taste for it as well by merely imagining the moment Robbie turned around and saw what his friend had done. Oh, the disappointment!
One day about 12 years ago I was on a field trip as a graduate assistant while in graduate school at Louisiana State University. I was with my supervisor and a bunch of science teachers, spending the day in canoes on a bayou, identifying plants and wildlife. For this brown-bag-lunch outing I’d brought along some of my homemade applesauce. When I opened up my Tupperware and got out my spoon, one of the women in my canoe asked me what I was eating. I told her it was applesauce and she said it didn’t look like any applesauce she’d ever seen (and no, it didn’t have any red-hots in it). I told her I’d made it and she exclaimed, “You can DO that?” Golly gosh, her horizons of culinary reality exploded in that moment.
These days my applesauce is better than ever. I’ve not added any kind of sugar or syrup to my applesauce — other than the red-hots — since I first started making my own in college, because the apples I use are plenty sweet enough. The simplest applesauce is merely a combination of apples and water; what kind of apples depends on what’s available and personal tastes. My own favorite varieties are Fuji, Jonathan, Pink Lady and Honeycrisp, but Gala and Red Delicious make perfectly good applesauce or you can add some green apples for a finish that’s more tart. I like to spruce mine up with these items, tasting as I go and depending on the quantity: a bit of ground cinnamon, a bit of ground nutmeg, a pinch of ground clove, a few drops of vanilla, two or three finely chopped and pitted Medjool dates, and some finely chopped candied ginger. Brew the peeled and diced apple plus the dates and ginger in water until the apple is soft enough to mash, then add the spices and let simmer until enough of the water has cooked off to make it the consistency you prefer. Eat this warm for breakfast, by itself or topped with a spoonful of milk (or, if you’re feeling extra indulgent, eggnog!). You will thank the chef for taking such excellent care with the menu and you’ll feel like you’ve just gotten to eat a little bit of heaven.