When I was an undergraduate living in Vermont, I would occasionally spend my Sundays driving from my apartment in Burlington up to an old cider mill in Stowe. Once there, I'd browse the mill's country store, taking advantage of the free samples and indulging in a few too many complimentary dollops of hot pepper marmalade and cider jam. While I looked forward to taking the drive alone in order to temporarily escape my communal living situation, these peaceful afternoon trips allowed for too much free mental space to reflect on how far I was from home (a good seven hour drive on a good day) and how far removed I felt from my family. Which is why I usually ended those afternoons seated on the grass beside the mill, softly crying into a napkin of water crackers and apple butter, and thinking about how much I missed my family's company.
Do you remember that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen suggests that the entire human population can be divided into two basic categories: the horrible and the miserable? While I agree with Allen to a certain degree, I also think two other possible categories exist: those who value family and those who do not (which of these two is "horrible" and which is "miserable" I'll leave to your discretion).
People have a lot of ways of referring to our shop. I've heard people refer to it as a "mom and pop kind of place." I've heard others refer to it simply as a "small business" or a "neighborhood joint." But it wasn't until a few days ago when I heard someone, for the first time in my earshot, refer to it as a "family business."
My initial instinct was to correct this person, reminding him that technically it isn't really a family business at all (the chef + myself + our very good friend who is in no way a blood relative). But the more I continued to think about it, the more I realized that my instinct was wrong.
Not too far back, I was having a conversation with some acquaintances about the role of family in each of our lives. While a few individuals admitted that their family was not a big part of their day-to-day routine, I added, without hesitation, that family is the most important piece of this puzzle that is my life. They are my support system, the people who just get all my weird quirks, the people who cheer me on and who pick me up following my failures. They are the people who I know I can take my frustrations out on and who will still love me the next day. The people who I know, no matter how far I am from them, are quietly thinking of me and wishing me well.
Last week, the chef admitted to me over dinner that one of our employees expressed that his own life has recently become divided into two categories: the hours he spends working at the shop, and the hours he spends at home browsing the internet to discover what people are writing about our shop.
"I'm sure he is exaggerating," I said to the chef, to which he shook his head, informing me that I was wrong.
The thought that one of our employees is committed enough to our shop to actually fill his own mental space thinking about it after hours was enough to bring me to tears. Because, in some ways, isn't that what family really is: the people who are always thinking of you, and worrying for you, and cheering you on from the sidelines. I spent the rest of the night thinking about the chef's comment. Was it really possible that this specific employee, this person who not too far back was a mere stranger, has come to care about this journey just as much as us, adapting to the same all-consuming habits that we've adopted, like a mother who can't stop thinking about her child, even when she is away from her. Which is when I thought that maybe, in some strange, super progressive way, what we've opened really is a family business after all. Or it least it is growing to become one, week after week.
While some recipes for apple butter call for stripping the fruits of their peels, this one relies on the entire fruit for its rich, spreadable consistency. While you could easily add more spice -- maybe a pinch of nutmeg or clove -- I'm a bit of a purist and prefer just a teaspoon of cinnamon so that the true essence of the apples is really evident with each bite. Tonight, we'll be slathering some across thinly sliced pork chops, while later in the week I have big plans for folding some into an autumn quick bread. But for the time being, a generous spoonful paired with a piece of toast will serve as the perfect fall afternoon snack to help me reflect on our family – the family who raised us, and the family we somewhat accidentally created when we opened the doors to this shop – and how grateful we are to have them –all of them – serve such a vital role in our daily routine.
Roasted Apple Cider Butter
- 3 pounds apples (we used Macouns)
- 1 cup apple cider, divided
- 5 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt, divided
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Core apples and cut into wedges. In a medium-sized bowl, gently toss apple wedges with 1/2 cup cider, brown sugar, lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Arrange in a single layer on a large baking sheet and dot with butter. Roast for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. Pour the remaining cider over the apples and gently mix. Transfer the apples and any remaining liquid into a medium-sized saucepan. Using the back of a wooden spoon, mash the apples. Transfer the mashed apples to a blender or food processor and blend for about 15-30 seconds (any longer and the apple butter will become too liquified). Transfer the apple butter back into the saucepan. Add the remaining salt and the cinnamon. Cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, being sure to stir regularly. Remove from heat and allow the apple butter to cool to room temperature. Transfer the apple butter into an airtight container. When kept refrigerated, the apple butter will keep well for about 1 week.