Cider time again- and apple cake

Homemade cider

Homemade cider

Well, looks like I’ve been at this a year. The first pictures I took were apples and chestnuts. There is so much more to cover than I thought, and if I’m doing, I’m not writing and vice versa . But here I sit with a fine glass of cider, aged one year, with a perfect head and dry crisp flavor.  Here is the link to last year when we pressed it.

Apples this year are less plentiful. The excessive rain fostered the fungus, and many apples fell before they got any size to them. The watermelons didn’t like it either- they are a peri-Kalahari fruit and after the rainy season they expect a dry season. Nonetheless we persevere. My father and I went out and got a few buckets of apples. I selected the nicest for cakes and we ran the rest through the press. We got about two gallons. This is the first year I had to remind him about Keats’s Ode to Autumn, but he did rally with a few words. My heart breaks. Do not go gentle into that good night.

The best apple cake is this one. Yes, apple pie is a showcase, and if it rains I can elaborate on pie crust technique, but right now I need simple, and this recipe pushes all the apple pie buttons in a tenth the time. You can find it in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a fine old classic we referred to in our house as the Fatty Farmer. She has lots of grand old American farm classics, like Blackberry Flapdoodle, which is essentially a big roll of rich biscuit dough surrounding and surrounded by blackberries mashed with sugar. Baked in a casserole and basted with butter it has all the calories you need to milk cows at four in the morning. I can cut the sugar by a third and it’s still sweet. Mighty fine with ice cream though. Anyway, back to Apple Cottage Pudding. This is a basic 1-2-3-4 dough. Peel and cut into fat slices, like 8ths of an apple, about 16 apples. I never count. I just process what I have and use them somehow. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a giant lasagna pan. Find another pan about coffee cake size and do that one too.

Apple Cottage Pudding

The best apple cake

Apple Cottage Pudding Recipe

Mix dry

3 c.flour (definitely throw in part whole wheat or spelt as you like- makes a nuttier flavor)

1 tsp. salt.

1 c. sugar

4 tsp baking powder

Mix wet

2 eggs, beaten

1 c. milk

2 sticks butter (1c.), melted

1 tsp. vanilla

mix all up together until smooth, dump into pans.

This is a bit tricky. The reason I say that is that you will be pressing the apple slices into the dough in rows, as tightly as possible, since this cake is better the higher the ratio of apple to cake. Over time I have developed a sense of how little cake dough I can get away with, see below. You can do a pie pan with a dough spoonful. I realize that is subjective. Anyway, I start in the middle with a line and march them out in both directions, pushing the dough as I go. Occasionally I have to take a knife and cheat a little, flicking a little dough from here to there. When you are finished:

Mix 1 c. sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 8 tbsp raisins, nuts if you like.   Hazelnuts absolutely rock. Walnuts are also a natural. I have even scattered on wineberries, which I had frozen in season, for color. Mix and sprinkle evenly, getting sugar over all the dough. I know sugar is White Death, but you have a lot of surface area, and the covering of granules creates a very nice crisp surface. Bake until brown and the raisins are puffing. That will take at least 40 minutes. Touch the apples to see if they are soft. As long as the cake doesn’t burn, especially underneath, the puffed raisins give it that bitter burnt raisin flavor which balances the sweetness of sugary apple cake.

I tend to gain weight around this time of year and I finally made the connection. This cake is so delicious and it works all day, starting with breakfast. I also make it if I am going to a potluck, or helping with a bake sale, or a church supper. You can’t beat it with a stick.

Pruning in winter -or whenever

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

When do you prune? The best time to prune trees, shrubs, and rosebushes is when they are dormant, in winter. That being said, you prune when you can. It is better to prune at the wrong time than not prune at all. You prune for a lot of reasons. Pruning keeps plants from getting bigger than we want them to, and it alters their growing habit . You can trim a plant back so it gets more growing points, like the mythical Hydra, which makes it bushier and fuller. You can remove weaker branches to make the plant direct its energy into stronger, more desirable branches. You can prune to open up the structure of the plant to ventilation so that fungal diseases are less likely to thrive. pruning toolsI don’t think they mind being pruned; generally they respond with health and vigor, but pruning roses is like pruning playful cats. Wear clothes that can get ripped, wear heavy leather gloves, start with long loppers,and mind your face. knockout rosesTo whit, I prune my red Knockout roses down hard, to about 1/3 of their summer size, because they are a bit large for the bed I have them in, and because I want lots of new shoots for big bunches of roses.  And while Knockout is a very disease resistant and trouble free rose, selectively opening up the structure of the bush by removing twiggy growth, inward growing growth, and canes with too many closely spaced twigs on them can’t hurt. I prune my climbing Westerfield rose to shape it, control it- ha!- and try to keep the canes from falling over when they are heavy with big, fragrant orange roses. (Correction for my earlier remark about cats- pruning ramblers like Climbing Westerfield is like playing with a nervous tiger. Unless you are very careful you will get hurt.) It is attached to a trellis I made 2 years ago out of black willow prunings, which holds it up against the house. The trellis is rotted and falling apart, so I will be cutting the Westerfield back a little harder this year so I can remove the old trellis and put in a new one. Of course this means I also need to prune the willows, which I whack to the ground every 2-3 years so I will have usable willow branches for basket work. After I have taken away the bulk of the pruning I will clean things up with a smaller pair of clippers. Now I can clip, rake, weed and mulch. I get free mulch from the utility guys who trim the trees along the roadsides. They are delighted to have a free place to drop off their wood chips as long as it is close by, so I stop and tell them where I live when I see them trimming within a few miles of my house. It is important to remember that those heavy trucks can’t drive off of paved roads without getting stuck unless the ground is hard and dry though. Also, bear in mind that wood chips from trees can carry tree pathogens, but I figure that the chips come from nearby  so whatever they may carry would get here anyway. They eventually rot down into a lovely humus which is good for amending the soil in shady beds where you are growing acid-loving plants. before pruning (10)I also need to prune fruit trees. This is very important for disease control and fruit bearing. I really care about fruit. The plums are so delicious, but they are a real pain in Maryland. Fruit trees here suffer from all kinds of problems, since our mild and humid climate is hospitable to insects and fungal diseases. If you have a healthy old tree, treasure it and propagate from it. Young trees need to be shaped. As bends the twig so grows the tree, right? I have two 5 year old trees I will enjoy pruning, because they are happy and healthy, and I have pruned them every year so they have a nice shape. I need to control height, so I can reach the fruit without a ladder, and I need to take out branches that interfere with airflow through the center of the tree. I will cut out all inward growing and crossing branches, and I will also look at how the shape is evolving, and decide if any major branches should come out, based on what they will look like eventually. Branches that look well spaced now will be crowded in a few years, and if we cut it out now the bark will heal quickly and no rot will start inside the tree. Look at the photos and see if you can imagine where the cuts should go before you look at the after pictures. Make clean cuts so they heal well. Don’t leave ragged bark hanging off the wood. Use good tools. Up to a third inch thick clippers work fine; after that loppers work up to an inch, and after that use a small saw like a pruning saw, or a sawsall, if you can control the cuts so they come out clean. I use a sawsall if I have a lot to do, but only on larger branches, since little branches just catch on the teeth and shake wildly. We don’t use tar on pruning cuts any more. The idea is that it traps moisture under the tar, so you can create a skin of tar with bugs or something underneath it. I trimmed and tarred the torn bark on a Coxes Orange Pippin I hit with a weed whacker, and it healed beautifully, so I am not convinced either way. For mature fruit trees you alternate years, taking out major wood one year and trimming back size the next. I have two Japanese plums; a Methley and a Santa Rosa. They are Satsuma types, which means they are red like cherries. They are so delicious- the juice, the jam, the plums in honey syrup in winter, the syrup over ice, maybe with a little wine- I am fighting for the plums. But the Santa Rosa has been dropping all its fruit for the past seven or eight years, so I only let it live for to pollinate the Methley. The Methley has a very nice spreading growth habit, and bears its smallish red fruit heavily along its twigs. Borer damageUnfortunately trunk borers have hit it, as evidenced by balls of clear sap drying on the trunk, and brown slime at the base with little bits of chewed up wood crumbs called frass in it. I have injected straight Neem, an organic tree extract, into the holes in the bark. I have run wires into the holes to try to kill the borers. I cleared the sod away from the trunk to about a foot and a half, dumped a bag of play sand around it, made a plastic tent/skirt around the bottom two feet of trunk and put mothballs in it. But they are back again this year. The tree does seem to be handling it so far. So this year I will thin out small twigs on the Methley to increase ventilation, since we have had Brown Rot the last 2 years (try Serenade, an organic fungicide based on Bacillus Subtilis) and so I can get my Surround in there (a kaolin clay emulsion which is a wonderful organic crop protectant).  The Santa Rosa I am going to cut back very hard, since it is really time I put in a new tree, but I still need my pollinator. before pruning (12)One of the trees I am pruning this week is a very healthy 5 year old sweet cherry. It has a slightly drooping growth habit, and the cherries have been small and miserable, which tells me that it needs a pollinator. I have honestly forgotten what kind it is, which is a bad mistake on my part. Bing, which it may be, needs a pollinator. I planted a Stella nearby, but it got run over by a lawn mower, so it is not as far along as it should be. Last year it seemed to bloom just a little too far behind the other one to be effective. It sure had nice cherries though, for its age. I probably won’t start shaping it this year because the bark hasn’t completely closed over the wounds, and it hasn’t branched out yet. I want it to have plenty of leaf area to gain strength. The Montmorency cherry, which is a sour pie cherry, should start producing this year. I love sour cherries! I also need to whack back the kiwi vines, just for the sake of control. I will cut off the weaker vines and the ones that are trying to get at the roses. I supposedly have three females and one male, but they all look pretty much alike. I thought the males had variegated foliage. If they don’t do something this year maybe I’ll buy another male. You would think they would have blossoms by now. I bought them almost 4 years ago and they are rampant. (NB_Yup, the male is no longer with us) I have a pomegranate! pomegranate (2)It grew quickly from a seed and seems quite happy. The blossoms are wildly orange and look like plastic. We had 2 fruits last year. It has a very twiggy, shrubby, prickly growth habit. It is about five feet tall, but I understand they get pretty big. So far I have thinned out twiggy growth around the base, to make it easier to weed. The leaves are small and don’t seem to keep the tree wet, otherwise I would worry, since it comes from a dry climate. My mother’s fig tree is full of honeysuckle and twiggy growth. I think we should cut it flat to the ground and start fresh. (NB I cut it off about 4 feet tall and removed oldest trunks and wimpy stems) This doesn’t hurt it; usually we have a hard freeze every 10 years and it freezes to the ground. We saw off all the dead trunks and it comes right back, only we miss the first crop of fruits (they fruit twice in a long season). Generally you want to remove weaker stems on a fig, and prevent it from getting too tall to pick from. A good fig tree is a real blessing. Basically, we prune for beauty and for usefulness, because health, beauty, and productivity are all one, but in the end, as the Little Prince said,  “C’est utile puisque c’est beau.” It’s useful because it’s beautiful.

What to do with apple trees


the sooty mold on the skin is absolutely harmless

Apples for applesauce, pies, cakes, dried apples, cider, wine, whatever!

This country is full of apple trees that nobody is paying attention to. Somebody planted trees and didn’t know what to do with them, or moved, or got  older. I love apples, and I know what to do with them, so I keep an eye out when I’m driving, and ask folks who are obviously not using their fruit if I can pick up the windfalls. Usually they will be happy to give me permission to do what I want and are surprised and delighted to get some applesauce, or a pie, or a gallon of sweet cider. So when I have our trees all picked I am not finished.

On our farm apples start and end early. It starts with the Early Harvest tree, whiuch is what Germans call a Klarapfel. It means a “clear apple,” because the peel is clear, so the apple ripens ivory colored. Ours ripens in late June. There is an old-timey fiddle tune called “June Apple.” as it is an instrumental, I always wondered what it was about; the fact that it is the first apple or that it is lousy, as apples go. It has a simple flavor, rather tart, and gets mealy textured as soon as it is ripe. However that is our first applesauce apple, so if you are looking for food you can store, as I am, no complaints.

Then come the apples that drop (called drops) because they have insect damage; right off the bat they are great if you are going to make your own pectin. It is possible to do this, but so far I find it difficult to control. If I did it more I could likely get it; what you do is cut them up, boil them until they get really soft and sloppy, and strain the results through a jelly cloth. This is a good thing to know about, so I’ll tell you right now:

Straining fruit for jelly: get a four-legged chair and flip it upside down on the kitchen table. Get about a yard square of white or light cloth. I have ripped an old t-shirt, used a cloth diaper, or a piece of worn sheet. Cheesecloth is fine but you really need to fold it thickly. Muslin is great. Drape it over the legs of the chair and attach to each leg with a strip of cloth, strings, or heavy rubber bands. You do NOT want this to come loose. Put a big mixing bowl on the upside down bottom of the chair, under the cloth. Pour hot fruit mixture into this cloth strainer and let drip. Overnight is best. If you want county-fair clear jelly don’t squeeze. OK?

But when I make pectin from green apples my jelly is often too firm. You can test it by pouring a little in a small glass of rubbing alcohol. The more it holds together on a fork, the stronger your pectin.

I get better results just throwing in half chopped wild crabapples and half whatever else. And while I try not to buy something I can make, Surejell and Certo are better than not enough elderberry jelly! Boy did I make a lot this summer!

The best apple cake

Back  to apples-Next come Winesaps and Cox’s Orange Pippins good enough to make applesauce, pies, and apple cake with. If you sign up for my newsletter I will give you the recipe for Apple Cottage Pudding, which is called pudding because it was once an English recipe, but it’s just a really awesome easy cake that pushes all the apple pie buttons….

Applesauce is about the easiest thing you can can. I make a ton because you don’t have to peel the apples as long as you have a food mill. I got a  Roma which is pretty fancy for Christmas years ago after I lost a piece from my old Foley. It works fine and is not aluminum! So worth it. You just cut the bad bits out of the apple with a small, short, unserrated knife, pushing against your thumb, and cut up the good apple into large chunks. You don’t even have to core it. There are so many good vitamins against the core and the skin that I’m coinvinced this is much better. Cut until your apples are finished or your pot is full, put a cup of what in the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching- no more, because you want your applesauce thick, cover and simmer until the apples begin to disintegrate.  Dump into the bowl of the food mill and crank away. I find the Roma needs another go at the apples; I put what comes out of the pulp strainer back through to get more applesauce. With the oldfashioned mill that fits over a bowl you just crank until you see that only cores, skins and seeds are left. Then you can it.

Once they get sweet and are less damaged, I can also start making bowls of slices that I can string up on button thread (strong thread) and hang in a hot dry place like my attic. They look like leis, and they dry rapidly so they taste perfect as a snack or you can rehydrate them for dried apple pies. I sometimes wish I watched TV so I could do things like that while I watch a show. If I’m lucky enough to have a friend over it’s something to do while we chat.

When the really great apple flow comes and there are zillions of apples, we get out the cider press. We got ours years ago from Happy Valley for about $400. A chunk, but when I think of the sweet cider, the apple wine, the hard cider, and most of all the good times, it was cheap. In the old days people had a lot more apple trees because cider was safer to drink than water, and because as you can see, apple trees are great food providers. So they probably didn’t have time to wash them and cut out the mushy bits like my mother does. I tend to either toss them or use them.

Sweet cider straight from the press is the best; a return to Eden. But soon it starts to fizz as the wild yeasts on the skins, in the press, in the air, etc., get going. So here’s what we do: You can refrigerate it and it will very slowly turn. I happen to adore fizzy cider. You can also preserve sweet cider. You just pour it into clean mason jars and can it. Works like a charm but tastes like the very best store-bought apple juice ( heat removes the fresh-pressed flavor) and has a little sediment.  Which is fine. Or you can enter the wonderful world of fermentation. My father made apple wine for years. He added 5 lbs. of cane sugar to 5 gallons of juice to kick it up to 12% alcohol. It was a clear yellow wine with a Calvados-like twang. Not bad. Mostly I liked it because of the memories. This year since my husband gets a headache from wine we would make hard cider. I didn’t want to use any metabisulfates, which are used to kill the wild yeast (which can be awesome or awful as it lists) so you can add a tame yeast that will be obedient. So I just went with whatever God sent me and it worked out perfectly. A dry, fizzy, calvados-scented drink, beer-strength, that is just getting better every time we crack one. I think I will do another page for those of you who want more details. Because unless you have a few specialty items, i.e. homebrewing equipment, and a press, this won’t help you.

So today may be the last load of apples I will haul, since next week we are headed down to Bedford County, VA for some praise and worship and a whole lot of music, and by the time we get back it may be that there are only a few left. We are grateful for a good apple season.