2012 was a crap year for Michigan fruit, particularly tree fruits, particularly apples. An unseasonably warm spring coupled with a late frost dealt a crippling blow, knocking out by some estimates up to 80% of Michigan’s apple harvest for the year. It was devastating and maybe you didn’t notice, satisfied with Washington apples or imported fruit, but those of us who frequent Midwest farmers markets noticed.
My friend Pete’s orchard wasn’t spared and he took a hard hit. Sour cherries made a quick appearance, the apricots were barely there and the peaches were disappointing. It was tough seeing his uncharacteristically skimpy market tables. Normally spilling over with up to 28 apple varieties in a typical year, the difference was noticeable. Fresh cider, though available, was limited to a blend rather than the numerous single varietals of years past. I missed my weekly quarts of Jonagold or Mutsu or Honeycrisp cider but I understood. When I’d ask Pete how it was going, he’d smile and shrug. Life of a farmer, I suppose.
I’m sure all the well meaning questions, “how are the apples?” and “are you going to have cider this year?” got old and annoying but people were concerned, not only for their apple fix but for the farmers they’d come to know Saturday after Saturday. Which is why I think there was a collective exhale in late spring this year when everything seemed to be ok. Yet we tiptoed nervously throughout the unseasonably cool summer and smiled cautiously when it turned into one of the best years in a while – the sour cherries stuck around for an unheard of 4 weeks, the berries produced in crazy quantities and those apple trees. Oh lord. So many apples. All twenty-eight varieties, some of them comically large, were back on the tables this year along with more cider than we could hope for.
Pete usually has a Harvest Party on the farm to celebrate a good year. Except for last year, obviously. I’d missed the last few and was happy to hear it was happening again. On a beautiful, crisp fall day, friends, family, employees and favorite customers trekked out to South Haven for good food, good company and general shenanigans.
The sheer quantity of apples still on the trees was ridiculous, almost laughable. Pete had been selling apples for weeks and pressing cider for just as long but many trees were bending from the weight of apples yet to be picked. Friends and I headed out with our bags, vowing amongst ourselves to take it easy. We discussed and agreed upon limits. We would not go crazy, be obnoxious or greedy and would pick a reasonable amount. Only one dozen per variety, we agreed earnestly.
It seemed reasonable. I should have known. Though we did limit ourselves to 1 dozen per variety, we failed to calculate how many varieties were left for picking. Some trees were fully picked over, the types that ripen earlier in the season, but many were still loaded, with branches bowing and breaking under the heavy weight of unpicked fruit.
Our apple picking process went a little like this: we’d check the row marker at the end to determine what variety we were dealing with: Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Golden Russet, etc. Then one of us would grab an apple from a nearby branch, take a big bite and pass it around. We’d discuss if we liked it – we always did. Not that it mattered, 12 went into the bag regardless. If you’ve never eaten an apple right off the tree, you are truly missing out on something wonderful.
By the end, as we stumbled back to our car under the weight of overloaded bags, it made me glad I turned away from that ridiculous orchard a few weeks ago. This is what a real farm was all about. No corn mazes, only a target for guests to hurl apples at for feats of strength and skill. No manufactured hayrides, instead Pete’s kids took their friends out for rides on the farm golf cart and got stuck repeatedly among the trees. We wandered about the experimental pepper plantings and I filled my pockets with strange peppers for Pete to identify later. We fumbled about in hoop houses overgrown with raspberries bushes, fig trees and strange gogi berry plants. We strolled down paths lined with groaning trees, bordering “the woods” in various shades of greens, yellows and oranges. We filled our plates at the “Bird Buffet” of smoked poultry, trying to identify the duck from the guineas hen from the turkey. We roasted ridiculously large marshmallows for s’mores on the fly and then threw a few into the flames just to see what would happen. Try it sometime. Fascinating. It was an absolutely gorgeous day made even better by the generosity of a good friend.
The next morning I emptied out my gigantic bag of apples into every gigantic bowl I owned and wondered what exactly I was thinking. When I worked the farmstand for Pete, he called me “fruit whore” because I just couldn’t turn away or throw away any less than perfect fruit. To be faced with fully loaded trees and the “take as much as you want” directive, I was a goner. I was leaving with a gigantic bag and everyone knew it but me. This should have come as no surprise.
So what to do with all these apples? Share, obviously. Make a pie or two or three, of course. But I suddenly had a craving for pancakes. Apple cider pancakes. So I replaced some of the liquid in my usual buttermilk pancakes with reduced apple cider and topped them with an apple cider compote. The pancakes, while good, didn’t really deliver the flavor punch I had hoped but the compote … oh wow. Apple-y in the most deep, intense kind of wonderful way, it was crazy delicious. In the end, I decided the pancakes weren’t worth the effort but the fruit topping is something you should absolutely make. A strong shot of fall, right there on your plate, it’s great not only on pancakes but other breakfast staples like waffles, crepes and oatmeal but also a slice of cake, ice cream and rice pudding. It’s good stuff. And if you’re in Chicago, be sure to visit Pete and Seedling Fruit at the Green City Market’s winter location in the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. He’ll have apples and cider for at least a few more weeks if not longer.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: THIS IS A GOOD ONE. Skip the syrup, make this. To be completely honest, I ate most of this right out of the bowl. It’s great for breakfast but flavorful and fancy enough for dessert too. Just throwing this out there, but it would be amazing with a good glug of bourbon. Wait … I have the makings of a really fantastic pie filling here. I need to think this through. Stay tuned.
On this blog four years ago: Cucumber Kimchi, Multigrain Bread
On this blog three years ago: Chicken Pot Pie, Confessions of a Lazy Gardener
On this blog two years ago: Simple Apple Cake, Maple Buttermilk Spoonbread with Maple Glazed Pears
On this blog one year ago: Raw Kale and Roasted Squash Salad
other Seedling Harvest Parties
a great recipe for Buttermilk Pancakes
APPLE CIDER COMPOTE
Makes about 2 cups; great on pancakes, waffles, oatmeal or just off a spoon
It’s important to reduce the cider first to intensify that wonderful flavor. If you skip this step, your compote won’t be nearly as flavorful and delicious. So just do it. As for the specific apple called for, you want a sweeter variety that will hold it’s shape during cooking. I think Golden Delicious are perfect for this and readily available abut feel free to use what you like or have or can find.
2 cups unfiltered apple cider
2 Tablespoons butter
2 large Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and diced into ½” pieces
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
pinch of kosher salt
¾ cup reduced apple cider
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Place the 2 cups of cider in a large saucepan, bring to a boil and reduce to a little more than half, to ¾ cup, on medium heat or a nice gentle boil. Be careful – too small of a pot and the cider will boil over creating a big mess. Depending on the heat and size of the pot, this might take anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Set aside until needed.
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter.
- Sauté the apples, maple syrup and salt in the melted butter until they start to release some liquid and are just turning tender but are still holding their shape, about 8-10 minutes.
- Add the reduced apple cider and the cinnamon and simmer until tender but the apples still hold their shape, about 15 minutes.
- The liquid should be slightly thick and syrups but if still a little thing and liquid, remove the apples with a slotted spoon and turn the heat up to high. Boil until reduced, syrupy and a spoon dragged across the bottom leaves a trail. Add the apples back to the mixture, stir to combine and serve warm or room temperature.