Braised Pulled Pork

This post was originally written all the way back in January. I know, I know. This is really sad that I’m only adding this now, but you would not believe the way this semester is taking shape. Some more entries are in the works, and I was originally going to dump this, but in looking at the photos and remembering the food, I just couldn’t. I had to share. 

You’d never know it, but I’ve been doing lots of cooking the past few weeks. And I mean lots. The hiccough – I keep forgetting to take pictures. I’ve been with my family for the holiday, cooking in their beautiful (albeit it electric) kitchen and loving every minute of it. This has been absurdly fun; it’s always nice to cook for an appreciative audience, and those audiences abound around the homestead. It’s really been fun, both for the cooking and for the soul feeding power of family and old friends.

So, as New Year’s rolled around, I kept thinking about various appetizers or healthy meals (my resolution – more butter), and I stumbled across the old Southern tradition of pork and black eyed peas on New Year’s day. The saying is that you “eat like a poor man on New Year’s Day, and you eat rich the rest of the year.” I liked this idea. My aunt sent me a recipe that seemed right up my alley, but there’s just one problem – I hate black eyed peas. Actually, truth be told, I don’t like most beans unless they’re cooked with a generous amount of bacon. What to do? I love pork, but didn’t want to ruin a nice piece of pork with beans. So, I returned to an old standby – enchiladas.

I won’t bore you with another enchiladas post (though I have become a bit obsessed this winter), but I do want to talk about my beautiful butt. Pork butt, that is. (You knew that joke was coming; don’t blame me.) There are a few things I love more than pork butt (beyond giggling like an eleven-year-old every time I say it). It takes on bold flavor but manages to never get too out of line with intensity. It’s juicy and tasty without much work. And most importantly, when cooked properly, it fall apart right before your very eyes.

I was surprised to find, though, that a four pound pork derriere takes you quite a ways. I did a pan and a half of enchiladas (one 9×13 and one 9×9), and I still had half the pork left. What should I do with it?

“We could have pulled pork sandwiches,” my dad mentioned a little too casually from across the counter.

Hmmm. Now that’s and idea I can get behind. Now, my parents have pretty decent taste in barbeque sauce, but I was feeling the need for greater culinary feats. So, I attempted BBQ sauce.

I understand and appreciate the vast debate around the “right” BBQ sauce. The vinegar-based Kentucky style to the tomato-based Texas, every Southern state has a signature BBQ sauce, while all the rest of us ask “You mean it doesn’t just come from the bottle?”

I opted for the tomato based sauce for simplicity’s sake as well as my sanity (my father will have none of this “vinegar-based” nonsense in his house!), and I’ll be darned if it wasn’t tasty. Also, for once, this was not the most complicated recipe in the world. Essentially, you pour everything into a pot and heat. Add the pork, and eat.

Done and done.

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Meringues

Allow me to make an introduction. Readers, meet the latest edition to my kitchen. I got her yesterday as part birthday and part Christmas gift, and I think I’m in love. I did a happy dance every twenty minutes all day yesterday, and have already used her twice. I’ve realized that the Kitchen Aid mixer is the culinary coming out party of the 21st Century. Everyone who owns one has congratulated me whole-heartedly; anyone who doesn’t own one is mad with envy.

I will say that the original plan was to buy something perhaps more useful in my day-to-day cooking, but, c’mon. Look at her!

How could I say no to that??

I will confess that I may have entered into my work with her (she needs a name!) with maybe just a little bit of naivete. I may have thought that I would be able to put any combination of flour, sugar and eggs into her bowl and something delicious would result on the other side.

I hope you all saw the past tense nature of that sentence. Yes, I learned my lesson.

Rather than just sticking with an old tried-and-true recipe for her maiden voyage, I decided to do a bit of an experiment. I have several friends who go mad over meringues. I am less convinced, and generally find them to be…well, weird. They’re so light, but then more substantial. They often look like they should taste like whipped cream and that couldn’t be more wrong. It’s like baking with a covert operative.

However, I am allured by them. I’ve always seen them as the mark of a truly accomplished baker, one that has the time and skill to master both the art and science of baking. I also found a recipe for “Spicy Meringues”, with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and with the weather finally turning, I thought it seemed fitting. I also thought that my new best friend would move me up the baking hierarchy into sensei position.

Sad, sad grasshopper.

Things started well, with my egg whites whipping merrily while I danced in the kitchen simply because I could! Freedom… I added the sugar slowly, just like my Cooking Companion of the Day said, and while there were no specific directions regarding whether the peaks should be stiff or soft, I decided to call it good somewhere in the middle.

Then things took a turn for the worse.

See, James is specific that you should use parchment paper or butter and flour the pan before beginning. So, I think, “OK! Well, I don’t really want to do heavy-duty dishes and I’m out of parchment, so I’ll just use my silpat mat.”

Round one goes in the oven. The trouble is that after about five minutes, there is a distinctly plastic-y smell. I decide not to mess around, toss that batch, only slightly discouraged. So, I butter and flour the next pan, send it into the oven and prepare the last batch (it doesn’t make many).

There was then another snag because I don’t know much about meringues, but I’m pretty sure this is wrong:

Hmmm…Maybe it’s the baking time? Maybe they just need more time? Last batch in the oven:

Better. Still not great. I’m not sure if they tasted at all how they were supposed to since I’ve never eaten a whole correctly made one, and I’m waiting on the jury.

I have two thoughts behind the not-quite-but-pretty-close-to-epic nature of this failure:

  1. I needed to beat the egg whites to stiff, but not dry peaks. The fact that there was still some give to them meant that they then couldn’t withstand the baking.
  2. They were too big and the crust couldn’t support the weight of so much material in the middle, hence the rather sadly deflated nature of them.

Oh well. The batch of Chocolate Butterscotch Oatmeal bars I made this evening turned out well, so we’re 50/50 so far. Not too shabby in my kitchen. Now, if only I knew what I should do with these…

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Thanksgiving Part II

Five years ago, my roommate and I were sitting on the couch in early November talking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. While I don’t remember the exact contents of the conversation (there may or may not have been wine involved), I do remember the conclusion. We both loved to cook and to host friends, and we felt a bit left out that Thanksgiving is a holiday spent exclusively with biological family. So, we proposed a solution to our urban family.

“If you want to spend Thanksgiving Day with your family, fine. However, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, eating, drinking and hanging out with people you actually want to hang out with, we’re hosting.”

Thus, Thanksgiving Part II, with all the trimmings. Now several arguments ensured about the size and nature of the bird to be cooked, and I – thankfully – lost. Every year since, a 22+ pound bird has graced an already loaded table, thus guaranteeing weeks of delicious leftovers.

This was the 5th Annual Thanksgiving Part II celebration, and while I am always grateful for the food, I’m more thankful for the friends.

Roll the highlight reel!

At the last minute, I had my annual “We don’t have enough food for thirteen people!” panic attack. Thus, spanakopita was added to the already lengthy appetizers list.

This was an amazing way to do an alternative, slightly healthier version of mashed potatoes. That’s kale in there

You can’t quite see all the great Potato-Leek Gratin deliciousness under that crust, but trust me – it’s there.

 

I named her Loretta. She was lovely…

 

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Black Beans and Cornbread

So, yes, Thanksgiving is less than a week away (so excited!), and if I could, I would spend every minute between now and next Sunday thinking about, cooking and eating food. However, I still do have some pesky classes to pass (silly, silly grades). And while I can’t quite find the energy to focus diligently on my studies, I know I must. Mostly because I have a study group coming over today for lunch. However, when all you want to eat is turkey, stuffing and potatoes, what do you serve?

I thought about simple sandwiches, but we can steal those from the various free lunches around campus. I thought about making the fastest clam chowder in the world (that one will come later, I promise), but I wasn’t sure about dietary concerns. It’s too cold for my usual “company lunches” like tabbouleh or just cheese and fresh bread.

Which is when lightening struck. On evenings when I am eating alone and not wanting to indulge in my favorite television at the same time, I’ve taken to reading the short essays out of a marvelous volume. Not only is the writing wonderful (I dream of the day when someone asks me to contribute to a collection like this), but the recipes are deliciously simple. This is from one of my favorite essays, largely because the author is also in graduate school and on a budget.  This is really the definition of simple comfort food. It’s head-slappingly easy and feels like you’re being hugged while you eat it.

I have always loved cornbread. My mom is a great break-maker when the time allows, but cornbread was something that I always looked forward to. It was my reward on chili night, since I hated beans in my childhood, and only a few of them have won favor in my adult life. But cornbread made kidney beans worth it. It’s simple and few things say welcome home like a pan of fresh cornbread.

Granted, I (again) made the mistake of not properly inventorying my pantry before beginning, starting the recipe short on one of the key ingredients. However, with some tweaking throughout the whole recipe (does anyone know exactly what 3/4 of 1/4 would be measured as?), things turned out alright in the end. My question is how I keep doing this. I think I have enough of Ingredient X only to discover halfway through prep that I’m short something. Embarrassingly short.

Don’t worry, though. Precautions are being taken for the Main Event. It also helps that I have a couple of friends who have agreed to be servants (I mean, sidekicks) in the preparations. Maybe that what I need – a personal servant to inventory my pantry every week…

Hmmm…Takers? I pay badly, but the food would be worth it…

Black Beans and Cornbread

NOTE: Just use your favorite cornbread recipe for this (mine coming straight off of the box), though I may have covered the top in cheddar cheese, just for kicks meant to cover the top with cheese, but guess what else was missing. For timing considerations, I start the beans just as the cornbread goes in the oven; then, everything is done almost at the exact same time. Also, I served this with an Apple and Celery slaw for some tart crunch to go along side, but whatever you have is great.

2 T. oil (vegetable, corn or olive – whatever’s handy)

1 medium onion, diced

3 T. mined garlic (about 2 large cloves or 3 medium)

1 15 oz. can black beans, with the juice

2 t. cumin

Salt and pepper

1 bunch cilantro, stemmed and finely chopped

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, stirring occasionally, cooking until the onion is soft, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir quickly, cooking until just fragrant, but not brown, about a minute. Add the whole can of black beans with the juice (it helps if you shake the can first). Add the cumin, about 2 teaspoons of salt and some pepper. Stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer for about ten minutes. Taste and adjusting seasonings as needed. Right before serving, dump in the cilantro, stirring to incorporate completely. Serve over warm cornbread. Eat, feel good, and wait for your guests to sigh in contentment.

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THE Menu

OK. I can’t take it any more. I was going to save this post for after The Big Day, and they’ll probably be one of those, too. And then I was going to do this in installments – appetizers, main and dessert.

But I can’t wait any longer because Thanksgiving is next week.

You remember that Disneyland commercial? Yeah, that’s me right now. And, well, I’m tired of my finance paper, and I want to play in the land of food.

So, when next week rolls around, this is what I have in store for Thanksgiving Part II (yes, Part II; more on that later).

Appetizers

The Main Event

Finish? Not Quite!

  • Derby Pie
  • Pumpkin Cheesecake
  • Apple Pie, but only if I’m feeling inspired and/or have enough time

Hungry yet? Yeah, me too. Go forth, be inspired, cook, and love those around you!

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Spaghetti and Meatballs

I know. It’s been a while. I’ve missed this, too. Lots, actually.

You see, the past three weeks have left me dizzy with work. I’ve been scarfing my favorite fast food in desperation and making repeats of some of my favorite recipes (both Butternut Squash Soup and Pea Pesto made repeat appearances), and nothing has been noteworthy in my otherwise very busy life in graduate school.

And all I’ve really wanted is to sit and play spite and malice with my mom and aunts over endless coffee, followed by an action-adventure movie with my dad and brothers.

Alas, I’ll just have to cook. And the fastest way to feel at home (or at least from my home) is a pot of spaghetti and meatballs. I should say that we are not Italian, but that never stopped us. Now, spaghetti is a classic in our home, a staple of cold, short winter days. However, meatballs are something else altogether.

I can remember exactly three times in my life that my father has made meatballs. However, they are each memorable. Once it was the mystery of Dad cooking (and not over an open flame). The next was when I was trying to be of use, and really being underfoot. The last is when he actually let me help. And each of them was delicious in almost indescribable ways, tender hunks of ground beef and a sweet-spicy sauce. Yum. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

However, I could not remember what the recipe was. This prompted a phone call. (NOTE: This is not an exact transcript, but it’s pretty darn close.)

“So, meatballs, huh?”

“Yeah. I figured I’d try it.”

“OK. Well, you’ll be fine. You know how to do this.”

“Not really. Just, how do you do it?”

“So you take the meat, add the bread. I just use the wheat bread.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but cut the crusts off. And it should be moist.”

“Moist?”

“But, not wet. So make sure the crusts are off. Mix it with the meat. Add the salt and pepper and an egg.”

“And?”

“Well, depending on how much meat you have, you may need one or two eggs.”

“But, nothing else?”

“Nope.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You brown them, and then you do the sauce, but you have that down.”

“Yeah, I have the sauce OK.”

“Just don’t forget the oregano and thyme.”

“I won’t…That’s really it for the meatballs?”

“Yup.”

I am dubious. It’s not that I doubt my dad, but there is something in my that desperately wants to add spices and garlic and herbs. Isn’t there something else to add? Now, I have been told (on more than one occasion) that I can…overdo seemingly simple recipes because I seek to over-complicate them.

But, I’m trusting my dad.

And, I’m glad I did. The apartment smells like my family’s kitchen, and it’s like I’m home. And I’m so happy to be here.

P.S. I know it’s not technically spaghetti, but we never actually ate “spaghetti” at home, so this is really an homage to my mom and dad. Have issues with that? Yeah, I didn’t think so…

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Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

I do not have time for this today. My “To Do” list keeps growing, and there will is no time for eating, let alone writing about cooking and eating and the therapy that heals my soul. But, today, on one of these insanely busy days, I am going to take five minutes and nourish both my body and my heart. With soup.

It’s raining and the only thing this meal is missing is a toasted cheese sandwich. Granted, right now I’m eating the first of several leftovers of this wonderfully simple, heart-warming soup, in a study-cubicle, but I’m not letting that dampen my escapism. For all my brain knows, I’m at my mother’s kitchen table.

What I love about this soup is that is feels like luxury – both on the tongue and in the smell. It’s sounds fancy enough for the most formal of meals, but it couldn’t be easier to make. I’m hoping to make vats of it all winter long, and I have no doubt it will make an appearance at Wednesday Night Dinner before too long.

I do love soup, but have always hesitated around butternut squash soups because they always seem to fall flat of my expectations. I want so much to slurp them down, but frequently find the flavor missing. It’s either poorly seasoned, drowning in spice or just flat – more like baby food than delicious. Or they are too thin, tasting of water or cream than butternut squashy-ness.

I found a solution! Rather than cooking the squash in the broth and water (essentially boiling it to hell and back), I decided to do the bulk of the cooking in the oven, seasoning and roasting the squash and then adding it to the pot. For some reason, this made the soup feel like it was easy work for a weeknight supper. Toss it in the oven and get something else crossed off the “To Do” list, and when you’re ready to eat? Twenty-five minutes, cutting board to table. I promise. Even on the first try.

The other life-saving part of this soup is that it’s a budget wonder. The whole batch cost me less than $5 (assuming you have some spices on hand), and will feed me quite happily four times. A great windfall at the end of the month, let me tell you.

This is a soup that makes you want fall to last forever. Enjoy.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

NOTE: I love my soup thick. If you like it a bit thinner, add up to another cup of milk after you whirl it all in the blender.

1 medium butternut squash (about 2-3 lbs.)

5 T olive oil (divided)

1 1/2 T cinnamon

1 t. nutmeg

1/2 t. all-spice

1/2 t. ground cloves

2 T salt

1 T black pepper

2 medium shallots, finely diced (feel free just to use a small onion or a leek instead)

2 T olive oil

1 T apple cider vinegar

1 can vegetable or chicken broth

1/2 c. water

1 1/2 c. milk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, and move racks to the center of the oven. Skin and cut the squash into 1/2 inch slices (should look like half-moons). In a large bowl, toss squash with 3 Tablespoons of oil, cinnamon, all-spice, nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. Transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, turning once, until the squash is cooked through. (The edges may get a bit tough, but that’s fine. They’ll soften up when they go into the stock pot.) Cool. (You can do this a day or two ahead of time if you need to; just keep them in the fridge in an airtight container.) In a large stock pot, heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, stirring constantly until onions are softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the vinegar, stirring rapidly until the liquid evaporates. Add the cooked squash to the pot, along with the broth and water. As the soup comes to a boil, begin mashing the squash with the back of a wooden spoon. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about five minutes. Turn the heat off, and either transfer (using a ladle) to a blender or using an immersion blender (lucky you), blend with 1 cup of milk until the mixture is completely smooth. Return to the pot, stirring in the additional 1/2 cup of milk until the soup has reheated and the milk is fully incorporated. Test for salt and pepper; adjust if necessary. Dig in.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake

Yeah, you read that right. Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake.

I try never to jump to the end, but this time I have to – it was delicious. I mean, really delicious. It completely made up for the epic failure the previous week, and I got to cook it in one of the most amazing kitchens while visiting a great friend. Too much fun.

While I would not claim to be a cheesecake expert, I would venture to say that I am advanced proficient. However, any time I make this type of statement, I am generally met by a flurry of comparisons, counter-claims, and interrogation about the recipe I use. Arguments and controversies arise about the type of cheese I use. Sour cream or heavy whipping cream? New York style or Philadelphia style (ha! What do you think?)? Ricotta or cream cheese? I had no idea people were this intense about cheesecake!

Now, any combination of the above plus a little sugar in a graham cracker crust will give you something tasty. But for the record: heavy whipping cream, Philly and cream cheese. Bring it.

This is where the fun can begin, though. Now, I’ve mastered the Pumpkin Cheesecake (I swear, it’s the best one you’ll ever eat. Cross my heart.), but was anxious to try my hand at something more complicated, especially when I see what the competition is putting forth. It’s not quite the right time for Lemon-Raspberry, though that will be attempted sooner rather than later, I think. Chocolate chunk sounds wonderfully indulgent, but I’m afraid that I’d take two bites and throw in the towel – too rich for my blood.

Which is how we got this magnificent work of deliciousness. I’m sorry it’s not also a work of beauty, but what are you going to do? I’m so used to managing my ill-tempered oven that when I was faced with such a perfect piece of kitchen wonderment, it actually baked in the time according to the master recipe I use. By which, I mean it got a bit dark in places.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. A bit heavy (but what can you expect from all that peanut butter and cream cheese), and I’m still undecided about the balance of flavors. Tastings went a bit like Goldilocks – some thought it could use a bit more chocolate; some thought more peanut butter; some thought it was just right. We’ll see when I attempt it again.

Oh, and my friend and I ate it for breakfast the morning after making it. 24 hours to set. Please.

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(Not) Apple Pie

This post was supposed to be about apple pie. I’d been planning on revealing the Best Apple Pie of Your Life recipe to the glorious reviews of all! It was supposed to be a triumph!

You’ll notice that the picture above is not an apple pie. You cannot fathom my dissatisfaction, frustration and general angst, especially when someone makes it seem like it’s the easiest thing to make. (Do you hear me grinding my teeth?)

You see, I have a problem. I have been attempting to make pie crust for almost a decade. In all my attempts, there has been only one, gloriously successful crust. Otherwise, every other attempt has failed. Yes, I mean it. Every. Single. Attempt.

For many years, I had the windfall of a roommate who makes some of the best pie crust in the world (thanks largely to his even better pie-crust making mother), and while I’ve been to several informal pie crust workshops over the years, the skill has never taken. I end up with two results:

  1. Pie dough that more closely resembles bread dough (the result of too much water, overworking, and then the warmth generated from the work)
  2. It will not hold together to save its life (because I don’t want to add too much water; see above)

Even as I type this nearly 24 hours later, the frustration and anger (yes, anger) are building in me. Wooooosaaaaaah….

I know there are some great solutions to this problem. Everyone has an answer, and I appreciate feedback, advice, and culinary help. However, I’m convinced that between my angst and the absence of what appears to be an essential kitchen tool, I’m at a loss. I’m simply going to have to be more resourceful about my pies in the future.

So, how did I get…whatever the thing in the picture is? Well, I had already cut and seasoned the apples and made the crumble top. By the time I realized the dough had all the makings of a Type Two disaster, it was too late. This, of course, led to the emotional fallout similar to that of a four month-old after a round of vaccinations.

I have no idea what the thing in the picture is. It’s not a crisp, exactly. It’s basically apple pie filling in a casserole with a crumble top, covered in a patchwork of what pie dough I could salvage.

My sorrow is great. It’s tasty; don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the sort of thing you bring when your friends invite you over to celebrate a holiday.

Sigh. On to greener pastures…

We did come up with some clever names for the apple creation:

  • Sukkot Apples
  • Apples of Rage
  • Apple Pot Pie
  • Biscuit and Apples
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Apple Butter

I may have spoken too soon with the whole “fall” thing. With weather as warm as ours has been, I keep expecting peaches, thinking – hoping – that maybe they’ve held on a bit longer. No such luck. The tomatoes have been obliging, but they also got a late start.

But, let’s be honest. It’s October. I couldn’t wait any more for apples. Now, a normal person would simply go to the grocery store or farmers’ market and buy a modest five pounds of apples, make one pie and call it fall. I am not normal. So, in the spirit of whimsy, I decided to gather some friends (fellow Wednesday Night Diners) and go to a Pick Your Own. The greatest stroke of luck on what would otherwise have been a lovely day was not the random store we found, (though that was amazing!). Rather, we took ourselves a bit father out of the city and discovered a modest hole-in-the-wall-ish place, which may arguably be the best PYO to be found in Pennsylvania. Apples were exceptionally cheap, you could play pumpkin checkers (I almost won, but graciously concede – at least that’s how I tell it), and there were pumpkins galore.

There is just one, small, teensy problem with setting me loose in a pick-your-own farm – I tend to go nuts. Which is why I am now the owner of no fewer than 13.8 pounds of apples. You think I’m kidding. You may be reading about apples for a while…

A pie will be underway soon, as will an apple cake, but I was more intrigued to attempt making apple butter. It seems so shrouded in mystery and spicy goodness. However it couldn’t be easier to make. Almost stupidly easy to make. And, as my aunt reminded me, yes, it is easy to burn. So, there are two possible solutions. First, take the sophisticated approach, which means throwing the whole mess into a pan and into an oven for about an hour. Or, you can treat it like risotto, which is to say to stir it constantly once you add the spices. I voted for option two simply because I didn’t want to dirty another pan. I’m just lazy like that.

Now, you can do the real homey thing and can it, but the rules around canning scare me. So, my apple butter is one of those “eat sooner rather than later” creations. Not that I’ve heard any complaints yet.

Oh, and why did I tag this as an “oops” – I added waaaaaaaaay too much ground cloves. Still tasty and some folks prefer it that way, but it was just a bit too much spice and not enough apple for my taste. Still, do what you will.

Apple Butter

Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery

3-4 lbs. apples, peeled, cored and rough chopped

1 c. water

1/3 c. honey or sugar (more or less depending on the apples)

1 T. cinnamon

1 t. cloves

In a heavy bottomed pot (with a lid), place the apples and add water until it comes halfway up the apples. Cover and cook on medium heat until the apples are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the apples are soft, mash them using a potato masher or the back of a spoon (you can also run it through a food mill if you’re really fancy and have one of these, but it seems like a lot of work when they mashed up nicely without it). Taste the mash and add honey as needed up to 1/3 cup. Add the spices. Stir to incorporate. Cook another 30-45 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring (nearly) constantly, being sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan. When the apple butter has reach a nice chestnut color and the spoon leaves a wide trail, remove from heat. If you’re canning, immediately place in boiled jars. If you’re keeping it fresh, let it cool and then place in a container with an airtight lid. Best as part of a peanut butter sandwich or over ice cream…

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