Snack Attack: Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

For as long as I can recall, this has been one of my slightly guilty snack pleasures (guilty only because I have passed it on to my kids): applesauce, with a dollop of sour cream, and Ritz crackers to dip.

I know where this began: Sunday mornings, in the church nursery, snack time. In my memory, we always, always had Ritz crackers and applesauce. Surely there was some variation, but this is the only snack to stick with me, sparking cozy memories of the mildly musty house on the church grounds, where we giddyupped our rocking horses in the old dining room.

At some long-lost point, I added sour cream to the mix, and then this snack fired on all my cravings cylinders: slightly sweet, creamy and salty. My only modification to it in the past 30 years has been to swap out the sour cream in favor of Greek yogurt, so now I can feel almost virtuous when I eat.

I hoped all summer to make some zapplesauce (applesauce made with those baseball-bat overgrown zucchini), but I had a total zucchini failure, much to my kids’ disappointment. We’re all happy to have my first fall batch of applesauce on the shelves, and I’ve gone right back to this snack (OK, it was lunch today).

Applesauce doesn’t have to be anything more than apples cooked to a mush and crushed a bit. But I can rarely resist adding other flavors. My first taste some years ago of  a Honeycrisp apple that we picked in Hendersonville, N.C., told my tongue this was a perfect match for vanilla, and I still think Honeycrisps work best in this combo. But taste for yourself: We’ve started an annual apple tasting, because the farmers’ market each year adds more varieties, and I can never keep straight which we like best.

When you use vanilla, have a heavy hand: I almost always pour in more than a recipe calls for. For applesauce, I add it to taste, knowing that the flavor becomes less intense as it cools. Often I spark this further by adding lemon, either cooking a little zest in with the apples or just squeezing in some lemon juice at the end.

I do always add a little sugar, but again, do this to taste, and re-check it if serving cold. I like to add just as little as I can get away with, but some apples simply need a bit more.

I always have two questions when I start in on my sauce: To peel or not? And blender or not?

If I don’t peel my apples first, I get the pectin and nutrients from the skin into my sauce . . . but because I can’t often find organic apples, I know I’m likely getting some pesticides, too. Also, this means putting the sauce through a food mill or strainer (I use the attachment on my KitchenAid mixer). I usually end up peeling and coring the apples first, and putting the sauce into the blender for a perfectly smooth result. (If I’m after a chunky applesauce, I just press with my potato masher on the cooked apples, still in the pot.

How else can you flavor your applesauce? Try brown sugar, a strong honey, maple syrup or cranberries cooked with the apples until they burst. And check out your spice drawer: Cinnamon, of course, but also cardamom, a pinch of nutmeg or allspice. If you still have herbs growing, try lemon verbena, lemon basil, cinnamon basil, a touch of orange mint, even rosemary, lemon thyme or winter savory (don’t chop the rosemary, thyme or savory into the final sauce; instead, place one small herb branch in with the apples while they cook, then remove before pureeing). Get fancy with those flavors: No matter what, this will always be pure comfort food to take you back to the nursery.

Recipe: Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

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Here in North Carolina, we’re suffering through endless dry days. For the past week, though, my kitchen has been one huge steam bath.

It’s been canning central since I hit the farmers’ market last Friday, buying 40 pounds of apples, a case of peaches and about 60 pounds of tomatoes. My plan to can throughout the summer never quite came through; given the heat, my family didn’t complain. But I knew it was nearly now-or-never for tomatoes, and I just couldn’t pass up those $10 “ice cream peaches” that looked ripe enough for ice cream but still plenty firm.

And we’ve hit that time of year that I always find a little disorienting, when I’m buying late-summer melons at the same time as the kids beg for the first fall box of apples. One jar of applesauce got greedily gobbled up the day I made it, because kids were starting to tire of watermelon (how can that be?).

So now my back aches, but what a wonderful feeling to see that pantry shelf packed tight with jars of tomatoes, applesauce, peach jam and Aunt Althea’s Christmas pickles (made from my own cucumbers, the one veggie the critters ignore), plus pear marmalade tested for a book review, and a few jars of blueberry-peach sauce. I’m not much into the trendy canning recipes circulating these days (really, how many jars of jam or pickles can one person use?); I just want my standards that get me through the winter.

Standards set, I still had several bowls of peeled peaches to go, even after making a half-gallon of lavender-peach ice cream.

What luck: The day before, I’d looked at those pantry shelves and realized I really didn’t need to hoard my jars of cranberry mincemeat anymore, so I made a mincemeat version of apple slab bars (basically, a flat mincemeat pie in a 9-by-13-inch pan). And because I never make just two rounds of pie dough at a time, I had two more pie disks waiting in the fridge.

So, attempting to live up to my desired title of Pie Mom, I sliced 5 cups of peaches, sprinkled them with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, tossed them with a mixture of 5 tablespoons of flour, 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt, and spread them in a 9-inch pie plate lined with dough. But the dish didn’t look full enough to me, so I tossed on several large handfuls (maybe 1 1/2 cups?) of blueberries I’d frozen earlier this summer, and gently mixed them in with my hand. On went another dough round, roughly pinched together and crimped. Just for fun, I cut out a few hearts for vents, and brushed the top of the pie with a little cream. I baked it for 25 minutes at 425 degrees on the bottom shelf (that shelf is lined with quarry tiles, for when I bake bread–it also helps to crisp the bottom crust of a pie), then moved it up to the middle shelf, lowered the temperature to 375 degrees, and let it go for about 35 minutes more, til golden and bubbly.

It should be noted that I’m going for the title of Pie Mom, not Pie Wife, because I have a husband who is, inexplicably, a bit indifferent to the charms of pie. When he headed back into the kitchen for another sliver, muttering “this pie is delicious,” while my son looked too happy to speak, I have to say, my back miraculously stopped aching.

Note: Are you interested in taking a pie class? Keep an eye here for details if you’re in Orange or Alamance counties in North Carolina–I’ll be teaching a pie class next spring, and possibly a canning class next summer. And if you have a group of friends, or a church or other organization interested my teaching a class for them, contact me.

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