Last weekend my sister and I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park to get some photos before they shut down Trail Ridge Road for the winter. Heading home, we drove by the Stanley Hotel and found it all dressed up in orange floodlights for Halloween. You may know the Stanley as the inspiration for The Shining, but it’s also home to an amazing continental breakfast featuring some of the best little pastries I’ve ever tried. Their parmesan haystacks have been on my “things to make immediately” list for almost 3 years now, but I digress.
Our photo mission also served another purpose: A distraction from the pumpkin custards I made that afternoon, which needed several hours to chill in the fridge. These custards are one of my favorite fall desserts — rich, creamy, and not too sweet. This year, I tried adding a crispy shell of melted cinnamon sugar to the top, and they were better than ever (though maybe not so easy to justify eating for breakfast).
My good friends (and former neighbors) have an old cider press and a big apple orchard, and during the fall they often invite friends who also have a lot of apples over when they’ve got the press out. A few weekends ago, my sister and I grabbed a couple of boxes of apples from the big old tree in the front yard and headed over for the afternoon.
Tradition at the farm is to mix all the different types of apples (and crabapples too!) so you get a little of the flavor from each. Our two boxes of bug-bitten apples paled in comparison to the 10 or so bushels of huge, unblemished apples that greeted us when we arrived, but I like to think that our tart little Macintosh-type apples added a special flavor to the mix.
We worked outside on picnic tables, first mixing and washing the apples. Then they were cut into big chunks, cutting out any blemishes but leaving the cores. I got to be the “mix master,” plucking apples from each basket and throwing them into the washtubs, then carrying big bowls of clean apples over to the cutting table. I happily volunteered for some apple washing, having already processed way too many apples from our trees (but we’ll leave that for another post).
When we cut enough apples to fill the press, the real fun started. One person turned the wheel on the grinder as another threw apples into its maw. The smashed apples dropped into a cloth bag inside the press, and when it was full we turned the big screw on the press until it could turn no more, as the rich brown cider poured out into a pitcher at its base.
When all the apples were finally pressed into cider, we delivered the scraps to some very excited cows.
And then we reminisced about the last time I was here for a cider pressing, and one of the cows (impatiently waiting for apples by the gate) bumped the electrical pole and sent a shower of sparks raining down from the power lines above. In a split second I was all the way across the yard, still clutching my butcher knife. “Oh good,” my neighbor laughed, still calmly seated at the picnic table. “You’ll be able to call 911 if we need it.”
This time, the cows left the power lines alone and we had an uneventful cider pressing (unless you count waving off a few dozen hungry hornets, and the bite I received from a large wolf spider that was lurking in one of the bushel baskets). Afterward, we spent some time hanging out at the farm and visiting all the animals.
The highlight of my day was seeing one of the hens I hatched for my friends back in February, who is now raising chicks of her own. This hen is the granddaughter of Kung Pao and General Tso, and she’s an excellent mother.
She led her five chicks all around the barnyard while we were there, pointing out good things to eat and giving a reproachful side-eye to the “feral” barn cat (actually friendlier than most house cats). The cat kept her distance, casually licking a paw whenever the hen looked at her. Clearly, she’s already learned a lesson or two from Mother Hen about messing with the chicks.
The not-so-feral barn cat, affectionately known as Mama Kitty
We headed home that afternoon with three big jugs of cider (more than our fair share, to be sure). Apple cider still contains all the sediment that’s normally filtered out of apple juice, so it’s dark and rich and cloudy. I’ve been drinking it cold, hot, and sometimes spiked with a bit of rum — just the thing for a crisp fall night.
There’s an old abandoned house on the bike path not far from where I live, with half its windows boarded up and the rest broken out. The roof is beginning to cave in, and every time I pass by I feel a twinge of sadness as I wonder about the people who built the house and planted the fruit trees lining the property. But for a while this summer, the sadness was trumped by joy and anticipation as the fragrant blossoms of spring swelled into thousands of prune plums, weighing down the ancient trees along the bike path.
Last year, I lamented the fact that there were no plums at the farmer’s market due to a late frost (and had to console myself with this mushroom tart). This year was the exact opposite.
The plums started turning ripe in mid-August, and they were everywhere I looked. I returned to the trees several weekends in a row, plastic bags bulging and cutting into my fingers as I trotted back down the bike path. My sister and I picked until we couldn’t carry any more, and we still didn’t even come close to making a dent in the crop. Runners and bike commuters stopped to gorge themselves on plums, and some of the old locals pulled their cars onto the property and loaded up boxes from the opposite side of the fence. All in all, we ended up processing just over 100 pounds, and there were still plums dropping off the tree when we finally cried uncle.
First on the to-make list was plum butter. I made it once a couple years ago, and it’s one of the best preserves I’ve ever tried. Tart and sweet, with complex notes of vanilla bean just below the surface. I love to spread it on toast, swirl it into plain yogurt, and put it in ebelskivers.
Plum butter doesn’t use pectin; it’s cooked down until very thick and then canned. I made several batches of varying thickness, and can tell you firsthand that they are all delicious — some are more like thin preserves, and others are so thick that I have a hard time spreading them. It’s tricky to get a very thick plum butter as you’ll need to stir it constantly at the end to keep it from scorching, but it’s well worth the effort. Even if you end up with syrup, I promise it will be delicious.