Fruit Butters: Peach and Lemongrass, Blueberry and Lavender
Each season has its fruit temptations, from the jewel-like citrus of winter to the tart rhubarb and tender strawberries of spring; fall mitigates the oncoming darkness with its copious cranberries, apples and pears. In no season, though, do we seem to feel as acute a need to preserve these fleeting offerings of the land as in summer, when we race to can, bottle and jar all the juicy-ripe apricots and peaches, the bulbous black and red berries, and the sweet-tart cherries and plums we can lay our hands on. I'm not quite sure what it is about summer's produce in particular that inspires such behavior (though my vote goes to the fact that these fruits are simply the year's most delicious), but preserving fruits is so iconic of summer that it struck me as nearly criminal to realize that as much as I've pondered, planned and romanticized the idea, I had never actually done it myself.
Then again, it's not hard to see why. In an age where fruit is flown in from all corners of the globe whatever the season and high-quality preserves on the shelf are a dime a dozen, it certainly isn't necessary - at least, as long as you don't live on a farm and have truckloads of ripe fruit which would go to waste otherwise. And then there's the cost, which for someone relying on markets is no trivial matter. But I also admit to having a certain amount of trepidation where the preserving process itself is concerned, which seems to me just this side of alchemy: carefully-controlled temperatures, specific sugar-fruit-pectin ratios, precise boiling times to achieve the proper consistency... Or maybe it just has to do with my fear of the sealing-in-jars part which if done improperly can result in anything from unsightly mold to quite deadly bacteria. In any case, like preparing live lobsters and making perfect puff pastry, fruit-preserving was filed away with all those things I always planned to conquer someday. Which is why I was as surprised as anyone to find myself last week churning out two batches of fragrant fruit butter.
Fruit butter is, as far as I know, a uniquely North American product, and one which unlike other New World exports (e.g. pickled jalapeños, peanut butter and Fluff®) has never made it onto foreign shelves. To be fair, it's probably not different enough from other types of jams, compotes and conserves to warrant international attention, but I personally like to think of it as occupying its own special little niche in the fruit-preserve taxonomy. So what exactly is it? It is not, as you may be surmising if you've never come across it before, a mixture of fruit and dairy fat. It is simply sweetened, pureed fruit - any fruit, in fact, although apple butter is by far the most common and the most traditional. Invented by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived on American shores in the eighteenth century, apple butter was originally used as a method for preserving the fall harvest (it has excellent keeping qualities due to its low water content) and was made by boiling apples with cider until they reduced to an intense, caramelly puree. I don't know whether spices were present in this proto-butter or not, but these days just about every jar of apple butter has them, usually cinnamon, cloves and other rich, wintry aromatics. Apart from that, the most telltale signs that you are dealing with a butter and not a jam or conserve are that it is considerably less sweet, while the flavor is more intense and the texture thicker, smoother and more substantial.
Although I have always been a fan of the original, what got me thinking outside the spiced-apple box was in fact a gift sent to me from Montreal by the lovely AJ and Michelle of one of my favorite blogs, an endless banquet. Among the mouthwatering treasures they sent was a delicate, hand-labeled jar of Michelle's pear-vanilla-bourbon butter, an ingenious concoction she has been selling to great acclaim at local Montreal markets. I was so smitten with this silky, not-too-sweet yet robust marriage of flavors (and not living close enough to Montreal to get a regular fix from Michelle's supplies) that I started thinking about how I could play with this idea myself, combining fruit purees and aromatics in unexpected ways, and before I knew it I was simmering, straining, and jarring the results. And wouldn't you know it, after all my years of hesitation, I couldn't believe how little effort is actually required to capture these fleeting tastes of summer, how flexible the recipes are, and how endless the possibilities. Not to mention how spectacular the results. The only part I haven't figured out is how to make sure these delicious butters survive more than a week or two in my cupboard, since in none of the recipes I consulted do they tell you how to preserve your self-restraint.
p.s. I'd love to know: What do you preserve and how?
Peach and Lemongrass Butter
There is something so rustic and honest about fruit butters, and excellent results can be had without any need to fret over temperatures, ratios and weights, as just about any puree that is sweetened to your liking and cooked until thick enough to mound on a spoon will fit the bill. Of course I would encourage you to can yourself a jar or three, but even if you're not ready to take the canning leap, these recipes make small batches which will survive happily in a closed container in your fridge for a few weeks. But if you want to learn more about canning, this is a good place to start. Oh, and in case you're wondering, fruit butters are excellent spread thickly on toast, swirled into yogurt and used just about anywhere you'd use jam.
Yield: Both of these recipes will yield about 3 cups of butter; the recipes can easily be increased for larger quantities.
about 2 lbs (1 kg) ripe, fragrant white or yellow peaches
1 cup (200g) sugar, or to taste
4 fat stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Blanch the peaches by submerging them (in batches, if necessary) for 1 minute and then transferring them to a bowl of ice water. When cool, peel, pit and slice them. Combine them with the sugar in a large bowl, and let macerate at room temperature for a couple of hours, during which time the peaches should give up a lot of juice. Strain the peaches, reserving the juice. Place the juice, the sliced lemongrass and 1 cup water in a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and let simmer until you have a thick, fragrant syrup, about 30 minutes. Strain the syrup, discarding the lemongrass. Return the syrup to the pot and stir in the peaches. Simmer over medium-low heat until the peaches are completely soft, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree, either in a blender or with an immersion (stick) blender. Return to the pot and stir in the lemon juice. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the puree thickens to the consistency of applesauce, about half an hour. Taste the mixture and add more sugar or lemon juice as desired. Remove from the heat and transfer to a closed container (or, if you're comfortable with canning, fill into jars and process in your normal way). If not canning, refrigerate immediately and consume within a couple of weeks.
Blueberry and Lavender Butter
a generous 1 lb (500g) blueberries
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 cup (200g) sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons dried culinary lavender
3 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
Combine the blueberries, apple, and sugar in a large bowl, coarsely crushing some of the blueberries, and let macerate at room temperature for a couple of hours. The blueberries should give up a lot of juice. Transfer to a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil over medium-high. Turn down the heat and let simmer until the fruits are completely soft, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree, either in a blender or with an immersion (stick) blender. Return to the pot and stir in the lavender and lemon juice. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the puree thickens to the consistency of applesauce, about half an hour (the exact time will depend on the water content of your blueberries). Taste the mixture and add more sugar or lemon juice as desired. Remove from the heat, force the mixture through a sieve while still hot, and transfer to a closed container (or, if you're comfortable with canning, fill into jars and process in your normal way). If not canning, refrigerate immediately and consume within a couple of weeks.