The September Food in Jars challenge was fruit butters. With summer grudgingly (very grudgingly, around here) yielding to fall, it’s hard to think of anything but apple butter. Me and most everyone else, I’m sure! I do try to choose projects that are outside of the norm, but there was really only one answer for me, this month.

I once spent a year working in Illinois, and in general, it was a pretty terrible year. But there are a few memories that make all the rest worthwhile. One is the weekend we collected buckets and buckets of apples from a friend’s apple tree, then spent an entire day filling the kitchen with the scent of cooking apple butter. We processed pounds and pounds of apples with an apple corer and a pair of old-school, cone-style canning sieves. While the apple puree cooked down, we sat on the porch over a creek and shared growlers of beer and good company.

This is the way to make apple butter: Time, company, and a celebration of fall.

All of that said, I have never been a huge fan of fruit butters. I secretly suspect that this is because I haven’t ever had a really good one. (Our apple butter endeavor produced fond, vivid memories, but a runny, unspectacular fruit spread.) So I set out this month to see if I could make an apple butter that would enchant me, and taste like the autumn I remembered.

What’s that? Did you say maple bourbon apple butter? How could I possibly choose something that sounds better than that? I can’t think of anything that conjures the flavors of fall better than that combination.

…okay. Also, I was way too excited about a recipe that did not necessitate peeling the apples. I own two different versions of those peeler/corer devices, but a lot of our local apples are the soft type that don’t peel well.

Happily, the week that I did this, I’d received a pound and a half of apples in my CSA share. I picked up the balance at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning. I had some errands to run before I could get started, but I was sure to get going early in the afternoon, to allow plenty of time for the apple butter to stew.

Kind of makes you want to go bobbing, doesn’t it?

Five pounds of apples didn’t look like that much in the sink. I think they magically multiplied once I had to core and chop them all, though. Pro: This gadget finally justified its existence:

And then you have to grab the slices and wrench them out individually, because the thing never cuts through the skin of the apple on the bottom. EVER.

Con: It still didn’t work any better than when I’ve used it to core individual apples for snacking. But it was faster than using a knife on all five pounds, so… well done, apple-corer. You get to continue to take up space in my drawer for another year.

Once the chopped apples were tucked into the pot to soften, I could properly appreciate their volume. There’s something about a pot full of fruit that makes me really happy.

My kitchen smelled amazing for hours.

After 45 minutes they were nice and soft, and I hit them with the immersion blender before putting them in the ov…. ummm, before transferring them to an oven-safe pot and THEN putting them in the oven. (What’s one more dish to wash on a canning day?) They already smelled so good! It was really hard not to just funnel the applesauce into jars, throw them in the fridge, and call it a day. I have definitely stopped short of my final product before. But I was determined to end up with apple butter. So into the oven the pot went, and then I waited, stirring the puree every 45 minutes.

And waited…

And waited…

I made a batch of pickled okra.

And waited…

And turned up the heat in the oven…

And… okay, look, apple butter, it is 10pm and I have to be up at 3:45 in the morning to run a 10k. This is all the time you get.

The butter had cooked down and darkened, but not as much as I expected, and I wasn’t getting the caramelized scent that I’d really been drooling in anticipation over while I waited. But a second pass with the immersion blender made it lovely and smooth, and far better already than the runny apple butter from that Illinois autumn. And even after I added the maple syrup, bourbon, and a little bit of extra bourbon, it had a really nice texture.

Important disclaimer: I did not also drink the bourbon. This time. I can’t promise that never happens.

I reached for the orange to zest–

Oh. Crap. That’s not an orange. That’s a really, really round lemon. BETRAYAL!

I wasn’t going to the store at 10pm on a race night, so I used the lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of orange juice – the best I could do. The extra liquid didn’t cause any consistency problems, and even though I ended up with an extra jar-and-a-half of apple butter, I was really pleased with what went in the jars. I didn’t think there could possibly be that much leeway left between “thicker” and “unspreadable.”

Also, I filled the jars a little too far. They needed more headspace.

What disappointed me a little was that I couldn’t taste the maple-y, bourbon-y flavor that I was expecting to come out in the final product. Maybe it’s just a more subtle flavor than I was expecting. Maybe I’m wrong, and it needed to concentrate down more for the added flavors to emerge. Maybe the substitution of lemon zest for orange zest brightened it up in a different way. The result tasted like it needed cinnamon to go in a direction — any direction. I was too nervous to experiment with spices on a first go-round, though. It seemed possible to me that some of the other flavors might come out as the butter sits on the shelf.

It wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and I hate when I run out of time and have to rush a final product. But I did end up with apple butter that was leaps and bounds better than what we made all those years ago, while still calling up all the nostalgia and wonderful memories of that day.

This is one I’d like to try again, with a tweaked recipe, more time, and, y’know, the correct citrus zest. In the meantime, my apple butter may not have met my expectations, but … maybe my expectations were unrealistic, too. I popped open a jar the next morning to try with fresh taste buds, and the flavor did seem to have matured a little. At least, I’m not a bit ashamed to give away what I ended up with:

A little bit of autumn in a jar.