No matter how rich or busy or important or tired or happy or sad or cranky a person is, mention homemade pie and they almost always light up. Why is that?
There are as many answers to that as there are kinds of pie, but the thing I keep coming back to is this: the basics are important.
It's so easy to get wrapped into the busy-ness, to feel important by running around and never stopping, to go after more-better-faster-bigger-now. Eventually the small mundane parts of life become neglected. I know I struggle with that balance. It's more fun to go to the beach than it is to sit at home and fold the laundry.
That's why I wrote Lucie's Kitchen and why I started The Last Jar. There's a joy in the everyday that is so quiet and subtle that we often overlook it. It requires us to slow down and it requires us to work. It's not shiny and new, but it's what brings us real joy when we look back. I want us all to remember that.
Which brings me back to pie. And homemade cookies, or that special jar of pickles that nobody else makes. The nostalgia around these things isn't just about the food. It's about the person that took the time to stop their importance and practice the basics to bring joy to the people around them. Think about your childhood. What made you feel safe and happy and loved?
Lucie's Kitchen is officially for sale today. The vintage recipes stick to the basics, and when you cook them they will remind you of another time when people had time to take. I hope it will take you home again.
One day in November, the final canning session for the season was over. Ten quarts of applesauce would have to do, stretching themselves through the winter months for our family of 5. It’s not what I’d hoped for, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.
The jars watched me from their perch on the kitchen racks, waiting for me to finish the last chore: carrying them down to the basement pantry. I finally relented to their stares, grabbing a random armful of jars on my trips to the laundry room.
As I opened the old slatwood cupboard doors that shield the pantry shelves, I expected to see an empty space. With the start of a full time job this year followed by a midsummer move, this wasn’t my most productive canning season. I had, in fact, been hosting a bit of a pity party about everything I didn’t accomplish this year: jam, tomatoes, pickles (thankfully I was a little overzealous with my Picklepalooza last year), let alone time for trips to the beach and the zoo with my kids, knitting, gardening, my plans for sheep…. sometimes I wonder if my “want to” list will ever live up to my expectations.
But as I reached up to place the jars on the top shelf, I was surprised to see that the cupboard was almost full. Relish, salsa verde, and a surprising amount of peaches. When did that happen?
I scanned the shelves in front of me and the answer came: every jar was hard foughtthis year.
There were no lazy days meandering the farmers market or afternoons driving to u-pick berry farms on a whim. Rather, I power shopped at the farmers market on my half-hour lunch and hogged the work refrigerator until it was time to go home.
It wasn’t easy. Canning this year made me yearn for the slower days when I had lots of time and little money, when I savored every bite of my day. This year I straddled the fence between the fast lane and the homemaker, gripping tight to the handful of hours in-between to preserve my ideal. Sometimes I thought it would be better to give in, to just buy the damn food and stop trying so hard.
But then what?
But then I would have missed the joy: the memory of pecking our way around the back roads to find the peach farm on our way home from a weekend up north, and later, the warmth of my husband and kids pitching in to help can the fuzzy orbs in the evenings.
Absent would be the pride at the dinner table whenever a jar of jam or salsa was popped open, or the relief on those days when I hadn’t made it to the grocery store yet and could send applesauce to school.
I would have missed out, too, on meeting new farm friends at the farmer’s market, and entertaining co-workers with my armfuls of produce. “What did you buy today, Becky?” was something I looked forward to every Wednesday, as well as passing out the spare cucumber or apple.
I didn’t get to everything on my list this year, but it was more than nothing.
This year was hard. Not bad, just a whole lot of work that hasn’t produced fruit yet. It will, I’m confident, but sometimes when you are in the middle of pursuing a dream, when it’s all work and little reward, it’s easy to lose sight of joy. It pays to take a step back, scan your progress so far, and recognize your progress instead of your missed goals.
You might be surprised at what you see.
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Have you ever taken longer than expected to finish a project, only for it to turn out better than anything you’ve ever done before?
That’s what happened to me with applesauce a few years ago.
First, let’s talk about the basics. Applesauce is a good gateway to canning because it is fairly easy: apples, water, and sugar, cooked until it reaches the consistency you like. Really, that’s all there is to it.
Then one year the women in my family passed around a new trick: crock pot applesauce. No scorching, no stirring, hassle-free applesauce. Even better.
But what if. . . .
The crock pot sparked an idea: what about the oven? The crock pot method made small batches over many hours-- good for a couple of quarts at a time, but not the bushels I wanted to put up for the year. So one afternoon I piled all the apples I could fit into a big roasting pan, covered it, and let it cook. I didn’t even add sugar.
And it worked!
But by the time the applesauce was finished it was late and I didn’t have the energy to bottle it up and process jars. So, feeling a little less-than-adequate for not finishing what I started, I put the entire roasting pan in the refrigerator to keep safe overnight.
This is where things get interesting.
The next day the roasting pan full of cold applesauce went back into the oven to reheat so I could jar it up. Of course, I got a little distracted and the pan ended up staying in past the “heating up” stage and well into “re-cooking”. But a funny thing happened: it started to smell gooood and the applesauce turned a brownish color (can you say “caramelized sugar?”).
The result: Awesomesauce.
When my husband took a bite, his eyes got wide, and he said “I love you.”
We aren’t sure what cooling then reheating does, but simply baking the applesauce extra-long isn’t quite the same. Cooling must seems to separate the natural sugar from the water, which then caramelizes when cooked a second time.
Awesomesauce makes it way to our kitchen every year now. It’s similar to apple butter, but I don’t add any cloves or sugar to it. And I don’t always make applesauce this way: it takes a while and sometimes I need to just get things done. But sometimes, when you think you’ve failed, maybe you are just letting your ordinary cook into something awesome.