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Grown-Up Applesauce with Caroline Van Slyke

In the kitchen with: Caroline Van Slyke

Making: Home-canned applesauce

Caroline Van Slyke greeted us from her Phoenix ranch-style home on a humid Saturday morning with bright red lips and the kind of ruffled polka-dotted apron that makes you think of what your grandmother might have looked like had you met her 60 years ago.

Van Slyke is a young, vibrant creative who works as an interior designer and has created a home filled with food and wildlife. The cecadas sang us through a white curved archway down a brick pathway and into Van Slyke's well-dressed home. Her one-story 1950's ranch style home in Arcadia is surrounded by tall shade trees and is a welcome shelter from the summer heat.

You might have attended one of Van Slyke's canning classes at Jam in Scottsdale like the one about canning salsa in March, or at one of her events held in her own home.  She is a self-taught home cook and offers tastes of her creations like her fruity floral rose petal jelly when she opens her home and backyard farm for peach picking and other such outdoor pleasures.

We asked Van Slyke to slip us some of her secrets on how to make canning easy for those of us who love to cook but might be afraid of the chemistry and making our beloved friends sick with a gifted jar of accidental botulism.

The applesauce recipe that will not make your friends ill -- and Francophilian love after the jump.

Van Slyke assures us it's easy. She's chosen to share with us her grown-up applesauce recipe containing hunks of apple instead of a smooth, completely blitzed mash of fall fruit.

Apple season in Phoenix will be in full swing by September.  The classic road trip to Willcox for apples takes place every August through November when apples are in season.  If you can't find a neighbor with an apple tree or can't make it to Willcox, the farmers' markets will carry some as well as local Whole Foods Markets, which carry sweet, crisp Arizona apples. 

As long as we stick to applesauce or something equally simple like canned salsa or pasta sauce, we've got it made, Van Slyke explains. With jam "there's chemistry involved" -- you've got to make sure it sets properly and "watch for the shine."

But with an applesauce recipe, all we have to do is worry about proper fruit to acid ratios and the satisfying "pop" of the jars upon cooling at the close of the canning dance that ultimately took us about two hours start-to-finish.

After a outdoor tour of her jardin potager -- the French term for a traditional kitchen garden -- thriving with herbs, squash, eggplant, trellised apple trees, pomegranates, and the most darling chicken coop on the block, we settle into her handsome little French-inspired kitchen to get started.

"Home art is dying," she tells us as she slides her jars and lids balanced on a cookie sheet into a 350 degree oven to "sterilize." We wondered where she learned this little known trick - more often recipes will instruct to boil jars. This is when she starts gushing over Rachel Saunders, author of The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.

"She's my mentor, and she doesn't even know it," she smiles, winking. "We go bed together at night."

We help her peel - with a paring knife, not a peeler - 12 pounds of Fuji apples. She laughs when we fret over paring skills and boasts that she does eveything the way our grandmothers used to do it and that she's got "everything but the pumps." As for Slyke, she's wearing red patent leather ornamented flats instead with her black day dress, apron and lipstick.

Van Slyke didn't grow up with a mother or grandmother who canned; in fact, she didn't partake in any of the urban homesteading activities that she sinks her hands into regularly these days. She grew up eating and even craving tuna noodle casserole where most of the ingredients came from a can.

That all changed when she purchased a Ball book years ago when her daughter was three months old.  She made berry jam. Many more recipes were tested throughout the years.  It was all part of her journey to create a life like those of Europeans who boisterously savor four hour dinners with their neighbors. She doesn't want to live a flat life disconnected from others. She loves the experience of living off the land and sharing it with people she loves.

We finish peeling, chopping and placing the apples into a large heavy pot to cook with a splash of water.  She saves the apple scraps in a small compost bin to toss outside for her chickens. The apples cook down until soft for about 10 minutes on medium heat, whilst Van Slyke stirs occasionally to encourage even cooking.

Van Slyke tells us about her Chicago roots and ASU education (a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting with a minor in Interior Design and an emphasis in Urban Planning -- phew!). She locates and adds "some" cinnamon (maybe a ½ teaspoon) and grates in "some" fresh nutmeg on a microplane (about ¼ to ½ teaspoon, we would guess). She drops in four ice cubes (tablespoons) of lemon juice that she'd squeezed and frozen during citrus season in the Valley.

The last ingredient added is 1 cup of unprocessed Mexican Zulka brand granulated sugar that has an yellowish white color, purchased at Food City. It's surprisingly less expensive than traditional processed white sugar from the supermarket -- love this tip.

She instructs us to take out ½ of the cooked apples and run the mixture through a food mill or blender (she chose the latter) that can then be added back to make a part-smooth, part-chunky applesauce. She decides after looking and tasting that she's going to search for her potato masher to further crush some of the larger apple pieces.

"I'm more of an artist, than a technician" she declares, "I go by feel, you know."

She brings out a wide-mouth funnel and starts ladling the finished hot applesauce into the sterilized glass jars up to the top, leaving a ¼" gap at the top.

She then calls for her daughter (who is now 14 years old) to bring her the red magnetic lid lifters and forceps, announcing, "I could deliver a baby with that thing." Her favorite source for canning supplies is your neighborhood Ace Hardware, where they have all the supplies and the best customer service. The "whole discovery kit" is about $20.

She wipes the rim of the glass clean with a clean damp towel and proceeds to use the red magnetic lid lifter to place the lid on a jar. She then uses a finger to push down firmly on the lid as she screws the lid ring tight. A few taps on the countertop to remove any internal air pockets, and she's ready to show us the other pot that's been bubbling away on the stove. She directs us to the large navy white speckled pot that is filled with an internal rack and boiling water. The forceps or "jar lifter" comes out as she tells us to carefully place the jars upright into the boiling water, not to let them tip and make sure that the water covers the lids of all the jars.

We give the boiling jars 10 minutes to themselves and we admire her kitchen window bunting she acquired at The Willows Home and Garden, talk about Van Slyke's skill at making homemade cheve (fresh goat cheese) too and start to think that there isn't anything this urban homesteader can't do. We learn about how she rolls the finished goat cheese logs in lavender harvested from her backyard.

We'd hoped to hear some of the jars "pop" but that doesn't always happen and only after the jars have cooled a bit. We happliy take a jar home, venturing out after a quick embrace into the buzzing heat and home for a taste-test, where the sealed jar is pried open even before it's cooled completely. The shreds of tender crisp apple are fragrant and sweet with a wink of nutmeg and cinnamon. The whole jar's gone in a glimmer.

Somehow having your hand held through a seemingly scary process, makes it very unscary and completely doable. As long as we have the right supplies and the ingredients ready to jump into that sterilized jar, we're ready to take on the next canning challenge. Van Slyke is holding more canning/cooking classes in her home and around town. Details on her website.

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Jennifer Woods
Contact: Jennifer Woods