This Month On The Homestead: Apple Cider and Pumpkins
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here.
October is, without a doubt, leaf month. Gone are the monochromatic, dewy greens–all replaced by the wildfire hues of fall. Even our blackberry bush leaves turned a burnt amber in solidarity with their taller brethren.
Peak leaf–when nature’s colors are at their zenith–took place the first weekend of October. The hills of our little town were punctuated by flaming reds, yellows, and oranges that jutted ostentatiously among the effervescent green pines.
A herd of cows that grazes on a sloping hill near our home enjoyed the best view of all, situated as they were in a virtual theater-in-the-round of leaf colors most of us would pay good money to see. Yet the cows, unbothered by this transmutation of the trees, grazed on. Heads down, bent on their purpose, cows are among the more unconcerned, zen residents among us. And it was with this backdrop of fall’s enduring, but always surprising, palette that we relished our second October on the homestead.
The Last Of The Garden
October heralded the final month for our vegetable garden as our first frost rolled in mid-month. We savored our final meals fresh from our land: Mr. Frugalwoods’ Asian-inspired spicy stir-fry of kale, chard, beans, and hot peppers, all grown mere feet from our kitchen. I harvested the final few cucumbers, which Mr. FW ably pickled and canned. Babywoods and I gathered up the final green beans on the vine, and picked every last tomato and pepper the day before our first frost.
In our classic laid-back (some might say lazy) fashion, I
forgot about left the un-ripened tomatoes in a leftover cottage cheese container on our counter with a promise to research how to store un-ripened tomatoes and peppers. Lucky for me, before I could get around to googling this, they up and ripened themselves! That’s my kind of gardening. We’re still munching on the remaining tomatoes and peppers as they slowly ripen indoors. A final jolt of foodie summertime to take us into winter.
Mr. FW also harvested our adorable little crop of ten wee baby pumpkins! They grew quite well this year, thanks in large part to the cardboard he put down underneath them, which kept the invasive weeds at bay. Babywoods found true love with these little pumpkins and she hugged each of them and then carried them around the house with her for weeks. I found her reading a story to one of the pumpkins and another pumpkin carefully placed on the couch with a blanket around it. My little farm girl. I have to break it to her that the pumpkin’s days are numbered as they’re destined to become pumpkin stew in the very near future.
But the most audacious, the most beautiful, the most delectable, and certainly the most labor-intensive (funny how those things often go together… ) harvest of all were our…
We have one early ripening variety of apples, called Red Duchess, which we harvested back in September. These apples grow to the size of what I call “grocery store” apples and they’re almost uniformly round and lovely. I have no idea why this tree is so darn happy, but it produces amazing fruit every year (well, all two years we’ve been here).
Mr. FW judiciously pruned all of our apple trees this past spring (after attending several workshops on “how to prune apple trees”) and we definitely experienced an increased yield from all of our trees. Since the Red Duchess apples are so large and round, we used every last one of them in one of the following three ways:
- Eaten as is! Delicious right off the tree. I’m pretty sure Babywoods ate about 19 of them while Mr. FW and I harvested the tree. Every time I turned around she had another apple in her mouth…
- Dehydrated! We have this dehydrator, which I highly recommend, and we use an apple peeler/corer that we found on the side of the road to peel and core the apples into rounds. I then slice the rounds and place them on the trays of the dehydrator. I don’t add anything to these apples whatsoever–they are fresh, pure, dried fruit goodness. To preserve them for the winter, I freeze them in our deep freeze. Dried apples are the perfect toddler (and mama and daddy and anyone else) snack.
- Apple butter! Mr. FW peeled, cored, and chopped a bunch-o-apples and stuffed them into our crock pot along with some molasses, brown sugar, nutmeg, clove, and salt. There they simmered for 12 hours and cooked down into a jammy consistency. He then used his stick blender to make a smooth, creamy sauce, which he canned and preserved. Delicious. It’s not a very sweet concoction, it’s more of a deep, smoky, resonant apple flavor.
All the rest of our apple trees–I’d estimate we have about 15 to 20–produced what you’d call cider apples. Many of these apples are edible right off the tree (and we ate plenty), but they’re all smaller, jagged, and not round, which means they’re not conducive to being dehydrated or made into apple butter as you can’t get them peeled and cored in any sort of efficient manner. When your trees give you cider apples, you must make cider!!!!
As I shared a few months ago, we broke down and bought ourselves a cider press this year in order to facilitate the making of cider. Last year, inundated with apples, we tried our best to borrow a press, visit someone with a press, or buy a used press, all of which failed. In a desire to actually use our apples this year, buying a press made perfect sense. For those of you similarly blessed with apples, we purchased the 36 liter Maximizer Fruit/Apple Cider Press with a grinder and stainless steel basket for $691.93 from Pleasant Hill Grain. And I highly recommend it! Easy to use, easy to clean, and a large basket capacity.
Turns out, making cider, as you might imagine, is a fairly in-depth process, especially when you’ve never done it before. To help us out, we invited
conned some friends from Cambridge into coming up for a weekend of “homestead fun,” which means we roped them into doing manual labor with us. Be forewarned: anytime your rural friends invite you for a weekend of “fun farm activities,” they really just need your help with chores. Lo and behold, we urbanites figured it out and managed to make us some darn tasty cider. The steps to get from apples on the tree to cider in your glass are as follows.
How To Make Apple Cider
1) Wait for the apples to ripen. The easiest way to know they’re ripe is when a bunch of apples spontaneously fall out of the tree. Voila! They’re ripe.
2) Pick the apples. This is the most time-consuming, toughest aspect of the job. Apples do not just come down on their own (except for those first few harbingers of ripeness). They must be picked. For apples on lower branches, we simply plucked by hand. For apples on higher branches, we use these handy dandy fruit pickers (a necessity for ensuring you can reach all of your fruit and much safer than teetering on a ladder).
3) Store the apples. We picked some of our apples several weeks in advance of making cider and stored them in plastic, vented crates in our basement. I acquired these crates for free from our town dump and washed them out with water and dish soap. They originally held flower bulbs, but they work perfectly well for storing apples.
4) Sort the apples. Any apples that are too worm-filled, rotten, or appear to have been bitten by a mammal (human or otherwise, ahem, Babywoods… ) get tossed into the compost pile. Fortunately, you can make cider from very dented, craggy, hole-y apples, so most of them went into the “keep” pile.
5) Wash the apples. Next, we dumped a bunch of apples into a galvanized steel bucket, which Babywoods and our friends’ kids gleefully filled with water from the hose (well, Babywoods more sprayed everyone with the hose… ). We sloshed the apples around in there for a bit to rinse them off and the kids did their best to fully immerse themselves in the water. As we did this, it occurred to me that this was the origin for the classic pastime of bobbing for apples! I aspire to mostly live inside a Norman Rockwell painting, so you know, life goal achieved.
6) Get the cider press ready! It took Mr. FW several hours to assemble the cider press so thankfully, he’d done this in advance. On the day of pressing we lined the press’ steel basket with a mesh cheese cloth to strain out the apple juice.
7) Load apples into the press and grind. My friend and I loaded apples into the top of the press–where the grinder is–as our husbands took turns grinding the apples using the wheel located to the side of the press. Don’t worry, gender equality reigned and we switched spots with the guys for the second bucket load of apples. The kids did their level best to turn the wheel, but it is no easy feat. Newsflash: apples are hard to grind!
8) Press the apple mash into cider. After filling up the basket with apple mash (the chunks of apple that result from their trip through the grinder), we took the grinder off the top of the press and bolted on the press, which is basically a flat, circular steel plate. Then, the four adults took turns turning the crank to press the apples down. As we pressed, apple juice began to flow out of the bottom of the basket, through the spigot on the press, and into the food-grade bucket we had waiting. It literally presses the apples into cider! So cool. This is where we saw the utility of the mesh cheesecloth–it prevented things like stems and seeds from seeping into the cider.
9) Drink some cidery goodness. We all took turns filling up a glass with fresh cider and savoring the fruits of our labors. The kids were especial pros at this step of the process and Babywoods nearly dove headfirst into the cider bucket in a quest for “moah cidah peeeeeez.”
If you’re making juice cider, that is to say non-alcoholic cider, this is basically where the process ends. You can then freeze the cider or can it (it won’t last forever in the refrigerator) and enjoy drinking it straight. No need to add sugar, preservatives, or nothin’. We kept out a small amount of cider to drink as juice, but the bulk of our cider will be transformed into hard cider. I’ll detail that process next in my aptly named…
How To Make Hard Apple Cider
1) Transfer the raw cider into a carboy. Mr. FW purchased several glass carboys (large glass containers for making fermented beverages) on Craigslist for this purpose, which was ideal since they’re pretty expensive brand new. Using a large food funnel and the help of our friend, he carefully poured the cider from the bucket through another mesh food strainer and into the carboy. We filled up three carboys of cider totaling 15 gallons, which is, uhh, A LOT of cider. Local friends, prepare yourselves for cider at our house this winter!
2) Add yeast! Yeast is what makes the cider go from virgin to alcoholic and, in our inaugural year of cider-making, Mr. FW decided to test out three different yeasts to see which tastes best in the finished product. We experimented with two different methods of adding yeast and three different varieties of yeast to see which ends up tasting the greatest. Here are the three methods Mr. FW employed in our three carboys:
In the first carboy, Mr. FW added yeast immediately (called “pitching the yeast”). For this batch, he used Safcider yeast.
- In the second and third carboys, Mr. FW first added campden tablets to kill the natural yeast, waited 48 hours, and then pitched the yeasts. For the second batch, he used Danstar Belle Saison dry yeast (owning to my enduring love of farmhouse Saisons).
- In the third batch, he added Wyeast 4766 Cider yeast.
3) Cap and cover. Next, Mr. FW put fermentation airlocks on all three carboys, which allow CO2 to escape, but keep potentially bad stuff in the air from infiltrating the brew. The carboys were then nestled atop blankets in my office (in case you’re wondering, yes, my office smells amazing). He borrowed Frugal Hound’s doggie heating pad to put underneath the carboys to keep them warm. A whole lot cheaper than specially-made fermenting heating pads! He also wrapped the carboys in blankets to protect them from sunlight and there they sit.
4) Wait. Mostly the process of fermenting cider is one of waiting. We will now patiently wait three to six months for our cider to ferment. I say three to six months because the cider might not be palatable at the three month mark. We’ll give it a taste at that time and, if it’s awful, we’ll leave it another few months in the hopes that the taste’ll improve. TBD as we also potentially have three large batches of totally gross hard cider. We won’t know until we try!
5) Bottle or keg. I’ll discuss this exciting activity in greater detail when it actually happens, but briefly… Once the cider is finished with the fermentation process, we’ll need to either bottle it or keg it in order to preserve it until we drink it all. To be determined which method we employ, but fear not, I will keep you posted!
Here ends my
windbaggy detailed description of making cider! The joy of doing these things for the first time is one of the primary reasons we moved out here from the city. Mr. FW and I want to learn every day. We want to try new things, to fail, to succeed, and to keep on trying.
Having the time and the space (not to mention the free raw resource of apples!) to continually experiment is one of the more fulfilling aspects of living on 66 acres in the middle of nowhere. I’m grateful everyday and I wouldn’t trade it for all the cities in the world.
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Onward to November, frugal comrades!
How was October on your own personal homestead?
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