Bless Your Spoon: Mennonite apple butter boiling

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2022

By Stephanie Williams Dean

Have car, will travel. Recently, I navigated hairpin curves down into a mountain valley near Stuarts Draft, Virginia, for what turned out to be a cultural immersion weekend. My friend, Pete, extended a personal invitation to the Mennonite apple butter boiling. The event delivered all promised — an incredible experience from beginning to end.

Held in the backyard of an old Mennonite schoolhouse, 22 huge kettles of steamy, sputtering apple butter boiled. Surrounding the field of copper cauldrons were vineyards lush with grapes, blankets of cornfields and spectacular mountain views.

A former Marine, Pete received basic training in perfecting the boiling working with an old timer named Herschel for 5 years, until the man passed away at 93. Pete’s been the sergeant in charge for the last 15 years of the 20 or more in which he’s participated, and participants know the drill. At dawn, the process begins. Everyone pitches in, laying the split logs, and propane torches light the fires. The entire process was carried out like military exercises — each in step with the others.

Solid-copper kettles were handmade by coppersmiths from Fincastle, Virginia, and some made by the Amish in Ohio — a few are more than 150 years old. Like wood stoves with open kettle stands, the jacketed kettles burn two-thirds less firewood.

Back in the day, Fitzgerald Orchard in Tyro, Virginia, donated the apples. Two hundred bushels were handpicked then processed to make applesauce. The process was housed in an old World War II cannery until being shut down a couple of years ago. Today the boiling begins with applesauce. A man in Floyd County owns an orchard and combines Gala and Golden Delicious apples in the sauce. Pete approves of the Galas for the bit of tartness they provide.

The boiling began with 155 gallon buckets of applesauce, equivalent to 155 bushels of apples — a bushel is one bucket. In one large kettle, 150 gallons of apple cider are boiled down. The water is boiled out, leaving a sweet syrup. The cider syrup is added to each of the other kettles. After the fires are lit, there’s a stirrer for every kettle. They can’t stop stirring, or the butter will scorch and burn the kettle. A scraper comes by every so often to scrape the sides. After the cider’s been added and 4 to 5 more hours have passed, sugar, cinnamon and allspice are added. More sugar is added until desired sweetness has been obtained — that’s Pete’s job. Imagine tasting 22 kettles of apple butter. He’s earned the privilege but deserves a medal.

The original recipe called for 60 pounds of sugar added to a kettle — talk about sugar shock. Thank goodness they cut that in half. Once the sugar has been added, the apple butter begins to caramelize and turn brown. There are also five kettles without sugar. Unflavored gelatin is added to these kettles to help thicken it up — otherwise, it would be like applesauce. The non-sugar kettles come off early, but someone continues to watch the sugar kettles for moisture and consistency. Pete tests the readiness by scraping the sides of the kettle. If the mixture pulls away from the side, it’s getting close to apple butter. Another test is to take a copper pan, put some apple butter in the middle, and cut it in half. You’re looking for water to wick away from the bulk of apple butter. You have to keep boiling the moisture out of it. By the end of the day, the Mennonites had jarred over 2,200 quarts of apple butter in this all-day event.

“Have you ever tasted an apple butter milkshake?” asked Pete. I never had, but the thought of it tasted good. “It’s like you’re eating a mouthful of fall.”

Clear to me was the fact Mennonites value good food and fellowship. Multiple pots of various styles of homemade chili, baked potatoes and fixin’s, a delicious three-bean salad — made better with fresh green beans — and tender, moist corn muffins were served. Dessert was a variety of cakes, pies, and cookies, many flavored with fresh apples. Mint tea was my beverage of choice.

I gave thanks and said my goodbyes. I ascended the valley and headed a few miles down the road to a mountain peak for an overnight stay. The red chair lifts at Wintergreen Resort hung eerily still. Occasionally, I heard scraping metals as chairs rocked in the wind. I enjoyed breathtaking views from the restaurant, just as much as bites of my Chop-Chop Salad between sips of Sangria. When snow arrives, the landscape will appear much different — densely dotted with skiers. But at that moment, I was in heaven.

The Mennonites have a rich history of hard work, love for music, close fellowship and ministry to the social and spiritual needs of others. On Sunday, the local Mennonite church held services. The pastor preached directly from the Bible, reading 1 Timothy: 3-4: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work — which is by faith.”

Paul’s letter urged Timothy to oppose false teachers motivated by their egos and desires. They would lead the church away from the message of the gospel. False teachers were motivated by desires for power and prestige. False teaching promoted disputes and controversies — taking attention away from the life and work of Jesus Christ. The sermon takeaway was clear; relationships are not to be overvalued at the expense of the truth. As the service closed, we sang loving words from the hymnal.

“l love Thee because thou has loved me

And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree,

I love Thee for wearing thou on thy brow

If ever I loved thee, my Jesus tis now.

I’ll love you in life, I will love thee in death

And promise Thee as long as thou lends me breath

And say when the death dew is cold on my brow

If ever I loved thee, my Jesus tis now.”

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

• 8 cups unpeeled, cored, chopped cooking apples

• 1 cup apple cider

• 1 cup sugar

• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/4 tsp ground cloves

In a crock pot, add apples and cider. Cook while covered for 10-12 hours. In a food processor, grind until pureed. In a large saucepan, add pureed mixture. Add sugar, cinnamon and cloves to mixture. Cook while covered at low heat for 1 hour. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Yield: 1 quart

24-Hour Cooked Apple Butter

• 12 cups peeled, cored, chopped cooking apples

• 6 cups sugar

• ¾ cup vinegar

• 3 tsp. cinnamon

Cook apples. Add remaining ingredients and cook in slow cooker 20-24 hours or longer until done.

Stovetop Applesauce Butter

• 7 cups applesauce

• 9 cups sugar

• 1 tsp ground cinnamon

• 1 tsp. allspice

• ½ tsp. ground cloves

• 1 box Sure-Jell

In a large, heavy saucepan, add applesauce. Stir in cinnamon, allspice, cloves and Sure-Jell. Heat and while constantly stirring, bring to a full boil for 1 minute. Add sugar and while constantly stirring, bring back to a full boil for 1 minute. Pour in sterilized jars and seal. (Recipe from Barger Family Recipes)

Apple Butter Milkshake

• 2 scoops vanilla ice cream

• 3 Tbsp. apple butter

• Whole milk

Add 2 scoops of ice cream to a blender with 3 Tbsp. of apple butter. Add enough milk to cover and blend until desired consistency.

Easy Apple Pie Filling Cake

• 3 beaten eggs

• 1 cup sugar

• 3 Tbsp. softened, salted butter

• 1 cup all-purpose flour

• 1 tsp. baking powder

• 1/8 tsp. salt

• ¼ cup whole milk

• 15 oz. apple pie filling


• 1 stick melted salted butter

• 1 cup whole milk

• 1 cup sugar

In a mixer bowl, beat eggs. Add sugar and mix well. Add butter and mix well. Add flour, baking powder, and salt while alternating with milk. Mix well. Pour into a well-greased and floured 8×8 baking dish. Evenly spread apple pie filling over top of cake batter. Bake in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes. Drizzle with syrup while still hot. For the syrup, in a saucepan, melt butter. Add milk and sugar and bring to a soft boil for 15 minutes while occasionally stirring. Drizzle syrup over hot cake when it comes out of the oven. Serve warm.

Apple Pie Crunch

• ¾ cup packed brown sugar

• ½ cup sugar

• 4 heaping Tbsp. all-purpose flour

• 4 diced, small Granny Smith apples

• 2 beaten eggs

• 1 can sweet condensed milk

• ¼ cup melted, salted butter

• ½ tsp. each cinnamon/nutmeg

• 1/8 tsp. salt

• 1 deep dish pie crust

Crunch Topping

• ½ cup packed brown sugar

• ½ cup all-purpose flour

• ¼ cup cold, cubed butter

• ½ cup crushed granola

• Beaten egg white

In a bowl, combine brown sugar, sugar and flour. Mix well. Add apples and mix well. Set aside. In a mixer bowl, beat eggs. Add condensed milk, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Mix well. Add apple mixture to the egg mixture. Mix well. Place pie crust in a deep dish. Brush bottom with beaten egg white. Pour apple mixture into pie crust. For the topping, in a processor, combine brown sugar, flour with cold butter. Pulse mix it until of crumb consistency. Stir in crushed granola and mix well. Evenly sprinkle topping over pie. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Don’t let edges over brown.