By Sarah Heffner.
Title image: Cooking apple butter, circa 1905. Photo by H. Winslow Fegley; Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.
Living off the land
Apples were one of the earliest horticultural crops grown in Pennsylvania by European settlers. An orchard of one to six acres was planted on each homestead as soon as land was cleared, because years would pass before the trees would begin to bear fruit. Apple trees are typically grafted or budded to have a named variety because apples do not grow “true to type” from seed. The earliest Europeans primarily planted seeds, because imported nursery stock from Europe was expensive. (Stevenson W. Fletcher, Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life 1640-1840, PA Historical and Museum Commission, 1950, p. 208)
A 1792 Bucks County farmer wrote that: “Every farm has more or less orcharding; an average of eight acres is allowed for that use, the product thereof in apples and cider cannot be worth less that thirty dollars.” (Fletcher, 209)
The harvest from the early apple orchards was eaten fresh, dried for winter use, and the excess fed to livestock; but the largest portion of the crop was use for cider making. Some of the cider was used for making apple butter and vinegar, but a lot of the cider was fermented in a cold storage area and later consumed at almost every meal. Cider makers generally used whatever mixture of apples was available but preferred a mixture of sweet and tart varieties. Preferred cider varieties included Baldwin, McIntosh, Northern Spy, Rome Beauty, Smokehouse, and Stayman Winesap.
Early eighteenth century cider production involved pounding (also called milling) apples in a wooden or stone trough with a “stamper”, and then placing the crushed apples (called pomace) in a large basket to drain. Quantities of dried apples called “Schnitz” were prepared by hanging strings of quartered apples in the kitchen fireplace. The dried apples were take to market or used for barter in the early days of Pennsylvania.
By 1745, cider mills were beginning to be constructed. The harvested fruit was unloaded into the cider mill that had two wooden cylinders working in opposite directions; crushing the apples between them. Powered by a horse walking in a circle, the cylinders could process a cartload of apples in about three hours. (Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, The Macmillan Company, 1931, p. 161 and Fletcher, p. 411)
The pomace would fall from the cylinders into a large vat and from there it was shoveled onto the grooved cider press platform. The first layer of pomace was covered with clean rye straw and this would be repeated until the layers were about three feet high and then it was covered with a top board. Pressure was applied until the juice was extracted and put into jugs or casks. After the cider was produced, apple butter could be made with the cider and diced and peeled apples. Cider consumption decreased during the nineteenth century as people began drinking more water, milk, coffee, and tea. The Prohibition Act of 1920 further diminished cider production because of the restrictions on making or consuming alcoholic beverages.
Dry-houses for schnitz production were found on family farmsteads in the late eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. These were small buildings that were either a portable frame structures or constructed of stone or brick. A stove was placed in the center of the dryhouse and wooden trays with slats of thin wood or wire mesh were inserted in the upper sides of the dryhouse.
The slices of apple schnitz were dried from twenty-four to forty eight hours and then placed in paper sacks or glass jars for storage. Vegetables like corn, string beans, and squash as well as herbs were also dried in the dryhouses. Schnitz was also dried in bake ovens at the end of a daylong baking session.
Later on in the nineteenth century after farms became well established, summer kitchens – multi-purpose buildings used for domestic chores during the summer months – were used to cut, pare, and dry apples for schnitz. Schnitz is well known in Pennsylvania German culture as a primary ingredient in pies and schnitz-und-knepp (dried apples with dumplings). The recipes for this dish vary a bit but the basic ingredients are ham, dried apples, and potatoes boiled together with dumplings added shortly before serving. See below for a recipe.
Cooking a quantity of apple butter meant a social occasion. Many hands could be used to accomplish peeling, coring, and cutting bushels of apples. Friends and family would gather to peel and quarter apples.
The October 15, 1838 issue of the Farmer’s Cabinet recorded apple butter proportions of three bushels of apples to two barrels of fresh cider. The cider was boiled in a copper kettle to about one half the volume and then the diced apples were added. Traditional spices including cinnamon, cloves, or sassafras. This was then boiled “briskly, stirring constantly until the apple butter was thickened “thick as hasty pudding.” The resulting product was ladled into crocks, covered with paper, and stored in the attic for winter use. (The Pennsylvania Dutchman, Vol. 2, No. 1: May 1, 1950, p. 1)
Bauman’s Apple Butter
Today few family-owned cider and apple butter businesses are still in operation, but Bauman’s Apple Butter is thriving in the village of Sassamansville in upper Montgomery County. Harvey and Kathy Bauman operate the factory.
Harvey’s Mennonite grandfather, John Bauman, originally a carriage maker by trade, purchased a cider press in 1892 for $432. He soon began producing apple butter using his wife’s recipe that had been handed down from her Schwenkfelder ancestors. Today, the same cider press is still in use although it has been modified and most of the wooden pieces are now stainless steel. Modern food processing regulations also require the cider to be flash pasteurized. Still, the atmosphere in the apple butter factory reminds one of another era with lidded copper apple butter kettles and the old fashioned cash register in their shop.
Five bushels of apples and 80 gallons of cider are cooked for seven hours to produce a 20-gallon batch of apple butter. During the peak of the season, 500-800 bushels of apples are pressed for cider and another 400 pounds of apple are used for apple butter. They use a mixture of sweet and tart apples from local growers.
The Bauman’s produce many fruit butters along with apple butter, including blueberry, cherry, peach, plum, pumpkin, and strawberry-rhubarb. Bauman’s factory is located in the center of Sassamansville on the main street (Hoffmansville Road). The sign in the front of the building announces apple butter and custom log sawing (another enterprise of Harvey). See their website baumanfamily.com for information on products and hours of operation.
Apple Butter Frolic Apple Pie
6 cups diced apples
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ tablespoon flour
1 ½ tablespoon butter
¾ tablespoon cinnamon
1 ½ tablespoon milk
unbaked pie shell and top crust for one 10” pie
Mix apples, sugar, flour, and cinnamon together until well blended. Place mixture in unbaked 10” pie shell. Add milk and dots of butter over the top. Add top crust. Bake in 400 degree oven for 1 hour or until done.
Goschenhoppen Festival Schnitz Pie
2 cups dried apples (schnitz)
2 cups water
2/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 orange rind, grated
1 unbaked 9 inch pie shell
sweet dough for top crust
Cook the apples in the water on low heat until they’re soft (about 45 minutes). Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Stir in the apples to mash them and add remaining ingredients. Pour into the pie shell, top with a lid of sweet dough, cut slits in the top, and bake for 45 minutes.
Goschenhoppen Festival Sweet Dough
1 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
Stir together flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and cream of tartar. Beat egg in a separate bowl, and then add to dry ingredients. Roll dough into a circle, using additional flour if it’s sticky, and use as a lid to top a pie or cut into strips to make a lattice top. (Enough for one top crust)
Schnitz und Knepp (Apples and Dumplings)
Boyertown Area Cookery, pp. 14-15
2 cups sweet schnitz (dried apples)
1 hock end of ham
Soak the schnitz in water overnight. Next day simmer the ham in water until soft, and the soaked schnitz and the water in which they were soaked, and boil together for about one hour. Drop knepp dough by spoonful into the fast-boiling stew. Cover tightly and steam for 15 minutes.
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup milk
2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Beat the eggs, butter, and milk. Sift dry ingredients and add to the first mixture. There should be just enough milk to make a fairly stiff batter.
Sarah (Wolfgang) Heffner is on staff at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville.