March 20, 2009

Apple Butter Scones for Bertha

Every brawny woman has a little softness at her core, a little feather from which all the bones and muscles and metals spring forth. Some might even call that soft spot a "heart." For Bertha, this feather was revealed through the magic of apple butter. Apple butter?! Yes, apple butter--creamy, meditative, and sexy (in a 19th century, woodsy way) apple butter.

But, let me back up a bit. I have not yet properly introduced you to steely-and-stoic Bertha, and here I am speaking already of her "soft core." Bertha (or "Bertha Butts," as my brother and I referred to her), was our summertime babysitter. Every summer morning before work, my mother would drop me and my brother off at Bertha's back door. As soon as our car wove its way around her gravel driveway, Bertha's shadow-of-a-dog would race out of his doggy door like a deranged mop and greet us with a few snotty sniffs and growls. I was sure he was a gremlin disguised in a suit of black curls.

Slowly but surely, Bertha would arrive at the screen door, unsmiling. Her thighs were thick tree trunks made of living steel; they rooted firmly out of her home-sewn shorts like whole, muscular bodies of NFL players."Well, guys...I'll see you in a few hours," mom would say nervously, trying to act as though all of this--Bertha, the rat-dog, Bertha's garrison-like legs--were normal. Mom's eyes darted back and forth between my worried face and the stern woman at the door. Eventually, Bertha would welcome me and my brother indoors with a hushed and indifferent "hello" that sounded more like a breath, a sigh, than a greeting.

Bertha's home was just as inviting as her daily "hello" through the screen door. The stench of fermenting cabbage was the first thing one would notice upon entering her house. You see, Bertha was obsessed with sauerkraut, and she would stir excessive piles of it into almost every dish. To fuel her obsession, Bertha fermented her own sauerkraut in not one, but two wooden barrels; as a result, the acidic, nose-burning scent of vinegar was ever-present in her home. In Bertha's kitchen, macaroni-and-cheese became macaroni-and-cheese-with-pickled-cabbage casserole. Likewise, a simple grilled cheese sandwich--a kid's dream lunch, right?--became so heavily doused with sauerkraut that it transformed from dream to dirty sock right before our eyes. And, come on--we were too young to witness first-hand the dissolution of sandwichy dreams!

If Bertha was in a good mood, and if the weather was just right, some days we'd be able to go run around in her backyard--or, better yet, in her garden! Even though I was too scared of spiders at that age to journey into the heart of this living feast, I was at least brave enough to graze around its perimeters. And, oh--the joys that could be found there! On one edge of the garden Bertha and her husband planted raspberry bushes, and when the berries had finally plumped to their full potential near the end of the summer, my brother and I would do battle with the bees and butterflies for our own juicy sector. Even though Bertha Butts limited our serving to "just a handful," we sometimes (er, always) pilfered just a few (er, many) berries more. If we were to return to the Queen of Vinegar, we needed to arm our stomachs with as much berry-sweetness as possible!

Upon returning indoors from playing in her backyard one afternoon, I remember a smell that seemed to mellow out, if only a tiny bit, the bitterness emitted by the vats of sauerkraut. Looking for the source of this new smell, I saw Bertha hovering over a large pot on the stove. She was stirring something with much concentration, her wooden spoon moving methodically around and around and around the circumference of the pot. The light above the stove shone down on her creation, and for a millisecond--I didn't just eat a poisonous berry, did I?--I saw Bertha smile. Just then she heard me approach, and even though I don't think she liked me that much, she asked me if I wanted a "taste of something sweet." Something sweet? Say wha'?

"Hold your finger out," she said.

Since I was never brave enough to disobey Bertha's orders, I gave her my index finger. She took the wooden spoon and smudged a dab of warm, brown sludge onto my finger. Thinking that the substance on my finger was probably one of Bertha's new sauerkraut experiments--maybe sauerkraut pudding?--I prepared for the worst.

"Go ahead, try it!"

The smile was back on her face. Who the hell was this new woman wearing Bertha's homemade shorts?! Was this Bertha before me, or was it a gremlin disguised as Bertha?

Gremlin or not, I knew I had no choice: I closed my eyes and licked the mud off my finger...and liked it. No, loved it! Bertha Butts--Purveyor of Drab, Duchess of All Things Fermented--had somehow made something sweet! This sweet sludge was apple butter, a combination of stewed apples and apple cider....and no sauerkraut. Thank our German-God in Heaven!

Having grown up in the Midwest, apple butter was a spread I would not be made to do without. After this first encounter, apple butter seemed to be everywhere. However, as time passed and my homes changed in latitude and longitude, I admit that I almost forgot about apple butter. A month ago, however, I ran into an unsweetened variety, and, being driven forcefully by nostalgia, I bought it. And, you know what? It wasn't a gremlin disguised as apple butter...this spread was the real deal: sweet, creamy, and lusciously Midwestern. One whif, and I was brought back to Bertha's stove where, if only for a second, I saw the feather behind the steel.
Apple Butter Scones
(makes 6)

1 cup spelt flour (or other whole grain flour)
1 Tbs. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 cup olive oil
1/2 cup apple butter (preferably unsweetened)
1/2 cup milk (I used rice milk)
1 tsp. almond extract
1 dried date, chopped (or raisins)
1/4 cup almonds, chopped
2 Tbs. brown sugar

1. In a large bowl, mix together your dry ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk your oil, apple butter, milk, and almond extract.

2. Pour your wet ingredients into your dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon just until combined. Fold in your chopped date and almonds.

3. Drop 1/4 cup spoonfuls of your dough onto a greased baking sheet, and sprinkle the tops with brown sugar. Bake scones for 10-12 minutes, or until the bottom edges begin to brown.
My gremlin (disguised as a cat) praying over the fallen scones. RIP.


Mary-Laure said...

Oh scones! My grandma makes the best scones ever, they always make me think of her.

Breedale said...

I always love your posts. You are such a great narrator! I have a present for you! I can't wait to bring it to you tomorrow. It is nothing big though so don't panic. See you then!

Hadley Gets Crafty said...

Did the little gremlin taste the scones, too? My little gremlin is fond of tomatoes. Perhaps yours loves apple butter?

Jess said...

Hi! I just found your blog and your posts have me grinning ear to ear. And I happen to have a jar of apple butter in the pantry, so thanks for the recipe!