This is the time of year that you first begin to see action in this orchard of ours. It begins in a state of ugliness that leads to an abundance of beauty in another month or so. The action happening these days is that of pruning the trees of their surplus branches so that the warm sun can hit every single bud and turn it first into a blossom, then into an apple. Here’s an interesting tidbit: the fruit buds actually form in June of the previous year. The pruning typically begins while there is still snow on the ground, as there was a few weeks ago when I took this picture. The snow is gone now; honestly, it is!
People are often surprised at how heavily the trees are pruned, but it is critical to have each part of the branch exposed to the sun for optimum ripening and healthy growth of the apple. You see here our team of pruners, two experienced ones and two new apprentices. They come from Trinidad and Jamaica to help us from March to October, and we are very grateful for their help! It delights my heart to hear their happy chatter in the orchard as they work.
After harvest in the fall, the apples are stored all year in special controlled atmosphere storage that you will learn about as we go along. I will give you snippets of information because A) it’s easier for you to digest, and B) I plan to write for quite a while, so I can’t tell you everything at once, can I?
My recipe today is a simple one to go with that egg cheese that I’m sure you’ve all made by now. Right? Of course; right. It is one I watched my Grandma make, who lived beside us all the years I lived at home. She was a tiny little lady who loved children and we loved her. She was an adventurous gardener and cook who liked to try new dishes. She knew every bird, tree, and flower in the woods behind us, and I learned from her which mushrooms were edible, and which ones were poisonous.
You simply cut a firm yellow or green apple like Golden Delicious or Crispin (also know as Mutsu) into thick wedges. This is what is known as “schnitz” in Pennsylvania Deutsch. I use one of those handy-dandy apple slicers that cores the apple and cuts it into wedges in one fell swoop. We carry nice sturdy ones at our store at Martin’s Family Fruit Farm. You melt butter in a pan, add brown sugar, the apple wedges, a generous dash or two of cinnamon and fry on medium low heat until the apples are all gooey and carmelly and starting to soften. They taste wonderful on egg cheese, pancakes, ice cream, or just on their own. Do try them!
Always, ALWAYS store apples in the fridge or somewhere equally cold. They will keep six to ten times longer than at room temperature.
Grandma's Fried Apple Schnitz
DirectionsMelt butter in a large electric or stovetop frying pan on medium heat. Wash apples, but do not peel them. Add brown sugar to the pan and stir into the melted butter. Remove the core and cut apples into thick wedges (about 6 per apple). I like to use my apple corer and wedger for this. Toss them into the pan with the butter/brown sugar mixture, sprinkle them with cinnamon, and stir them gently so that they are coated with the mixture. Fry on medium heat, turning them periodically until they are gooey and golden; soft but not mushy. This takes 5-10 minutes, depending on the firmness of the apples. Serve over egg cheese, ice cream, pancakes, or all on their own.
Today I’m donning the ruffled bonnet of Little Miss Muffet. Because the Easter season is just around the corner, I must introduce you to the delicacy that every Waterloo County Mennonite worthy of the name eagerly looks forward to. In actual fact, it’s one of those foods that people either love or hate; but I, and most of my household, are in the love camp. Notice I said MOST. This delicacy that I present to you most reverently is an offering from our German heritage; Egg Cheese, aka Easter Cheese, or in Pennsylvania Deutsch, Oya Kase.
This humble cheese is made largely with milk and; you guessed it; eggs. The texture is like a firm, curdy cottage cheese. It is made only for the month surrounding Easter. It’s not that it couldn’t be made any other time, but there’s something really cool about eating something only once a year. I mean, how special would it be if you could eat chocolate bunnies all year long? Right. Exactly. Now get this; you eat it with maple syrup, REAL maple syrup, poured over it. That’s the clincher, right there, folks. For some people it’s simply an excuse to eat maple syrup by the spoonful. You can eat it any time. I’ve had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and at break time too. It is beautifully versatile! As a matter of fact, it’s so versatile that I’m never sure how to categorize it. Maybe I should slot a Heritage Recipes Category and stick it in there. What a great idea. Thank you for mentioning it.
There is a lot of maple syrup produced in our area. If you drive around these Waterloo County roads on a clear, sunny, just-above-freezing day, you will see clouds of smoke billowing through the trees in woodlots. That, my friends, is someone cooking sap in their sugar shanty. Don’t you just love that term? Sugar shanty. It rolls off the tongue so wonderfully. Much more elegant than sugar shack.
Anyhow, in cold climates, maple trees store starch in their trunks and roots before and during winter. In early spring, as temperatures begin rising during the day, the starch converts to sugar, which rises in the sap. The sap is collected from the trees as it starts rising through taps that have been drilled in to the trunk. A question often asked is, does this hurt the trees? Nope; it doesn’t. Our neighbours have a slab they cut from a tree that was several centuries old, and in the rings you could see the vertical lines through the rings where it had been tapped at many different points in its lifetime. The wood grew back together completely each time. It’s pretty neat to see. Oh, what stories that tree could tell! Then this sap is boiled until the liquid condenses to a thick, delicious amber syrup. Our son-in-law has a sideline maple syrup business, and I kid you not, he produces some of the area’s finest stuff. We sell a pile of it at Martin’s Family Fruit Farm. He says it has to do with the soil components in the New Hamburg region. I think he’s being modest.
By the way, locals, would you like a pretty little drive? Ian and his partner, James, are hosting an open house today and next Saturday, March 25, so check them out at Ian Roth’s Maple Syrup. He can tell you a whole lot more about the process.
Maple syrup should be stored in a cool place, and refrigerated once opened.
FUN FACT: When Ian and our daughter Tamara became engaged four years ago, the New Hamburg Independent announced that the “Maple Syrup Man is marrying the Produce Princess”. I love small towns.
Now let’s make the egg cheese. It’s easy to do; there are just three main things to watch for.
- Don’t let the milk burn! This is kind of critical.
- Let the curds separate until they look like big globs of scrambled eggs
- Let the cheese drain thoroughly, or you will have a floating island on your plate (not the good kind, like the fancy dessert by that name).
*You can use 2% milk, but whole milk produces a smoother, creamier egg cheese.
WATERLOO COUNTY EGG CHEESE
DirectionsHeat milk on medium-high in a very large stockpot, stirring frequently to avoid scorching, until it begins steaming and swelling. Try not to let it come to a full boil, although it’s not the end of the world if you do. While it heats, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and salt. Pour the egg mixture slowly into the hot milk, stirring all the while. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a lid, stirring every so often. When the milk separates and curds rise to the top, remove the lid and stir frequently until the curds look like large chunky scrambled eggs, and the liquid (whey) is a nearly clear pale gold. Remove from heat. Place a large piece of cheesecloth into a sturdy colander over another large pot and carefully pour or scoop the entire mixture into it, allowing the whey to drain through. Smooth the top with a spatula. Let it sit and drain for about an hour, pressing the top periodically to squeeze out excess whey. When it stops dripping from the bottom, tip the cheese onto a large plate. Cover and chill. Slice and serve with maple syrup. In recent years, we’ve discovered that adding fresh berries or fried apples to our servings elevates this traditional treat to new dimensions of delight!
*You can use 2% milk, but whole milk produces a smoother, creamier egg cheese.