Apple Butter Hand Pies for Max

Max Apple Butter Hand Pie

A Promise

Max the Cat

“ A frightened sorrow has closed down over my heart. I wish I were child so I could cry. I’m too old to be afraid like this. And I’ve not felt such despair since a bird died in my hand by a flowing water long ago.”

East of Eden, John Steinbeck


There is a veil of dryness, a barren place that has burrowed into my winter. It doesn’t help that we’ve not had much rain. California is dry, crackling, soon to be on fire dry. But the urban lemons are ripe, dripping with juice. And yet they linger on the neighborhood trees. No one wants them. I stop by and pick another basket full and still more drop to the ground. Once, with great hope, someone planted a promise of lemons. Long forgotten, people moved on, life moved on.

Fuji Apple Tree

And then I found an apple tree. A few chocolate studded leaves with weary amber and burnt saffron fruit. I dismissed it, shrugged and picked more lemons. Vibrant ripe lemons are so full of life, always sharp and sassy. Easy to be with, gorgeous for baking, cooking, photographing. During the weeks of my lemon foraging, I was losing my beautiful friend, Max the Cat. No amount of care could save him as we watched him fade into a shadow of The Colonel we once knew. My heart careened into a sad and desolate place. When we rescued Max I promised to care for him until the end of his days. It’s just that that day came so much sooner than we expected. I returned to the apple tree. Determined to find a way to honor the forgotten fruit at the end of its’ life.

Fuji Apples

Fuji Apples

While I grieve I must keep my hands busy, very busy. I know myself so well. It is with busy hands that I prod my mind to budge, to move back into the present. And so I scrubbed and cut and peeled the old forgotten apples. And stirred and mashed, stirred and mashed some more. Lots of stirring, I didn’t want to scorch the apple butter. I was intent on keeping my hands busy. I could have stopped stirring at applesauce. I tasted some and it was as amazing as I thought it might be. The apple flavor was intense, matching my emotions. The little bit of fruit that was left on the tree had withstood frost and a fall and winter without much rain. The desperate Fuji apples were the essence of life. A promise of beauty, even at the end.


While I was making the apple butter picky daughter suggested I make Apple Butter Hand Pies. Being picky, her ideas are always worth considering. I was planning on buttery scones flecked with raisins and ginger. And a big scoop of Apple Butter. I had blogged Apple Butter Hand Pies before but on my walk past the apple tree I thought of Max the Cat again and decided to give this a try. Adding whole wheat flour and spices to my favorite pastry recipe changed the color and texture of the dough. By the second batch I found my pastry rhythm. I don’t know that I will ever bake for Max again, but if I do it will be this recipe. The compliments I received for such delicious silliness eased my grief.

Making Apple Butter

The recipe for apple sauce or apple butter is so flexible. Even with just apples and lemon juice the outcome would be stellar. But in my usual way I amped up the flavor. Spices, brandy and a scoop of sugar all went into the pot to simmer into a glorious mess of appleness. I used Martha Stewart’s recipe as an outline for the spices and finished up the recipe with the instructions from The Blue Book Guide for Preserving. At the applesauce stage Martha says to cook for “about two hours” more, the Blue Book says until the apple butter “mounds on a spoon”. Although two hours is more or less correct, “mounds on the spoon” is a more consistent indicator of ready.

Cat Hand Pies

Max Hand Pies

Apple Butter
9C peeled, cored Fuji apples
1C apple juice
3 lemons, juiced
2T brandy, optional
1C sugar
1large/2 small cinnamon sticks
3 star anise
1t freshly grated nutmeg
1t freshly grated ginger
Hand Pie Decoration
1T coffee beans
1T cocoa nibs
1T cocoa powder
1t sugar
3 drops blue food coloring
24 chocolate pearls
6 herb stems, such as thyme
Max’s Pastry
1C all-purpose flour
1/2C whole wheat pastry flour
1T sugar
1/2t fine grain sea salt
1t freshly ground nutmeg
1/4t ground cinnamon
1/2C-4oz unsalted butter,chilled
1/2C cream cheese or full-fat sour cream
3-4T ice cold water
1 egg white
  1. To make the Apple Butter place all the ingredients in a large pan. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to a constant simmer. Stir occasionally. Stir more often as the apples lose their moisture so that they do not scorch. When the apples soften remove the cinnamon stick(s) and star anise. Mash the apples with a spoon or potato masher until there are no visible lumps of fruit. Alternately, the mixture can be cooled and blitzed in a blender, food processor or Vitamix. At this point the mixture has become applesauce. To make Apple Butter continue to mash and stir as the apples thicken and turn brown. When the mixture “mounds on a spoon” without drooping the Apple Butter is ready. Cool and then store in the refrigerator. This batch of Apple Butter took a total of 3 hours of simmering.
  2. To make the Hand Pie Decorations in the bowl of a small grinder or mini-food processor add the coffee, cocoa nibs, cocoa and sugar and grind into a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the blue food coloring and enough water to achieve a shade of pale blue.
  3. To make the Max’s Pastry in the bowl of a food processor pulse together the flours, sugar, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the dry ingredients. Add the cream cheese or sour cream. Pulse a few times until the butter is the size of small coins, mostly dimes and a few pennies. Pour 3 tablespoons of the ice cold water through the feed tube while the food processor is running. The dough will come together in large clumps. Add cold water, a tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry. Do not over mix. Pastry dough made with cream cheese requires more cold water than dough made with sour cream. If the dough comes together in a solid mass, it will be over processed and perhaps too moist. Scrape the dough out on a floured work surface. Knead or push the mass a just few times to bring the dough together in a ball. Shape into a flattened circle and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour.
  4. Line a sheet pan with parchment. In a small bowl mix the egg white with a tablespoon of water. With a floured rolling pin on a lightly floured work surface roll out the dough in a circular shape that is approximately 1/8” to 1/4” thick. Don’t be dissuaded by any large pieces of butter as you roll out the dough. Add a little flour and keep rolling. Those pieces of butter will make the flaky in your crust. Cut out the hand pie shapes. The larger the hand pies, the more apple butter can be stuffed inside. Brush a thin layer of egg white on the outer edges of the bottoms of the hand pies. Mound apple butter in the centers. Place the top on the hand pies and crimp the edges together with the tines of a small fork.
  5. For the cat shaped pies brush a light wash of the diluted blue food coloring for the eyes. Place a chocolate pearl inside the blue area for the center of the eye. Out of the pastry scraps cut rectangles for the noses and triangles for the mouths. Brush the shapes with egg wash and firmly press on the hand pies. Brush the top of the hand pie with the coffee and cocoa mix. Add the herb sprigs for whiskers by pushing them into the dough. For the Max hand pies, cut out the letters with a small sharp knife or use alphabet cookie cutters. Brush the back of each letter with egg wash and firmly press on the hand pies. Brush the tops of the letters with the coffee and cocoa mix. Place the finished hand pies on the prepared sheet pan and chill for thirty minutes before baking.
  6. Heat the oven to 375°. Bake for 18-25 minutes. When ready, the hand pies will turn dark golden brown. The pastry will have puffed and glisten.

Max's Apple Butter Hand Pies

Fuji Apples on Branch

Max's Apple Butter Hand Pies

Max the Cat

47 Replies to “Apple Butter Hand Pies for Max”

  1. Deb, what a special remembrance for dear Max. Beautiful hand pies, beautiful photos, beautiful cat. A sweet post all around. I love that you’re finding meaningful use for would-be foregone fruit and are turning them into such delicacies. Sending good thoughts your way!

  2. I’m so sorry about Max. It is very difficult to lose a pet that is so loved. What a nice way to work through your grief. And what beautiful and animated little pies. They sound delicious.

  3. Oh I’m so, so sorry about Max. 🙁 Having rescued a few cats over the years, I do know your pain. What a sweet way to remember him. These are clever and cute, and I’m sure that homemade apple butter makes these taste awesome! Hugs, MJ

  4. Deb, something so adorable mixed with such a sad loss. These pies are simply precious, and I have a feeling so was Max. I have never lost a pet but my doggy is almost 16 years old. Everyday we have him is a gift. I was moved by your vulnerability in writing this post. I’m certain your loss was felt by all those who read it.

    1. Your comment has touched the broken spot in my heart Mary. Thank you so very much for the most lovely of comments! You are blessed to have a fluffy friend of 16 years!

  5. Deb, i’m so sorry to hear about you losing your Max: it’s truly always such a difficult thing to lose animals we love, and i’ll be keeping you in my thoughts. What a lovely way to remember him; your hand pies are beautiful, as is the spirit in which you made them. Hope you’re doing okay right now.
    your photos of those apples convey so much feeling; i can’t help but to notice that. really gorgeous; i love that one on the top left side in the group of 4. stunning.

    1. Oh Deena, you are very wise! It is with our actions that we show our true feelings and our spirit comes alive! Thank you for the lovely comment!

  6. Oh Deb, it’s so hard to loose an animal. I’m so sorry for your loss. Max has such a sweet, spirited face, which I’m sure will stay in your heart always.
    I find those apples to be so gorgeous! Love the color and crackles in the skin against those dark stems. Sending you hugs, Valentina

    1. Thank you for the lovely comment Valentina, I appreciate your kind thoughts! Max’s spirit will always remain in my heart.

  7. How sad that he’s gone Deb! But this was a beautiful way to deal with your grief, producing something delicious and made with such love. He was as lucky to have you, as you were to have him.

    1. What a lovely thing to say! Thank you from the bottom of my heart Cathy! Max was an “old soul” and taught us much about acceptance, tolerance and most of all unconditional love.

  8. your post speaks so eloquently about grief, loss, love, letting go and reaping what we can along the journey. It is an incredible testimony and tribute to your beloved Max. I’m deeply sorry for your loss.

  9. Beautiful just beautiful. It’s so hard to lose a family member. I will make these pies in honor of Max and all of my babies that have left for the Rainbow Bridge along with him.

  10. I’m so sorry about your cat. He is beautiful! These pies are very cute and I bet making them was rather therapeutic. Also, people are crazy for not wanting lemons fresh off the tree. Crazy!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment Laura! There are still more lemons, wish I could share them with you.

    1. Stephanie thank you so much for your kind comment! Our pets become part of the family, and it is so hard to say goodbye.

  11. What a gorgeous punim (it mean face and that’s what my mom would say in Yiddish affectionately) on Max. I cannot even imagine how much you miss him. How lucky he was to have you care for him until the end.

    As always – love what you did with the recipe. Inspiring.

    I wish you could have been at our class yesterday too. I’m still thinking a meet-up at the Aptos Farmer’s Market on the wknd is going to be the way to go…

    My condolences on your loss Deb.

    1. Thank you so much Beth! I poured my heart and soul into this post! Yes, let’s meet at Aptos one Saturday!

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