APPLE BUTTER IS country fare as plain and straight as a log cabin. Thickly laid over a heavy cut of bread warm from the oven, it can taste of fall and woodsmoke as much as of cider and spice.

Like so many other traditional American foods, this homely spread can be made several different ways and each method has its unmovable advocates. Some old recipes call for tart apples, some for sweet. There's a fresh vs. dried apple controversy and a molasses schism. Cloves or mace? Lumpy as marmalade or smooth as custard? There's even a school that bakes its apple butter while most other apple butter cooks are stirring cauldrons of the stuff over the flame.

Authorities on American food do find some points of agreement. Apple butter probably came to America with the early German settlers of the mid-Atlantic states; it remains a staple of the "seven sweets" offered tourists who dine at Pennsylvania Dutch eateries. The American Heritage Cookbook notes that the Schwenkfelder sect still holds an annual Thanksgiving meal that duplicates their first on American soil, a menu that includes water, bread, butter and apple butter.

The cookbooks of Amish and other Mennonite communities nearly always include recipes for apple butter or dishes in which it is an ingredient. Typical in its page-long list of apple butters is "Favorite Amish Recipes," a collection from the Kishacoquillas Valley of Mifflin County in Pennsylvania. Among them is this one:

"Put six gallons of cider in the kettle. Set the stirrer in the kettle and make a mark on the stirrer, the depth of the cider so you will know how full the kettle will be to hold that amount. Add four more gallons of cider and eight gallons snitz (cut-up apples). Boil until it is nearly finished, then add 20 lb. sugar. Boil down to mark on stirrer."

It is generally agreed that apple butter is a reduction of apples with sugar and liquid, usually cider, to a thick, smooth consistency. The finished butter is creamy and brown, spiced with the cinnamon that was used from the earliest days of William Penn's colony, and with other seasonings that vary with the recipe. The term "schnitz" or "snitz" is frequently used, even among non-Pennsylvanians, to refer to the pared, cored, and sliced apples.

Nothing could sound simpler than apple butter on the face of it, yet the lore associated with making the traditional dish is arcane and diverse, from the custom of dropping a peach pit to the bottom of the kettle to prevent the butter from burning to testing for doneness by pouring a little of the mixture onto a saucer to see if water encircles it (if water appears, more cooking is needed).

The variety of apple to use for the best apple butter is the first point in contention. The question is one of texture as well as flavor, for an apple such as a jonathan that keeps its shape well in pies is a poor choice to cook down for apple butter. Several apple growers among the sellers at the Farm Women's Market in Bethesda agree that the early rambeau or rambo is unexcelled; in New England, the rhode island greening is popular for its flavor. Perhaps the best of the easily-found local apples for apple butter purposes is the stayman.

"It is not worthwhile to prepare apple butter on a small scale," wrote Miss Eliza Leslie in her nineteenth century classic cookbook, and a look at old recipes shows that cooks never thought small when approaching apple butter making. "Take eight bushels of fine sound apples, ten gallons of water and ten gallons of the best West India molasses . . . "

Considering the length of cooking time -- "boil 10 to 12 hours, and second day, boil 6 or 8 hours more" -- apple butter making frequently became a community affair. That meant plenty of hands to take a turn with the wooden stirring paddle. Several major apple butter festivals continue those community traditions in America today.

In Burton, Ohio, the Apple Butterfest is combined with a firemen's ox roast and flea market. Twelve hundred gallons of apple butter are stirred all day in vast kettles; the finished product is dipped into pint and quart jars for sale.

Closer to home, there's the West Virginia Apple Butter Festival at Berkeley Springs each October, where clubs and groups compete for first place in an apple butter making contest.

Leilia Stuckey of Morgan County, whose senior citizens' group won last year's competition, says she makes apple butter the way her mother, now 89, has always made it: She uses golden delicious, grimes golden or stayman apples, in proportions of three gallons of water (she doesn't use cider) to a bushel of schnitz.

Stuckey passed along her apple butter recipe by telephone, in instructions that showed a good cook's offhandedness with measurements and timing: "About an hour before you think it's going to be done, add your sugar. I aim for three pounds of sugar per gallon of apple butter, but the best way to tell is to taste it.

"We cook it in a big copper kettle until it turns red and then test it in different ways. You can cut a ridge with the edge of a saucer, and if it piles up, it's done and if it doesn't, it isn't. We start at eight in the morning and begin taking it off somewhere between three and five in the afternoon. You have to stir it all the while and be sure your paddle is down to the bottom."

Many cooks advise waiting until the end of cooking to add spices. "Twenty minutes or half an hour before you finally take it from the fire, add powdered cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to your taste," Miss Leslie suggested to her 19th-century readers. "If the spice is boiled too long, it will lose its flavor."

Stucky says secret ingredients are popular among Berkeley Springs contestants, including everything from sassafras to the addition of other fruit, such as peaches and grapes. One expert recommends an ounce of elderberry wine, to be poured into the apple butter twice a day "to keep the arms from wearing out."

This year's winner at Berkeley Springs, at the festival held October 9 and 10, was Grace Lintz, a Berkeley Springs grandmother whose secret was a combination of apples. Mrs. Lintz and her two helpers, Mary Miller and Neva Woods, used two 30-gallon kettles to simmer her combination of stayman, winesaps, yorks, rambos, a variety that her husband knows as "Old Man's Apple," and two other types of fruit that grow on old, anonymous apple trees on the Lintz's trees.

Her winning apple butter has a reddish color and rich flavor; the samples that she put up in mayonnaise jars sold fast but she plans to have more for sale at the Berkeley Springs Senior Center for fall visitors.

Following are some traditional apple butter recipes, along with adaptations scaled to the size of the contemporary family and its kitchen. 1882 APPLE BUTTER

Boil one barrel of new cider down half. Peel and core three bushels of good cooking apples. When cider has boiled down to half the quantity, add the apples. (Note: Many recipes call for reducing the cider by half or a third by rapid boiling in an uncovered kettle, to make a richer apple butter.) When soft, stir constantly for 8 to 10 hours. If done, apple butter will adhere to an inverted plate.

Put away in stone jars, not earthen, covering first with writing paper cut to fit the jar, and press down closely upon the apple butter. Cover the whole with thick brown paper snugly tied down. NEW ENGLAND APPLE BUTTER

Boil down a kettleful of cider to two-thirds the original quantity. Pare, core, and slice juicy apples and put as many into the cider as it will cover. Boil slowly, stirring often with a flat stick, and when the apples are tender to breaking, take them out with a perforated skimmer, draining well against the side of the kettle. Put in a second supply of apples, as many as the cider will hold, and stew soft.

Take from the fire, pour all together into tub or large crock; cover and let stand 12 hours. Then return to the kettle and boil down, stirring all the while until it is the consistency of thick, brown custard.

(From the New England Cook Book of 1905, by Miss Parloa, Mrs. Lincoln, Marion Harland and Thomas J. Murrey.) OHIO APPLE BUTTER (Makes 1 1/2 to 2 quarts)

The Burton, Ohio, Historical Society reduced this recipe to one-family proportions. It adapts wonderfully to a slow cooker. 3 quarts fresh sweet apple cider 8 pounds ripe, well-flavored apples 2 1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed 2 teaspoons cloves 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon salt

Cook cider over high heat, in large pot uncovered, for 30 minutes or until reduced by half. Meanwhile, wash, peel, core and quarter apples. Add to cider and cook over low heat until very tender, about 45 minutes. Stir frequently until apples are of pure'ed consistency. Stir in the brown sugar, spices and salt and cook over low heat, stirring almost constantly until it thickens. Pour into one-pint jars and seal securely. AROMA OF MINCEMEAT APPLE BUTTER (Makes about 5 cups)

Using the most readily available supermarket produce, such as golden delicious apples, and bottled cider, this mixture yields a rich, dark apple butter that smells like a fine mincemeat. 1 1/2 quarts cider 8 firm apples, about 8 ounces each, cored, peeled, and cut into quarters 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed 1 teaspoon cloves 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon salt

Boil the cider rapidly, uncovered, for 30 minutes to reduce by half. Pile apples into a slow cooker; they should nearly fill the pot. Add the cider and turn heat to 3. Cook about 8 hours, using a wooden spoon to stir and break up apples every half hour or so.

After about 4 hours, add the sugar and test for sweetness, which will vary according to the flavor of the apples. During the last hour, add the spices and salt. When the apples have cooked to a heavy mass, pass the mixture through a food mill.

Here are two ways to use apple butter: APPLE BUTTER PIE (Makes a 9-inch pie) 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup apple butter 2 tablespoons melted butter 2 eggs 2 1/2 cups light cream 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 9-inch unbaked pie shell

Combine ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat thoroughly. Pour into unbaked pie shell, bake in 450-degree oven for 10 minutes, reduce to 350 degrees and bake 40 minutes longer or until set. VERMONT APPLE BUTTER CAKE 1 cup light brown sugar 1/2 cup lard 2 eggs 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice 3/4 cup buttermilk mixed with 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 cup apple butter

In a large mixing bowl, cream together brown sugar and lard; beat in eggs. In separate bowl, sift together flour and spices. Stir the flour mixture and buttermilk and soda mixture into the sugar and lard alternately. Add apple butter and stir lightly. Pour into well-greased 9-by-5-inch glass loaf pan and bake at 325 degrees for one hour or until cake tests done.