Last summer I made 100 teapot sugar cookies for the summer fête, and my mother (and several friends) told me I was mad (in the English sense of crazy) to do it. But as a thank-you, my daughter’s class unexpectedly gave me a voucher for the garden centre; and with this voucher, I bought a little crabapple (or “malus”) tree. So really, I think it all came out rather well, don’t you?
And by the way, aren’t fruit trees just so magical? Blossom in the spring, and then fruit in the fall? What a bargain. I can’t remember why I picked out a crabapple tree, but it was the right sort of size, and I liked the smooth bark, and it had a lovely pinkish blossom.
This September, even though my tree is still tiny, it brought forth a prodigious harvest of fruit . . . so much fruit, in fact, that the branches just drooped with it.
I asked an English friend what I could possibly do with my crop of crabapples, and she mentioned that her mother made crabapple jelly every year. The next day, she brought over a recipe scrawled on the back of an envelope. Although it seemed clear enough, and despite my fondness for a scribbled-down recipe, I decided that I better get a second opinion from one of my kitchen gurus – in this case, Tamasin Day-Lewis.
If you want a classic English recipe, I thoroughly recommend Tamasin’s Kitchen Bible. Its subtitle claims that it is “the one and only book for every cook,” and even though I wouldn’t dream of only having one cookbook, I will vouch for its comprehensiveness. Sure enough, it had a recipe for crabapple jelly – and not only just the recipe, but a family story to go along with it. Tamasin writes: My affection for crab apple jelly is a deep and enduring one. This was my father’s favourite breakfast treat, so it has to be mine. (For the record, Tamasin’s father was the British Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. Just so you know that this is the jelly for poets!)
On the basis of Tamasin’s guidance, and that handed-over recipe from my mother’s friend, I am happy to go out on a limb and say that this is the definitive method for crabapple jelly. As it turned out, their directions were almost identical.
In brief (and it really is brief):
Crabapples, as many as you have
Unrefined sugar – 1 pound (16 ounces) of sugar for each pint (20 ounces; this is an English pint) of juice. Further note on sugar: I used jam sugar which has added pectin. It worked beautifully, but I can’t say that it is necessary.
Wash the fruit, and put it in a large saucepan or preserving pan. Cover with water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer, slowly, until the fruit is soft and pulpy.
*Then, you need to strain it.
Tamasin says to put it through a jelly bag, but here is my advice: Get your finest (as in the one with the smallest holes) colander (or strainer) and put it over a large bowl. Dump the fruit in the strainer, and let the juice run through. It won’t be entirely clear, which is why you are going to strain it a second time through a fine muslin cloth. (If you don’t have muslin, or any babies around, you could use something fine like a handkerchief (clean, of course). I didn’t have a jelly bag, so I just put a piece of muslin over a large bowl – and then I put a rubber band around to hold it in place. It drips through fairly quickly and THEN (voila) you have a perfectly clear liquid . . . with no mush to mar what will be your pink jelly.
Measure your remaining liquid and add a similar proportion of sugar. I went with Tamasin’s ratio, which is slightly less sugar to the fruit.
Bring to the boil, and as the whitish scum comes to the top you will need to scoop it off with a spoon. Continue scumming, and after about 10 minutes of boiling, you can test it to see if it has set.
The easiest method is to chill a small plate . . . and then drop a bit of the juice on it. If you cool it down quickly -- just stick it in the freezer for a couple of minutes -- then you can test it by pushing your finger against it. If the liquid wrinkles, then it has set; in other words, it is ready.
Now pour the well-strained liquid into a glass measuring cup with a spout and fill your (sterilized) glass jars. (You could also use a funnel for this job; if you have one, unlike me.)
It really is EASY to sterilize jars. I just run them through the dishwasher and then let them dry thoroughly in a low oven. Take the jars out of the oven (not forgetting to use a hot pad) when you are ready to pour the jelly into them. Then seal and cool. If you are that way inclined, make artistic labels as a final step.
Now, if you made it this far, you may be thinking to yourself: WHY would I ever want to do such a thing? I will admit that before I moved to the English countryside, and suddenly had crops that needed to be dealt with, it would never have occurred to me to make jelly, jam, preserves or anything else that required a sterilized jar. HOWEVER, there is something absolutely miraculous about the fact that fruit, sugar and water can be so easily (yes, easily) transformed into an entirely new substance. So far this year I have made chutney, orange marmalade, strawberry jam, and now this beautiful orange-pink crabapple jelly – each in its own season. I’m aiming to make pear preserves next week.
Preserving is one of those wonderfully old and useful skills that so many people have forgotten how to do, and sure you can just buy the stuff – and yes, it will probably be cheaper. But it really will not be as delicious. The taste of the fruit will not be as clear and true. And you will not have the satisfaction of doing something so gratifyingly wonderful.
Postscript: I'm not much of a breakfast eater, which means that I have a tendency to require “elevenses.” Last week I was stuck on apple slices with peanut butter, but this week my favorite treat is a slice of good white bread slathered in butter and crabapple jelly. If you toast the bread until it is warm enough to melt butter, but still soft on the inside, the butter and the jelly will sort of merge and ooze together. The jelly isn’t overly sweet, and it has a tart “something” that is not like anything else I can think of. Unlike breakfast toast, which is always a rushed experience for me, I can linger over this delicious snack . . .