‘Tis the season for backyard apple trees to empty themselves of fruit, littering the lawn with soon-to-be compost if you don’t pick them first. Crabapples have wonderful, tart flavour but their size is prohibitive, limiting the cook to big batches of applesauce or preserves – anything that doesn’t require peeling or coring of the teeny specimens. Because apples – their cores and seeds in particular – are naturally high in pectin, crabapples are a perfect candidate for jelly, which will turn out varying shades of pink or red depending on the variety of apples you use. It need not be plain old apple jelly – you can use it as a base and add anything from cranberries to blackberries to leaves of fresh basil or lemon balm to customize it and kick it up a notch. You won’t even need to bother with packaged pectin.
Apple is a friendly flavor – it gets on well with others and doesn’t dominate, letting herbs, spices and berries shine through. Once you get the hang of making apple jelly (or even before you do), feel free to experiment, adding other ingredients you think would work. Whole sprigs of herbs – rosemary and thyme, for example – cinnamon sticks and vanilla pods look great tucked into the jar with the jelly, too.
Crabapple Jelly a Dozen Ways
as many apples as you’d like to use
Wash, stem and coarsely chop or just quarter the apples and put them in a large pot. (Don’t bother to peel or core them.) Add enough water to just cover them and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the apples are very soft. Mash the whole lot with a big spoon or potato masher and cook for another few minutes.
Spoon the mixture into a colander lined with cheesecloth (or use a jelly bag if you have one) set over a large bowl or pot, and let the juice drain out. Stir the pulp around a bit if you want to hurry it up. Push as much through as you like – if you don’t mind a pulpier (less clear) jam, strain through as much as you like, leaving not much more than the pits.
Measure the resulting juice into a pot (this is easy if you drain it into a pot with measurements marked on the side) and add 3/4 cup sugar for every cup of juice. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil rapidly, stirring often, until the mixture reaches 210°F on a candy thermometer, or until a small amount placed on a plate that has chilled in the freezer turns to gel. (It should wrinkle on the surface and leave a trail if you run your finger through it.) This should take about 20 minutes.
While it’s still hot, pour the jelly into hot jars, skim off any foam that rises to the top with a spoon, and seal with lids. Set aside to cool. The lids should pop inward as they cool. If any don’t, store them in the fridge.
Spiced Apple Jelly: add a couple of cinnamon sticks, about a tablespoon of whole cloves and a tablespoon of whole allspice along with 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar to the apples during the initial cooking (these measurements work for roughly 3 lbs. of apples use more or less as you see fit), strain and cook as directed.
Plum Apple Jelly: add a few pitted, chopped plums to the pot before adding the water and bringing to a simmer.
Black Currant Jelly: add a cup or so of black currants to the pot before adding the water and bringing to a simmer.
Vanilla-Scented Apple Jelly: split a vanilla bean lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds; stir into the jelly mixture. Place a piece of the pod into each jar before filling with the finished jelly.
Herbed Apple Jelly: simmer sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme in the jelly for a minute at the very end; tuck into the jars before you pour in the hot jelly.
Cranberry Apple Jelly: add a cup or two of fresh or frozen cranberries to the pot before adding the water and bringing to a simmer.
Blackberry Apple Jelly: add a cup or so of blackberries to the pot before adding the water and bringing to a simmer.
Apple Basil Jelly: add a few basil leaves to the pot before adding the water and bringing it to a simmer; bashing them about should release flavour, and the green bits will get strained out.
Earl Grey Apple Jelly: simmer an Earl Grey tea bag or two along with the jelly, and pull them out before pouring it into jars.
Apple Jelly with Lavender: put a few pieces of dried lavender into a tea ball and simmer along with the jelly as it cooks; remove it before pouring into jars.
Apple Mint Jelly: add a few mint leaves to the pot before adding the water and bringing it to a simmer; bashing them about should release flavour, and the green bits will get strained out.