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DIY Weekend: Misadventures in Preserving, or Crabapple Jelly with Cinnamon, Cloves and Allspice

One weekend of jelly making, two and 1/2 jars of jelly. Oh, well. But the wobbly rose-colored confection, made with crabapples from our own tree is delicious, the tartness of the fruit tempered by sugar and sweet spices.

“So I guess jelly is your Moby Dick,” said B as he padded around the kitchen making his breakfast tea.

”Oh I wouldn’t say that.” I said sweetly, gritting my teeth. No, it was more like, oh I don’t know, my Waterloo?

There were a few teachable moments this weekend.

Friday morning was bright, sunny and cool. I traipsed out of the house with a split oak basket, feeling a bit like a rustic Marie Antoinette on her way to Le Trianon, if la reine wore jeans and flip flops.

Right now our crabapple tree is smothered in ripening fruit, so heavy with tiny apples that the branches are literally sagging under their weight. It would be a crime of neglect, I thought, if we didn’t do something with them.

Like making jelly. How hard could it be?

So there I was on a ladder, up in the tree, plucking apples one by one. It was harder than I thought to find unscathed fruit. Some sort of boring insect seemed to have tunneled into them, leaving the surface riddled with tiny holes. But the higher I went, the less damage there was.

Oh, well, I thought, as I tried to keep my balance on the teetering ladder: At least ours are organic.

Finally the basket was full. As I climbed down, the ladder tilted, not a lot, but just enough to spill the apples all over the ground where I had the pleasure of snatching them from the yellow jackets who were deliriously hovering in the grass.

I blame this misadventure on The River Cottage Preserves Handbook. A spinoff of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s hit British TV series, in which the journalist and chef tried to become a self-sustaining farmer, it trumpets the virtues of local, seasonal preserving. I found the book especially seductive, not only for the beautiful photographs of freshly pickled nasturtium “capers” and hazelnuts in honey, but also for its laid back, you-too-can-do-this spirit. Because, really, doesn’t everyone?

Reading the Preserves Handbook, I was overcome by that warm, fuzzy feeling I get when contemplating (the idea of) a full pantry as winter gets near. Author Pam Corbin, who was running Thursday Cottage Preserves, a small jam company that “operated in an almost domestic way” when she became involved in Fearnley-Whittingstall’s rural endeavour, writes:

“Preserving evokes deep-rooted, almost primeval feelings of self-sufficiency and survival, of gatherer and hunter, for this is how our ancestors stayed alive. These days, this all sounds more than a little extreme, but unquestionably a home with a good store of homemade preserves will generate a feeling of warmth and confidence.”

None of that scary botulism talk that you get in preserving classes or in practical American jamming and pickling manuals. (Ok, there are a couple of pages on “The Four Spoilers”: enzymes, bacteria, molds and fungi, and yeasts, but the info on sterilizing and safe-sealing is straightforward and reassuring.

Besides I was deep into the chapter on Hedgerow Jellies which sings the praises of the crabapple, an “often scarred and scabby pomaceous fruit”(yes!) that is chock full of pectin, a substance which gives it the setting power that other hedgerow fruit such as rosehips, blackberries, and elderberries lack. Since I was fresh out of all other hedgerow fruit, it was comforting to read that I could make “a stunning pink jelly” out of crabapples alone. Even better, Corbin mentioned adding spices such as cinnamon and cloves.

This may be the point at which to mention that crabapples are amongst the tartest fruit on the face of the planet. I once saw a delivery man slink over to our tree and pop a few ripe ones into his mouth. The look of sheer horror on his face as he spit them out was, as they say, priceless.

After weighing the crabapples (5 pounds, 7 ounces!), I stripped off the stems and leaves, washed them and set them in a strainer to drip dry.

Then I went in search of a jelly bag.

Here’s the thing: Jelly is only pretty if you can see the light shine through it. And to get that degree of transparency you must strain the fruit and the liquid in which it cooks through a muslin bag to prevent the seeds and pulpy bits from clouding up the jelly. Of course you could certainly buy some muslin at the fabric store. Or do as Darina Allen suggests in Forgotten Skills of Cooking and use an old pillowcase.

But I was determined to find a real jelly bag.

I did come across a small one that would hold a cup of cooked fruit, but I rejected it, along with a metal stand that would suspend it above a bowl, in favor of a much bigger turkey stuffing bag with a draw string at the top. Perfect, I thought. I can hang the bag from a cabinet knob in the kitchen. It was all I could do to keep from smirking at my ingenuity.

On Saturday, it rained. At four in the afternoon, it was as dark as dusk. Time to start the jelly.

The Handbook said not to peel or core the crabapples, but to coarsely chop them since both the skin and core are full of pectin. A good thing too, since each tiny apple is about the size of a cherry. But it was slow going anyway, since some crabapples had developed soft spots and had to be discarded. Even worse, I had to trim away more insect damage than I imagined. Some were just rotten inside.

When I weighed them again, I discovered I’d tossed almost a pound and was now down to 4 pounds 8 ounces, exactly what the recipe specified. Hooray!

I put the chopped fruit into a medium stockpot, barely covered it with water, added 2 sticks of cinnamon, 6 cloves, 3 allspice berries and one star anise, and brought brought the whole thing to a gentle simmer.

Soon the house was fragrant with the luscious aroma of apples mingled with spices. “Smells good up here,” called B from upstairs, where he was watching a golf match.

Almost immediately I saw that the liquid in which the apples were simmering was turning pale pink. So pretty, so….cloudy. Oh my God! It was supposed to be clear. Instead it looked like pink grapefruit juice.

In jelly land, clarity is a virtue. Every single jelly maker tells you not to squeeze the jelly bag when the juice is dripping into the bowl because that will make the jelly cloudy. But here the fruit was still simmering in the pan, and the juice was practically opaque.

To make matters worse, as soon as I began spooning the soft, cooked fruit into the jelly bag, I realized that the bottom of the bag, hanging on a cabinet knob, was just an inch from the bottom of the bowl into which the juice was dripping. That meant that eventually the bag would be submerged in the liquid.

Too late I realized the advantages of suspending the jelly bag from a stand.

In the end, I had to rig up a ridiculous contraption that would raise the bag the required 7 or 8 inches: A wooden spatula, on a high shelf inside the kitchen cabinet, weighed down with 10 pounds of kosher salt and heavy cartons of coconut water, did the trick. I hung the bag over the end of the spatula and watched sadly as the cloudy, but very pretty, pink apple juice dripped into the bowl.

B and I went out for a consolation cocktail. Make that many cocktails.

Sunday morning dawned clear and cool. Resigned, I measured the liquid in the bowl. Instead of 5 cups, as Corbin suggested there would be, there were only three. Fine. Whatever. After I put the glass jars, tops and rings in a pot of water to sterilize them, I discovered that we were out of sugar.

It was at this moment that B mentioned Moby Dick. (I did not see him again the rest of the day.)

When I returned from the grocery store, the jars were bubbling away. I brought the apple juice to a slow boil and added a pound of sugar. Corbin’s formula, incidentally is 1 pound of sugar for every 3 cups of juice, or 1 cup of sugar per cup of juice. Don’t be tempted to use less. Sugar kills off a lot of the bad stuff and besides, crabapples this tart need all the help they can get.

As the sun came out, a miracle occurred.

The boiling liquid began to clear. I didn’t mind that the juice never passed the “crinkle” or “cold saucer” test to see if had reached the setting point. And I didn’t mind that after 15 minutes of boiling, the liquid had reduced to a mere 2-1/2 cups.

As I poured the conoction into the warm jars, it was beautifully translucent, a gorgeous dark pink that lit up when I held it to the sun. At the last minute I put a sprig of rosemary in the smallest jar, an idea from Darina Allen.

This morning I opened one of the jars. The jelly had set nicely. When I dipped a spoon into the wobbly rose-colored confection and brought it to my mouth, I tasted the lovely faint flavor of apples, the tartness of the fruit nicely balanced by the sugar and the delicate flavor of the spices.

Right now I’m about to eat a piece of hot buttered toast spread with our very own preserves. And I’m thinking how delicious the jelly would be with smoky grilled pork chops, or as a glaze for pan-fried quail. Maybe I’ll save the rosemary scented jelly for the “succulent cold roast pork or turkey” recommended by Corbin.

Of course, I’m not absolutely sure that I sealed the jars properly, so all the jelly is going into the fridge and we’re planning to eat it up quickly. I’m not sure it’s worth dying for.

And that’s why I’m not giving you the recipe. After all, if I can muster up the energy, there’s still a whole tree laden with crabapples, ready for Round 2.

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