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When I first decided that I was going to have a go at making jam, I was under the impression that it was some mysterious dark art practiced only by the duly indoctrinated members of rural covens (or the WI). A few years on, I will admit to having had a few disasters, but in the main things have turned out edible. One of my favourite recipes remains one of the easiest, and an excellent one for beginners: crab apple jelly. (“Jelly” just means a clear jam, not the wobbly stuff you have with ice cream, by the way).
Crab apples, up to 4lbs 1 lemon Sugar, 1lb per pint of cooked apple juice Cinnamon stick (optional)
“Crab” apples are small, sour apples; the trees that they come from are descendents of wild, rather than cultivated, apple varieties. I have always been lucky enough to have them growing in my garden; however, if you are not blessed in this way, you may find them for sale at farmers’ markets and the like, although they’re not typically available from supermarkets.
LARGE pan and lid, preferably stainless steel Clean tea towel or, if you want to be fancy, a muslin bag Ladle Glass jars and lids Waxed paper discs Clear plastic film covers, elastic bands, sticky labels
To start with, rinse the apples and cut them into quarters. Don’t worry about peeling or coring as you will be straining the fruit later. Put the apples together with the halved lemon into a large saucepan, with a couple of inches of water in the bottom to stop them from sticking when you turn on the heat. You will need a large enough pan to hold TWICE the volume of the fruit and sugar. This is because to get the jam to set, you need to cook it at a “rolling boil”, which makes it double in volume. So if you don’t have a very large pan, it’s best to make your jam in batches. In any case, the largest batch I would recommend is about 4lbs of crab apples. Put the lid on tight and boil them to destruction – usually around 45 minutes to an hour is sufficient. (If you have a pressure cooker, then this would be ideal for this step and cut down the time).
I have also experimented with freezing the apples and crushing them once frozen – something my dad used to do when he was making cider – to lessen the cooking time needed, but frankly, they break up easily enough from quarters, so it doesn’t seem worth the bother, plus I’m not sure whether freezing them spoils the taste.
Now you need to strain the fruit. I do this by pegging a CLEAN tea towel over a big old mixing bowl, although you should be warned that this step does take ages so you might want to invest in a “proper” muslin bag (like a long sock) that you can just fill to the brim and leave to its own devices overnight. A tea towel needs a couple of refills – but since my husband sells them, amongst other things, for a living, we have an endless free supply so it would seem churlish not to use them! Do NOT squeeze the bag, or you will end up with a cloudy final product – the aim is to get a completely clear apple juice. The lemon is not completely necessary, by the way, but gives a nice zing, and makes sure that the juice is acidic to help the setting process.
Once you have your clear juice, put it back in the cleaned pan, and add 1lb of sugar per pint of juice that you have extracted. You can use ordinary granulated sugar, or pay extra for special “jam” sugar which has a finer grain, although I can’t tell you whether this gives a better finish as I’ve never bothered (ahem, could afford) to try it. Dissolve all the sugar over a gentle heat. You’ll be able to tell when it’s all dissolved if you use a wooden spoon as you can no longer feel a crunch at the bottom of the pan. Then crank up the heat and get the mixture boiling – you need to achieve a “rolling boil”, which means that it is actively boiling (ie more than a simmer) but not rising up the pan. If you can not get rid of the bubbles with stirring, but it’s not rising up the pan, then you are at the right point. You can add the cinnamon stick here if you want extra flavouring (wrapped in a piece of muslin to prevent it breaking up). You want to boil for about 30-45 minutes, or until the jelly will set.
As an aside, the reason that this recipe is so good for beginners is due to the high pectin content in crab apples. Pectin is a naturally occurring sugar found in some fruit and vegetables, and acts as a gelling agent, in the presence of acids and sugar, to make jam set. With some fruits, the pectin content is very low so you have to mix n’ match, or use additional pectin to get the jam to set, but this crab apple recipe seems fairly bomb proof and sets well every time. You can tell when the jelly will set by dropping a teaspoon full onto a refrigerated cold saucer. If it sets, the mixture is ready.
In the meantime, you need to prepare your jars ready for the jelly. I have an assortment of jars that I have collected over the years, but if you’re doing it for the first time, it’s worth knowing that a 2lb jam jar holds about 1 ¼ pints of jelly. (And for those of you who actually DID go metric in the 1970s, that 1lb = 454g). These need to be scrupulously clean, so that the jelly will keep for a long time without going off. A hot wash in the dishwasher should be sufficient, although give them a quick check over afterwards. I usually wash them just before I’m going to use them, so that they are kept warm in the hot steam; be warned, if you allow them to get cold and pour hot jelly into them, they will crack. So if you wash them by hand, you may want to keep them warm them in the oven before use.
As soon as your jelly is at setting point, take it off the heat and ladle it (or if you’re brave, pour it) straight into your waiting jars, and slip a wax disc on top. The aim is to get an airtight seal as quickly as possible, to lessen the chance of any germs getting in. Put a transparent plastic cover over the top, and secure with an elastic band, then the jar lid if you have it. The jelly should then keep in a dark, cool place for at least several weeks, possibly longer although mine never lasts that long before it’s eaten so I couldn’t say for sure. It would be sensible to check for signs of mould by then anyway!
I expect that any of you who are thinking of trying this recipe are wondering how much it will cost, so I have done a rough break down per pint of jelly and per a 2lb jar. A 2lb jam jar holds about 1 ¼ pints. The crab apples are free from my garden so you’ll have to add the cost of these if you are buying them, and the jars themselves if you have not accumulated recycled ones. All consumables prices are from Tesco, wax discs etc. from eBay.
Fair-trade sugar: 94p per 1 kg/2.2lbs = 43p per 1lb sugar = 43p per pint of jelly = 53p per 2lb jar
Lemon (assuming 1 lemon in 4 pints): 19p per lemon = approx 5p per pint of jelly = approx 6p per 2lb jar
Cinammon sticks (assuming half a stick used in 4 pints): £1.08 for 4 sticks = approx 4p per pint of jelly = approx 4p per 2lb jar
Wax discs/covers/bands and labels: Approx £2 for a set of 24 = approx 8p per 2lb jar
Overall cost: Approx 71p per 2lb jar of jelly
I have not included the cost of cooking, but you can see that this jelly is quite cheap to make. As well as being delicious, it makes an ideal cheap present and I have found it to be well received by friends and family.
THE TASTE / USE
This crab apple jelly goes really well with roast pork and particularly all cold meats, especially with the cinnamon added. Admittedly, it does have a fairly high sugar content (although lower than most shop-bought versions of apple sauce or jam) but it’s an accompaniment, not a main meal and I think we can all get a little paranoid about our food these days. You could try making it with a smaller quantity of sugar, although this would probably affect the setting, and also as crab apples are very sour, they do need a lot of sugar to make the jelly palatable, unless you like a particularly tart taste.