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Cooking With Myra: Jelly making experiment almost success

Oct. 4, 2010 at 5:04 a.m.
Updated Oct. 5, 2010 at 5:05 a.m.

Crabapple Jelly

Crabapple Jelly

By Myra Starkey

I am standing in my kitchen with my sleeves rolled up. My apron is splattered with apple pulp and wet with sugar syrup.

I am attempting to make jelly. This is not my first foray into the world of preserving the harvest, but it is turning out to be one of my more challenging ones.

Several weeks ago, I took a trip to New Mexico with Robert and Mary Ann. On the way to the house where I would be staying, I spotted a crabapple tree in a pasture. The tree was planted in the middle of a recently-harvested alfalfa field. Some of the uncut alfalfa had bloomed, and the rich green field was outlined with its small, purple flowers along the fence line, and the deep blue sky was covering us like the ceiling of some celestial cathedral.

Robert, my host, asked me if I had ever eaten the tiny, tart crabapples, and I responded that I was game to try one now.

We pulled over and Mary Ann and I stepped through the barbed-wire fence. The field was owned by Robert, so I had permission to trespass.

I tucked a bag into my pocket for the apples, but as I got closer, I realized I might have to climb the tree to pick the fruit.

I was just eyeing the branches when Robert tugged on the end of a branch so we could pluck the fruit. He continued to hold branch after branch while Mary Ann and I stretched to pick the tiny apples, selecting only those that had turned a least a little red.

I bit into one and the tart sweetness made my mouth pucker. They looked exactly like a miniature apple.

Crabapples are extremely tart fruits in the same genus as table apples. Some botanists believe they may be the ancestor of the domesticated apples we buy at the grocery store.

Crabapple trees are sometimes cultivated for their flowers and dwarf size fruits. The trees are generally smaller and wilder than regular apple trees, as the branches appear gnarly and may have thorns. The fruit grows in clusters and may be yellow to red when they are ripe.

Because the fruit is so sour, they are used in chutneys and sauces or made into jelly with the addition of sugar. They are high in pectin, a natural, fruit-based gelatin.

On the way back to Victoria, I thought of all the ways I could prepare the fruit, and settled on jelly. I have never made crabapple jelly, but I was up to the challenge.

I researched several recipes, and decided to split my produce into two parts and try two different recipes.

The first recipe indicated that since crabapples contain a lot of pectin it is not necessary to add any to make the jelly firm up or gel. I made a jelly bag out of two layers of cheesecloth and lined a colander with the cloth. This bag would allow only the juice to pass through.

I boiled the apples and watched as they ruptured within 10 minutes. I allowed the juice to seep through the cloth for several hours.

I marveled at how clear the liquid was. Clear is good in jelly making.

I completed the task of boiling the juice with equal parts of sugar and then pouring it into small fruit jars and affixing the seal and ring.

I then processed in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes to seal the jars. Then I waited.

I started my second batch using Sure Jell, an artificial pectin. By this time it was about 11 o'clock at night, and I had tasted my share of apple juice with sugar, so I was not the least bit tired.

I thought the second batch needed color so I added two teabags of pomegranate tea to the juice for a brief time until the mix turned a beautiful light rose hue.

I added an equal amount of sugar and the pectin and boiled the juice the appropriate amount of time, allowing it to reach 220 degrees. I filled the prepared jars and sealed that batch.

I glanced around the kitchen and noticed I had made quite a mess during this process. Sticky countertops and a floor lightly sprinkled with runaway sugar crystals. Funnels, measuring cups, soiled towels and pots, all needing to be cleaned before I turned in for the evening.

Before I turned off the kitchen light, I took one more look at my 12 jars full of liquid that I hoped would turn to jelly.

I tossed and turned all night wondering if my masterpiece would work or if I would be forced to use the unjellied jelly as a sauce for ice cream or pancakes.

The next morning, Taylor awoke first and announced that he wasn't quite sure if I had achieved what I hoped to.

The clear jelly without pectin had not jelled at all, but the rose colored jars looked like they were on their way to firming up.

Hooray for the jelly process. Actually, I have to wait about 24 hours to see if I am successful.

Normally, when I encounter something that doesn't work well the first time, I continue to test the recipe until I have perfected it. It may take 10 pounds of sugar, but I won't stop until I get it right.

I was 50 percent successful, so I am rolling up my sleeves and starting some mint apple jelly next, but I am reluctantly skipping the apple picking and just buying juice, since I lack an apple tree.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or e-mail myra@vicad.com.

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