Autumn in a jar

One of my favorite things in October are the crabapple trees on a sunny day like yesterday. With their branches bare of leaves, the tiny vibrant apples stand out even more against the blue sky. I wanted to spend more time taking in that stunning view. And since I had set my mind on trying out crabapple butter this year, what better way to spend time near the crabapples than picking!

Usually by mid-October we have already harvested a bucket of crabapples for jelly (what is left on the trees is eaten by the wild turkeys), only this this year we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Picking crabapples is a two-person operation – to reach the branches we have to drive the truck underneath each tree.

Yesterday I was home alone, and without the truck. I fetched a stepladder, fully aware of what I was doing was pretty risky business on that steep hill. I certainly did not want to get stranded with a twisted ankle or worse for a basket of crabapples so I was very careful and restrained myself from any climbing maneuvers. And I left alone the clusters of beautiful crabapples that beckoned to be picked but I could not safely reach.

I neither had the time nor wanted to spend hours standing by the stove stirring, therefore I cooked the crabapple butter in a cast-iron Dutch oven in the oven. In the summer I made plum butter that way and it turned out great. It was late when I finished so I did not can the jars until this morning. That was not a problem, I simply slowly reheated the crabapple butter, stirring constantly until the surface, which had dried out a bit overnight, became smooth again.

To prevent the surface from drying out in the jars, I added a tablespoon of juice to each jar on top of the crabapple butter. I happened to have some quince juice on hand so I used that but I think that apple cider or apple juice would be ideal, and orange juice would work just as well.

Crabapple Butter

4 pounds crabapples, stems removed and picked over

1 teaspoon cinnamon chips

2 cloves

4 cardamom pods

1 star anise

1 teaspoon dried ginger chips (or 1 thumbnail size-piece of peeled fresh ginger)

2 cups sugar

Juice to pour on top (apple cider, orange or apple juice)

1. Wash the crabapples several times in cold water. Put them in a large heavy pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then cook over medium heat for 30 to 45 minutes, until the apples are soft and can easily be crushed with a wooden spoon.

2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Tie the spices in a piece of cheesecloth.

3. Pass the cooked crabapples through the fine sieve of a food mill. You should have about 4 cups of pulp. Return it to the rinsed pot and add the sugar. Cook over low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.

4. Pour the pulp in a medium-size Dutch oven, or another ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid. The dish should not be too large, otherwise the butter will scorch. Add the mix from the pot and bury the spice bag in it.

5. Cover the pot and place it in the middle rack of the preheated oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, stir well and scrape down the sides and over the bottom of the dish. Repeat this every 30 minutes for about 3 hours, until the butter is so thick that a spoon leaves a trace.

6. Remove the spice bag. Fill the hot crabapple butter in sterilized canning jars and push it down with a knife to remove any air pockets. Pour 1 tablespoon juice on top of the butter in each jar. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Makes 4 to 5 8-ounce jars

Swan song? Hope not

The crabapples were plumper and larger than ever this year. This might not be a surprise after all the rain we had but for us, it is startling because in the spring it did not look as if the 25-year-old trees were going to make it.

After the snow melted, we realized serious bark damage on two-thirds of the trees. The bark had been chewed off all around from the ground to about a foot high. But then, as every year, the crabapples bloomed in the first week of May, making me want to cruise up and down our driveway again and again just to enjoy that gorgeous sight. Then came the drought in July, and the trees were still hanging in there.

And now this, a rich harvest! Such a severe damage to the bark is like removing the esophagus from a human body, totally disrupting food transportation. My explanation for the trees still being alive in mid-summer was that they must have had enough nutrients stored at the top. Whether these reserves could last a whole season I didn’t know.

I am marveling at this miracle, and at the same time I fear this might be the trees’ swan song. Meanwhile, I made crabapple jelly today, very much hoping that I will be doing exactly the same thing again this time next year.

Gingered Crabapple Jelly

To extract the juice from the crabapples, it is best to chop the crabapples coarsely in the food processor, then put them in the steam juicer. The amounts can be increased as needed with a juice to sugar ratio of 2:1.

2½ cups crabapple juice (unsweetened)

1¼ cups sugar

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

1. Mix the juice and the sugar and cook in a heavy pot over low-medium heat for 1 hour. Remove any scum with a ladle or a large spoon.

2. Put a teaspoon full on a plate and wait a couple of minutes. If it is still runny, cook a few minutes longer and test again. If it gels but it still a little soft, it’s fine, as the jelly will solidify considerably upon cooling.

3. Pour the hot jelly in sterilized jars through a canning funnel. Wipe the rim with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips and wipe dry with paper towel. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

9. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars. If processed properly, the jelly will keep for 1 year or more.

Makes 2 half-pint jars