“John had his golden pippins, peaches, and nectarines; poor Miss a crab-apple, sloe, or a blackberry.” 1712 Arbuthnot John Bull OED
Today, people still loves peaches, nectarines, and pippins (apples) as much as they did back in 1712 and we also still tend to devalue their companion fruits—the sloe (blackthorn or wild plums), blackberries, and crab-apples—relegating them to “poor Miss” status.
In Baltimore, the multiple varieties of Malus crab-apples are as common and widespread as their fruit is wasted. Here, crabs are revered and the humble crab-apple is reviled.
Rotting crab-apples encircle three productive trees on the corner of 29th and Keswick. You can get to them through the parking lot behind the Boy Scouts Center where you may have seen us harvesting this fall.
There is another neglected tree on 26th and Calvert. People would never ignore an apple tree this way and I don’t quite get why these poor cousins get such treatment! Crab-apple trees are a great, flowering under-canopy tree in the spring and many varieties can be found bearing tart-and-tasty fruit in the fall all over town.
The big issue is not where to find them but what to do with them.
Well, my cousin Ann and Aunt Sandy harvested some and do both say they were a bit of a pain. They followed a basic recipe for making a jelly, which included de-stemming, cleaning off the bottom, halving (or puncturing, if the apple is on the smaller side) and then straining the cooked pulp through a jelly bag. Very time consuming; since they had to throw out all the roughage, five pounds of fruit made only four pints of jelly.
The plus side is that crab-apples are so full of natural pectin there is no need to add anything extra to the jam. Sandy even sealed them with paraffin to avoid having to bathe them at all (Though bathing seems easier to me).
The jelly can be worth the effort in spite of all this; I look forward to my aunt’s promised pint of crab-apple jelly every year at Christmas. She recommends it on an omelet or as a glaze for ham. I was always the one among a dozen nieces and nephews –okay perhaps even the only one — who looked forward to receiving Aunt Sandy’s unique take on preserves each year: watermelon rind pickles, banana pepper and onion relish, and variations of sweet and sour chutneys.
Sandy rightly complained of too few crab-apple recipes and suggested using them as a substitute for cranberries or playing with chutney recipes. The standard preserving books (Sunset, Ball, etc.) provide recipes for both plain and spiced jelly and crab-apple pickles. (Sandy’s recipe for crab-apple jelly is included below).
Not in a mood to pickle or preserve, however, I decided to take a different approach to the processing crab-apple problem. A clear memory of eating sugar-glazed crab-apple kebabs during the moon festival at the Temple of the Earth one fall in Beijing inspired me to try to replicate them. There were five on a stick covered in a red sugar coating that crunched like broken glass when bitten into and blended beautifully with the sour crab-apple within.
Searching the web, I quickly came across many candied crab-apple variations. Keeping the stem on, you can dip them like chocolate-covered cherries, but I decided to take the kebab approach to replicate as much as possible the original Chinese Fall Moon Festival version.
Candied Crab-apple Kebobs
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups corn syrup
2 tsp. natural red food coloring
washed crab-apples with stems cut off
In advance, spear the crab-apples on a wooden stick. In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and corn syrup to a boil. Stir constantly and keep boiling until a candy thermometer reaches 310-359º F. Keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Remove from the heat and add the food coloring. Mix well. Dip crab apples into the syrup and drain them over a rack. If you want a more westernized flavor, add a teaspoon of cinnamon when you add the food coloring.
Note: It’s a good idea to pick the best of the biggest and best-looking of the crab-apple crop because the candied sugar, though good, does not make up for a sour or mealy crab-apple! Also remember to twirl the stick until the candy cools (Then rest on a rack with parchment or foil underneath). Any leftover sugar corn syrup mix can be used as a base for toffee or caramel.
Aunt Sandy’s Crab-apple Jelly
5 lbs crab-apples (She used several varieties from as big as a cherry tomato to as small as a thumbnail)
8 cups water
Sugar (3/4 cup per 1 cup juice obtained)
1 tsp vanilla
Remove stems, cut off bottom part, remove bad parts, cut in half or puncture skin of small ones, and put in a large pot. Cook until soft, about 10 mins.
Strain pulp in a jelly bag without forcing out the juice
Measure juice to approx. 7 cups. Measure ¾ cup sugar per cup juice.
Pour back into pot and combine with the sugar.
Bring to a rolling boil until the mixture has reached the jelling point, namely when two drips mold into 1.
Skim off the foam, turn off the heat, and add the vanilla.
Pour into sterilized and hot jams leaving 1/8th inch from the rim. Clean the rim, seal, and return to the sterilizing kettle to bathe in water for 5 minutes. If you prefer to use paraffin, only fill the jar to ½ inch from the rim.
Be sure to have a packet of pectin on hand. A final caveat from Sandy: you do not need to go through the time-consuming removal of stems, etc. since this extra material adds more pectin and flavor and will be removed anyway, when you strain it through the jelly bag. This should help keep you from getting crabby in the process.