There is a common misconception that crabapples aren’t good for much, merely because their size prohibits easy peeling and coring. And their name characterizes them unfairly.
(W used to call them “crap apples”.)
But in reality, having all the flavour and tartness of a full apple packed into such a condensed space is a good thing; and the fact that they are ripe and ready right at harvest time can’t be a coincidence. Loaded with flavour and pectin (especially the cores, so you don’t want to core them anyway), crabapples are delicious insurance that your jams and jellies will set, without buying and upending a packet of powdered stuff into your pot. Apple is delicious with berries, plums, or any other fruits you want to toss in – but there’s nothing wrong with straight-up crabapple, either.
I happened to be gifted with a bucket of equally tart and tiny plums – crabplums – which were equally impossible to pit. And so they joined the party – a potful, covered with water, simmered until sludgy, then strained through a colander (or cheesecloth if you want a clearer jelly) and brought to a boil with sugar. You don’t need a particular quantity of crabapples – just whatever you manage to shake from your tree. And have a bag of sugar on hand.
People use jelly bags (or make them) to create a slow drip of pure, clear juice for their jellies – the rule is to not push or otherwise disrupt the solids, which will produce a cloudy (gasp!) jelly. I don’t particularly mind this, and tend to swish the apple mash around in the strainer to extract as much as possible. It’s lovely and pink. If you have a second pot, you can straight it directly into it.
What makes people most nervous about jam and jelly making is the setting. There are a few ways to go about this – you could boil it to 220F on a candy thermometer, or test it for the gelling stage by dripping some onto a plate in the freezer and pushing it with your finger to see if it wrinkles. My candy thermometer is packed away somewhere, and so I took the wait-and-see approach, and cooked it until it went from looking like bubbling juice to bubbling jam. The bubbles are thicker and slower, and the foam that rises to the surface turns dense and almost clumpy – don’t skim it off right away; it’s a good indicator that your jelly is done. When you pour it into jars, the surface will start to cool – pushing it with a spoon produces the same wrinkled effect you get by using your finger and a cold plate. You can see it starting to gel.
I don’t bother with the pressure canning process – jellies like this keep well in the fridge for months, and rather than push them to the back to be forgotten until next spring, when I decide it might be a good idea to clean out the fridge, I give away the surplus.
And if your jelly doesn’t set, just call it crabapple syrup – to drizzle over ice cream or cakes or into cocktails or tea – and it will still be delicious.