When I first started writing the Orchard Mysteries, I decided I should get some experience with what I was writing about—growing apples—so I toured a number of commercial orchards, talked to a lot of people (including the director of the experimental orchard at UMass Amherst), and planted my own tiny orchard. That was in 2007.
|Meet Nathan, the Northern Spy|
My first tree was a Northern Spy (which I call Nathan Hale, now and then), that I found in western Massachusetts, where the books are set. Probably not the best choice for a beginning, because they are slow to mature and produce apples, and the fruit doesn’t usually ripen until November. But Nathan has survived fairly well and has put out a decent crop this year. So have most of the other trees—even the Esopus Spitzenburg, a variety that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. It’s not very happy with our climate at the moment, and has a serious case of fire blight, but it does have apples.
Having a very small orchard (a total of eight trees), I worry about each and every apple, and when one drops too early it breaks my heart. So I started casting about for something to do with very unripe tiny apples—I couldn’t let them go to waste. (And I have no pigs or goats to feed them to.)
I went hunting online and came upon the world’s simplest recipe for apple jelly. Actually unripe apples are great for this—they have lots of natural pectin, but plenty of flavor. The recipe has all of four ingredients: apples, water, a bit of lemon juice, and sugar. You don’t even have to peel or core the apples—just chop them up and away you go.
You don’t need a fancy canning set-up, although I was thrilled that I finally got to use my vintage canning funnel (see? I knew it would be useful someday!). I didn’t jump through hoops to sterilize all my jars (recycled from other jellies), but I’m planning to keep the jelly in the fridge anyway. If you make jelly and want to give it to friends as gifts, you might want to be a little more careful, unless you’re a big fan of mold.
You do, however, need a candy thermometer, because the exact temperature at which you cook your jelly is important.
Green Apple Jelly
4 lbs green (unripe) apples
|Four pounds of apples|
1/2 cup lemon juice
Do not peel or core the fruit, just wash and cut it into pieces. Seeds and skin contain most pectin so they should be cooked along with the pulp. This will make a firm jelly.
Cover the fruit with the water and add more if needed. Add the lemon juice and boil until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash.
Strain the fruit through a large strainer lined with two layers of clean cheesecloth. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RUSH THE JUICE BY SQUEEZING THE BAG OR MASHING THE FRUIT DOWN. THIS WILL MAKE THE JELLY CLOUDY. Be patient! Let the fruit stand in the strainer 4 to 6 hours or overnight if you have the space available.
The following morning, measure the juice. Add sugar, in the ratio of 1 cup sugar to 1 cup juice. Boil until a candy thermometer reads 220 degrees F.
Note: Your pan must be big enough so jelly can raise up in a rolling boil. This is a boil that cannot be stirred down. Jelly must boil at a rolling boil until it reaches the 220 degree stage or it will not set. It kind of wants to stop at 218 degrees for a while, but you have to wait. You can see when it starts to thicken.
|Now this is boiling!|
Turn off the heat and skim off any froth. Fill and cap the jars.
And now stand back and admire your results! And think of all those farm women who spent days canning and preserving their crops in the heat of summer, so they could eat over the winter. For your information, that four pounds of apples, covered with water, produced four cups of apple liquid, which after boiling it down, yielded five eight-ounce jars of jelly. Imagine what making enough to last the winter would require!
What do you do with apple jelly? The usual—put it on toast or muffins. It’s also good for glazing pie crusts—under the fruit so the crust doesn’t get soggy quite so fast, and over the fruit to give your open-faced pie a nice finish. You’ll find something!