This is a picture of the beautiful crab apples that I harvested from a scraggly tree by the side of a footpath that runs along the Potomac River in downtown Washington DC. Said footpath just happens to run parallel to the Watergate, that infamous and luxurious building from the Nixon era. So while I was clambering around the lower limbs of the tree I could gaze at the professionally landscaped balconies of multi-millionaire politicians and business tycoons just across the way.
Given the juxtaposition, its not surprising that people jogging by seemed to think that I was homeless. After all, we are in a city. Normal people would just go buy some apples at the farmers' market. But normalcy has never been a close friend of mine, and so there I was, getting scratched by branches, observing unwary cyclists from my perch, scaring the public and generally having a good time. Who wouldn't when one is getting free apples for the picking?
I made the crab apples into some delicious and spicy apple butter. Unfortunately, although I know how many cups of apple butter I made (4), I have can't remember how many cups of crab apples I started with. But I'm going to guess, for the sake of the recipe, that it was probably about 8. Its amazing how things cook down. Anyways, my vague attempt at instructions follows. Thank Simply Recipes for the inspiration. It's hard to mess up apple butter. And if you don't feel like pissing off the secret service, you can use regular apples from the store (or your tree if you have one).
Spicy Wild Crab Apple Butter
Makes about two pints of apple butter. You should be able to double the recipe and still get good results.
About 8 cups of whole crab apples, with stems removed and any rotten parts cut out. If you are using regular apples, cut out the core and cut the apples into quarters.
About 6 cups of sugar (I like organic brown sugar, but the regular bleached stuff works too).
The juice and zest of one lemon.
The amount and type of spices used can be varied to taste. Cardamom or star anise might even work in here, who knows!
About 2 tsp of cinnamon
1 large cinnamon stick, broken in half, or two small sticks
About 3/4 tsp nutmeg
About 1/2 tsp cloves
About 1/2 tsp ground dried ginger
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
2-3 clean pint glass jars. These can be old peanut butter jars, salsa jars and so on. Take a look at the lid on the inside to make sure there are no big nicks in the rubberized lining-if not they should seal up fine. I have always re-used jars for my canning, both here and in Belize, and have never had a serious problem with sealing as long as the lining is still good.
1. Put the jars upside down in a deep sauce pan or a pot, place the lids bottom side up in the same pot (you can sit the jars on top of their lids). Pour in about 3-4 inches of water. (The exact amount is not important as long as it covers the the portion of the jar that the lid will cover). Put on medium-high heat, bring to a boil and allow to boil for at least 10 minutes to sterilize the jars.
2. Place the apples in a pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft (about 20-30 minutes). Remove from heat, let cool a bit and blend the mixture until smooth. Don't worry about the seeds in the crab apples, they will be pulverized in the blending.
3. Return the pulp to the pot, add the sugar, cinnamon sticks and spices and bring to a boil. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring regularly. The idea is to get a lot of the water to evaporate out of the mix so that it will get thicker, more concentrated and more tasty, so keep stirring to help the evaporation process along and to make sure nothing burns on the bottom. Remove the cinnamon sticks after about 20 minutes. Once the mixture begins to thicken up, stir in the lemon zest and lemon juice and mix it in well, add the vanilla too if you are using it.
4. Once the butter has taken on a dark hue and is quite thick and "gloopy", you will want to perform a jelly test to determine if it is ready to jar. Take about a tablespoon of the butter onto the spoon you are stirring with and turn it sideways to let the pulp pour off the spoon. If the last couple drops are thick and viscous and run together into a little sheet, or drop off the spoon close to one another and at the same time, you are probably about done. To double check this, put about a teaspoon of the butter on a dish, stick it in the fridge for a minute or two to cool down, and then check the texture. If it is as thick as you want it to be when you spread it on your toast, then it's finished. Pull the pot off the heat immediately.
5. Jarring: this is easier than it sounds. Several instruments make it even easier, but they aren't essential: a spatula to scrape out the last bites, a wide mouthed funnel that you can stick into the mouth of the jar, and a pair of tongs. The tongs are the most important part as you will see. To can your tasty apple butter, take an oven-mitted hand or the tongs and grab one of the sterilized jars (which should still be bubbling away at medium heat in their pan). Set it right side up on the counter, put the funnel in if you have one (I don't) and the spoon the butter into the jar right up to the top. You want to fill it as full as you can without it spilling over the edges (bad, because then it won't seal properly). Now, with your tongs grab the lid, then using your mittened hands, put the lid on, tightening it down completely. Turn the jar upside down onto the counter to cool. Repeat until you run out of apple butter.
If you have a bit more than 2 pints (or 4 pints if you double the recipe), just put it in a container to cool in the fridge, then eat it in the next week or so. When you check the jars after they have cooled the middle of the lid should not be puffed upwards. If it is, the jar has not sealed. Put it in the fridge and eat it over the next couple weeks (no great hardship). The sealed jars can be stuck in your cupboard and will stay in good shape for a year or two, if you can keep your hands off them for that long.
This apple butter is really great on toast, pancakes or muffins. It also makes a great glaze for fruit tarts, just mix a few tablespoons of the butter with a little hot water and apply it with a pastry brush.