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Crab Apple Dreams For Spring

January 24, 2011

            The clog dancing finals must be a bit early this year.  Or perhaps, due to advanced age, the participants of this year’s tournament need to begin their grueling regimen of practice at daybreak earlier in the season so that they will be in shape to compete when the time comes.  Whatever the case may be, the old gal upstairs was particularly vibrant in her near step-dancing routine this morning shortly after the roosters crowed.  How she keeps up with such a demanding sport, considering she doesn’t get to bed until well after we, the occupants of the residence immediately below her, are already soundly sleeping is a mystery.

            Since I was up and out of bed so early, I decided that an early Sunday morning meant I could afford myself the luxury of a short stack of pancakes covered in crab apple syrup, a tall glass of juice, and a little music on the kitchen CD player.

            When I was a child, my mother used to make pancakes for breakfast on Sundays.  That is of course if we weren’t having scrambled eggs, sausage from the W.A. Beans store and toast with jelly.  She owned a waffle maker, but it always seemed to her to be so much extra effort to use it, that we rarely did.  Oh, every now and again we would have “breakfast for dinner” and enjoy waffles with maple syrup, saving the left over waffles to eat cold the next day.  That was fairly rare, admittedly.  Dad is in charge of breakfast at home these days, and he does a pretty mean job of it.

            Mom’s pancake recipe was among those which I carried with me on a three by five index card, tucked neatly into a little plastic box with all of the other family recipes I had collected over the years, when I went to Europe.  As it turns out, pancakes are as American as apple pie.

            In my second stay in France, I had befriended several Norman women from the town of Banville, not far from Graye-sur-Mer where Charles de Gaulle made his triumphant landing as he made his way back from exile in London during the war.  Marie Chirot, and her daughters Bernadette and Paulette, welcomed me and my friend Andrée Harivel with regularity.  Theirs was a typical Norman farm, with a pen for rabbits and a few apple trees.  Surrounded by a high wall of stone, as most are, the home was a model of seclusion.

            One afternoon, as I was having one of my blue moments, I decided that I would treat the ladies to pancakes for dessert.  I could never have passed them off as a breakfast food.  Breakfast in France is pretty strictly a large mug of coffee and some day old baguette, toasted in the oven, with some marmalade on it.  Since day old baguette is fairly hard, one judiciously dunks it into one’s coffee (or tea in my case because I refused to drink the other poison).  There are a few other variations, but they are slight.  Andrée’s brother-in-law, Michel Maletras, would enjoy a slab of “bacon”—more like a slice of Canadian ham/bacon, not crispy strips like in the US—with his toast.  And crêpes in Brittany, where the Harivel family was raised, are savory and served often with sparkling apple cider for dinner, with a white “sweet” crêpe for dessert.  Pancakes, then would never pass as a breakfast food.  Never.

            Baking powder, which is really a mix of baking soda and cream of tartar (an acid-base reactor) which mix and create the gaseous artificial leavening for what we call in the U.S. “quick breads”, was going to be a problem.  Why?  Well, it doesn’t really exist in France.  The closest thing to it is called Maizena, but it doesn’t work as well.  And baking soda, due to its bomb making capacity, is a controlled substance that a pharmacist can sell you only a few tablespoons full of at a time.  In order to make my pancakes, then, I had to bring my own “levure chimique”.

            Once in the kitchen, though, things went smoothly.  Norman butter is delicious, and the sugar (often made from sugar beets rather than cane sugar plants) is not as sweet, but just as tasty.  Milk is sold in Normandy much like it is here (where as in Paris, it is most often sold “sterilized” and in boxes which you can put on a shelf and save for drinking after the apocalypse).

            Here is the recipe, which I later translated for my friends and left behind with an American measuring cup (more for the folklore of it, rather than the utility):

Marion’s Pancakes

1 ½ cups flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

3 tablespoons of sugar

Salt to taste (less than ¾ teaspoon)

1 or 2 eggs, depending on size

¾ cup of milk

3 tablespoons of melted butter

            Mix all the ingredients, except for the butter, together to make a medium thick batter.  Preheat the skillet with the three tablespoons of butter in it.  Be sure that the bottom of the skillet is nicely coated with the butter; the butter will keep the first batch from sticking to the pan.  Pour the excess melted butter into the batter and stir thoroughly.  Spoon on to the hot pan the pancake batter and let cook on one side.  Little air bubbles seem to form on the surface of the batter as it cooks.  When it seems like the bubbles have stopped coming, it is generally just the right time to turn the pancakes over with a spatula.  They will be golden brown on that side.  Let the flipped pancakes continue to cook on the second side until they are golden brown also when lifted with the spatula.  Serve hot with maple syrup or some other syrup of your choice.

Mine this morning were served with a crab apple syrup that I had made in the fall.  They were absolutely divine and made the fact that I was out of bed several hours earlier than desired much more tolerable.

I moved to Madison a little over a decade ago.  When we were living on the west side, we discovered a beautiful crab apple tree at the PDQ gas station just up the block from where our apartment was.  People sure do look at you funny when you are “caught” picking apples at a gas station.  We moved to this neighborhood almost four years ago now.  On a walk around the area that first fall we were here, we spotted one of the biggest crab apple trees I have ever seen.  The tree was loaded with a bumper crop of fruit all deep red and pleading to be used for jelly.  Sitting on the property of what was formerly a grand mansion, but which is now all cut up into small apartments, we found no owner of whom to ask permission, so we commenced a small harvest.  The Pastor of the church next door to the tree said that there was never anyone else who had any interest in the apples.  We thanked him for the information and later took him a jar to enjoy.

From there the process unfolded over a couple of days, and included 43 pounds of sugar (not a typo) and produced over 50 pints of jelly.  And to imagine that we picked only a small portion of the fruit that there was to be had from the tree!

Crab apple jelly has long been a favorite in my family.  When I was little, mom would pack the three of us kids in to the truck and head to Corinth village to pick apples.  There was a magnificent tree at Mary Jean Duran’s house, and one at the old Chandler farm.  Mom would stop by as the season grew closer to autumn and ask if she could have some of their apples and both proprietors always eagerly replied, “God, yes!  Take as many as you want.  There will be fewer of them for me to mow over if you do!”

I liked the apples at Mary Jean’s best.  They were so deep in their red color.  They were so dark that you could actually see dust on their surface.  The apples at the Chandler farm were lighter in color but none the less tasty.  Since we had a large extended cab pickup truck, Mom would back the truck up so that the bed of the truck was under the tree branches.  Then, rather than having to bend over and pick up the fallen apples, we could shake vigorously the branches and the apples would fall right into the truck bed.  We used a broom later to get them out and into the canners so we could wash them at the outdoor faucet at out house.

I love apples.  They are one of my favorite fruits.  A crab apple though is so small—you can’t peel them or core them lest you have nothing left.  So with your thumb on one end and your forefinger on the other, you can have several little nibbles of the fruit and discard the rest of the core.  Or, you can have some fun with them.  Chip and Dale, two little Disney chipmunks who used to torment Mickey’s dog Pluto, used to eat the apple off the core.  Then when the other wasn’t expecting anything, the one would shout, “Apple core who’s your friend?”  He never waited for a response before sending the core hurling through the air at his friend.  Todd and Missy especially played this game.

Crab apple jelly is not difficult to make and the results are delicious.  Sometimes, in addition to the apple, my great grandmother, Marion, used to add some concord grapes or some other fruit in to the mix as she cooked it, just to change the flavor a little.  I have never felt the need to do that.  Crab apple jelly is delicious used as jelly, but it is also quite nice as a condiment to baked chicken, as my mother used to serve it.  In any case, here is one way to make the jelly:

Crab Apple Jelly

Pick two regular shopping bags (doubled up would likely be best) full of crab apples-alone this can take up to two hours if you are getting them off the ground after they have already dropped, but as a team the work becomes much easier.  Fill the bags right up, don’t be stingy; if they seem too heavy to carry, that’s the right way to fill them.

Bring the bags home, wash the apples well.  In the good ole days, one would have sat and with a knife removed the stem and opposite end of each apple before cooking.  We have discovered that it really doesn’t make any difference in the flavor so why go to the extra expense of time.

Cooking the apples

Put the apples into large canners to cook.  Add water to the canners, just up to the level where you can see it.  Boil apples about 5 to 10 minutes until they seemingly fall apart into sauce.  Remove from heat and cool.

In the meantime, get the following tools ready:  an old pillow case that has served as a jelly strainer since before you can remember and an empty canner which was likely given to your mother by a loving aunt or her own grandmother many years before; this canner will catch the juice. (The pot I use has been in my family since the 1950′s and is one of those old pots that has character as a result of all the jelly making over the years!)  You will also need a rod to hang a heavy bag from, two sturdy chairs, scissors and some bailing twine.  If you are doing all of this in the kitchen, putting down a bit of plastic to make sure you don’t make a real mess is also somewhat advisable.

In the middle of your plastic sheeting, place the old canner.  On either side of the canner, place the two sturdy chairs with the rod balanced between them.  Put the opened pillow case strainer in the canner and add the boiled apples.  Gather the top of the pillow case and tie securely with some twine.  With more twine, suspend the bag in mid air above the canner so that the weight of the apples will force the juice out with the help of gravity.  Let hang over night.

The Pillow Case Strainer

The following day, remove the canner and the juice to the stove.  Cut free the pillow case, discard the apple mash and clean up.  (Others will tell you to “use all the parts of the buffalo”—meaning that you should SAVE the mash. Run it through a food mill and use the deep raspberry-colored sauce to make crabapple applesauce, or mix half-n-half with regular applesauce for pink applesauce, or best of all make crab apple butter.)

Measure carefully the amount of juice that you have, calculate the amount of sugar and pectin needed to make the jelly.  In this case we had:  66 cups of juice, 42.5 pounds of sugar, 12 boxes of Sure Jell premium fruit pectin (according to recipe given in box).  Altering ingredients or amounts of sugar may cause the jelly not to set.

Bringing the juice up to a boil

Bring juice to a boil and add dry ingredients.  Bring to a rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred) and hold there for 1 minute.  Remove from heat and skim off any foam.  Do not discard the foam as it is a perfect filling for a jelly roll.  Fill jars immediately to within 1/8 inch of tops.  Cover with two-piece lids.  Screw bands tightly.

Always use clean, sterilized jars.  Be sure that your jars are submerged in piping hot water, as well as new rings/flat jar lids.  Drain well before adding the boiling hot liquid jelly.  This will prevent dangerous breakage.  To seal, invert the jar for up to 30 minutes, then right the jar.  You will hear the jars begin to “pop” as the seal takes hold.  You can test the seal to the touch.—check seals by pressing in the middle of the lid.  If the lid springs back, it did not seal and needs to be refrigerated. 

Cover jars with tea towels so that the heat does not escape too quickly.  Let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.  Yields:  about 40 pints—though you can make smaller batches!

A good day's job done

I have indeed tried to make the jelly without adding pectin and it just doesn’t set up—likely because of the water that I had added for cooking.  Old fashioned jellies were sometimes known for not being as translucent and as pretty in color given the amount of time that it took to cook the apples in such little water—and how easy it was to burn the ingredients.  Since pectin is a natural product, I don’t mind using the store bought versions in my recipe.   In the case that your jelly doesn’t set up like it should, it is a marvelous sauce for ice cream and pancakes and such, which is how I started my morning today!  (Otherwise the only way to fix the problem is to reopen the jars of unset jelly, bring the contents back up to boil, add another box or two of pectin and a bit of sugar, keep the contents at the higher temperature a little longer than usual, and recan.  It isn’t a big deal, but time consuming and frustrating.)

The sugar levels are determined strictly by the recipe in the pectin boxes. There are several kinds. The pink box requires more than the yellow, and the pectin that comes in the little foil packets like a liquid requires even less. I try at least to use the yellow box which is cheaper than the liquid kind, but to be very honest, I haven’t ever worried about it too much.  If you suffer from diabetes, this recipe may not be for you.

One final criticism that is sometimes given to this recipe, which was first published on Caffeinated Politics, is the fact that I don’t submerge my filled jars in a ten-minute hot water bath just to be sure that there is no bacteria left.  I haven’t ever done it that way, and doing it wouldn’t change the contents and its flavor any, so if you prefer, just to be on the safe side, go ahead and go to that extra step.

Before ending, I thought I would share a recipe for an old fashioned jelly roll that my grandmother, Marie Megquier, used to make with the foamy stuff she would skim off the top of the jelly as it heated.

Marie’s Old Fashioned Jelly Roll

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

¼ cup cold water

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Jelly or jam; cream icing; cherries or nuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat eggs then sugar.  Add water and vanilla.  Sift dry ingredients.  Pour into a 15X11 pan (lined with greased wax paper).  Bake for 12-15 minutes.  When golden brown, turn out on a tea towel sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.  Spread the jelly, icing, or other treats, and roll.  Leave wrapped in the tea towel until cool.  Slice and serve.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Helena Clarke-Froidevaux permalink
    January 24, 2011 5:30 pm

    The pancake recipe is being printed out and posted on the refrigerator for our grandson’s next visit schedule for February (French schoolchildren have their winter break during this month).

  2. Marion permalink
    February 2, 2011 3:50 pm

    Dad has taken over making the pancakes. he can’t remember the receipe but I can so cooperation is alive and well in our 43 yr. marriage. He’s getting to be such an accomplished “Betty Crocker”. LOL

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