So it’s Fall. I’ve been resisting it. In fact I’ve been in denial about summer going away until today when it’s so cold I’ve had to close windows. First time since May… not a joyful moment. You see, as much as I love fall—the leaves, the pumpkins, and especially the apples—I don’t love a closed up house. Oh well. A couple of nights in front of the wood stove will melt my resentment and warm me up to the idea up cozy autumn days. So in the spirit of Embracing Change this post is my white flag to the advancing front. Bring on the seasons of home and hearth and holiday celebrations! Spiced Crab Apples with Mint charts a course toward those fancy and festive meals to come.
Last week I did the food and styling for a photo shoot near Linville Falls which is in the high country where it’s already full on fall. The enchanting poplar bark sided house where we shot—Dot’s cabin—had a huge crabapple tree hanging low with fruit. Throughout the day I was scheming their pickling potential and when I told Dot I was thinking about making spiced crabapples, she sent me home with a basketful of the dainties. I was so excited.
You see, spiced crab apples were a highlight of my childhood, food-wise. The ruby red jewels were offered up on cut glass relish trays (the pickle plate) at every holiday and some Sunday meals. My family, especially my aunts, loved their pickle plates. With turkey or roast beef dinners there’d be spiced crab apples, or sometimes spiced apple rings in their letter O perfection. Both were sparkling bright and candy sweet, and both came from the A&P—store bought made them extra special. I loved them so much that my parents used them as powerful ducats for trade. “You can have another crab apple if you eat all your squash and some more limas.” OK. If that’s what it takes…
About the Process
Heating fruit in syrup, in this case a vinegary one, and canning them is pretty standard stuff. For whole crab apples, most recipes say to simmer them in the syrup in small batches for 5-10 minutes and immediately packing in jars and canning them. But older recipes call for soaking the fruit in the syrup for hours or days before canning them. I decided to adopt that method because I was going out of town and liked the idea of doing the canning part when I got home. No hurry no worry. Plus I think removing the fruit and boiling the syrup at the end concentrates the apple flavor and softens the vinegary edge.
There are two issues to keep in mind. You want to keep skin-splitting from getting out of hand (some will, that’s OK) and you don’t want all of your apples to fall apart (a few will, that’s OK too). Piercing the apples helps with the skin-splitting issue. Some say to use a fork for that, but for me the fork kept chucking off the sides. I decided precise entry points were needed so I tried a trussing needle and then a corn-on-the-cob holder, which worked best.
The hunt for great CRAB APPLES to pickle is the fun part. There are many kinds, from perfect miniature apple shaped fruit to round cherry-like orbs. Flesh can be white, pink, yellow, or a combination. Crab apples cultivated specifically for eating and canning do exist, but they’re not widely available in markets. Most likely you’ll be foraging from trees grown ornamentally. (Would you mind if I step into your azaleas to pick some crab apples?) The only way to determine if the fruit is suitable for pickling is to bite into it. Relax, Snow White, there aren’t any poison crab apples. Impossibly bitter or squintingly sour fruit cannot be transformed into deliciousness, but apples lacking sweetness or outright bland ones absolutely can. Firm crab apples hold up best to pickling—if they yield easily to pressure or are overripe, make crab apple jelly instead. Smaller apples fit better into jars, unless you’re canning them by the quart. Mine were on the large side and they left more gaps in my wide mouth pint jars than I prefer.
I make my recipe with MINT, incorporating both fresh and dried. Unless labeled by its specific variety, fresh or dried mint in markets is usually spearmint, which has a subtle flavor that’s best for cooking, in my opinion. Peppermint is usually labeled by name. It carries that striking Altoids flavor which suits some desserts or candies, but I wouldn’t like pepperminty pickled apples. You might.
Spiced Crab Apples with Mint
Makes 10 to 12 Pints
The recipe is for 6 pounds of crab apples, but I’ve also included a per pound Master Formula to use if you have more or less fruit. The glory of this method is you can break the process into two parts, preparing the apples and soaking them in syrup one day, then putting them in jars and canning them days later. Mint is the signature flavor I was going for, but make your own mark by altering the spices and flavorings. Fresh ginger, mustard seeds, cardamom, coriander seeds, and vanilla beans would be lovely too.
6 pounds crab apples
4½ pounds (9 cups) sugar
9 cups apple cider vinegar
6 cups water
1½ teaspoons whole allspice
1½ teaspoons whole cloves
1½ teaspoons dried mint
4–5 cinnamon sticks
FOR EACH JAR
1 sprig (4–5 leaves) fresh mint (or a pinch of dried mint)
2–4 whole cloves
3–5 whole allspice
1–2 small pieces of cinnamon stick
Just to be sure I was making enough syrup for my batch, I double checked by covering my crab apples with water and measuring the liquid. The master formula was on the mark for me, but denser, smaller apples may not need as much syrup. Check it if you like, or go with the formula.
ALTERNATE MASTER FORMULA
per pound of crab apples
1½ cups sugar
1½ cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon whole allspice
¼ teaspoon whole cloves
¼ teaspoon dried mint
1 stick cinnamon
PREPARING THE CRAB APPLES
- Tie the allspice, cloves, and dried mint in cheesecloth or put them in a tea ball. (HINT: You can cut up flour sack kitchen towels to make spice bags.)
- Into a large non-reactive pot over medium high heat, add the sugar, vinegar, water, the spice bag, and the cinnamon sticks. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium and let the liquid simmer for about 10 minutes, then turn to low while you prepare the apples.
- Cut away the blossom end of each crab apple using a small sharp knife. You’re going for the crusty brown nub that used to be the flower bud.
- Pierce the apples to their cores in 3 or 4 places. I used a two tined corn-on-the-cob holder but a small skewer, trussing needle, or a darning needle works too.
- Add the crabapples to the syrup, turn the burner to medium high and bring to low boil (a few steady bubbles), stirring gently. Immediately turn off the heat and cover the apples with a plate to weight them down in the syrup.
- Let the apples sit in the pickling syrup at room temperature 5 to 6 hours, or up to 5 days! In other words, you can can them at your convenience.
CANNING THE PICKLES
- Fill a canner with hot water, cover, and bring to a steady simmer (bubbles rising from the bottom). Sterilize enough jars and lids in the hot water.
Exactly many jars will I need? Not sure. Your yield will depend on the size and weight of the fruit. Generally, 3 pounds of fruit yields 6 pints, but my 6 pound batch of crab apples only made 10 pints. I say be prepared and have extra jars and lids ready.
- Arrange the jars on a kitchen towel. Into each jar add the mint, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon.
- Return the pot of crab apples to the stove. Over medium low heat, slowly warm the apples in the syrup. They only need to be warmed through but not too hot to handle. Transfer the apples to a bowl. Turn the heat to high and bring the syrup to a rapid boil, then reduce heat to a slow boil while you pack the jars.
- Place the warmed apples into the jars, pressing them gently to make fit. Fill each jar with the boiling syrup to ¼ inch from the rim. Press out air bubbles by running a butter knife down the sides. Add more syrup if needed.
- Wipe the rims clean with a wet paper towel, cover with the lids, and screw on the rings.
- Place the jars in the canner and cover the pot. When the water begins to bubble again (doesn’t have to be a rolling boil, just steady bubbles rising), cover the canner and process 15 minutes for pints or 20 minutes for quarts.
- Remove the jars to a towel lined tray or surface and allow them to cool at least 6 hours before removing the rings. Wait a day and then wash the jars of spiced crab apples in soapy water before storing.
Note: If any jars don’t seal, just store them in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for 3 or 4 months.