Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
If you are looking for rare heritage apples at very affordable prices, be sure to check out Wagon Wheel Orchard and the Wagon Wheel Orchard blog. Rick Godsil is a third generation fruit grower and he and his family are now growing over 700 varieties of apples and pears. They offer bench grafts for just $9 each, with a 7-tree minimum order. When we placed our order with Rick last week, he told us about the remarkable ruby colored crab apple jelly and the tree his grandmother makes it from. His story appears below.
Grandma Greuel’s Crab Apple Tree and Jelly Recipe
By Rick Godsil
I’ve always believed that the best food has a great story behind it, adding something beyond taste and texture to the meal. This is definitely true of my Grandma Greuel’s Crab Apple Jelly. In 1959 she and my Grandpa bought an old farmstead outside of Macomb, Illinois. On this property were already well-established crab apple trees growing in the fence rows here and there. My mother and her siblings would harvest the small 1” dark red fruit in the fall and bring in a bushel to Grandma’s kitchen. To this day we harvest crab apples with the great-grandchildren that Grandma (about to turn 90 years old) still processes with some help into a beautiful vibrant red jelly. For many years Grandma has included small jars of jelly into her Christmas gifts, a very welcome addition!
Grandma always has us wash off the fruit and pull the stems before we set the harvest on her kitchen table. All the youngsters present help in cutting the small apples into halves or quarters, removing the small black seeds. A few of the kids (some in their 60s mind you) might try sampling a fruit or two at this stage. A good crabapple will pucker your face up like you’ve bitten into a lemon. Grandma always reminds us not to peel any of the apples so that the jelly will get the maximum amount of color from the skin. She places the fruit pieces in a very big kettle and puts just enough water in to cover the apples. When I was young she was still doing this on a wood burning stove in the summer kitchen! She cooks the crab apples just until they’re tender. We take a long break afterwards to let the water cool and to tell old stories around the kitchen table. After the pot has cooled to lukewarm we pour out the kettle into a large colander lined with a few layers of cheesecloth. Grandma always makes sure that the colander is well drained before beginning the next step. She puts one of the kiddos on duty to boil the jelly jars and get them lined out on her harvest table.
We take turns squeezing and wringing out the cheesecloth until we have collected about 7 cups of juice. This goes into a medium sized pot along with a packet of pectin and a small dab of butter (“keeps down the foam”). This gets heated slowly with increasing heat until it reaches a full boil. At this point we dump in 9 cups of sugar and bring the mixture back up to a full boil for one minute. Grandma gets a very large metal spoon down and skims off any remaining foam. Now the juice is ready for the jelly jars. She stresses that it’s important to get the hot mixture in quickly (fill to within ¼” of rim) and to make sure and wipe the rims of the jars clean with a moistened towel.
Depending on how quickly the jelly is to be consumed determines what happens next. If this batch is being made in September for Christmas gifts we may band up the jars and put in a canner for 5 minutes to make sure everything is well sealed. My favorite scenario is the “lets eat it tonight as soon as its cool” method. The jars go into the same refrigerator that has been running faithfully since 1959 near the summer kitchen to cool off. Once they’re cool they are ready to be stored until spread on your favorite bread, pastry or finger!
Everyone has different ways to describe Grandma’s jelly but a few things always seem to come up. With 9 cups of sugar going into this recipe, sweet is always part of a description. I describe it as sharp and aromatic. My kids think it tastes tangy and delicious. Mom thinks it is very sweet with a “little bite”. Just making a tradition out of cooking with your relatives adds a little something extra too!
In 1989 a seedling came up in a field near the original trees. Grandma believes this was planted by one of the resident squirrels. This tree began producing larger superior crab apples and has produced a massive crop every season since then. The tree sits alone behind one of the farm ponds, giving a big dose of dark red to the fall landscape. Since we discovered this improved tree, all jelly is now made from this tree’s fruit. The jelly looks like a ruby in a jar and so translucent that everyone swears it must be artificially colored! In an effort to make sure this superior variety is preserved, we began grafting it and giving small bench-grafted trees to our family members each spring. We listed “Grandma Greuel’s Crab Apple” officially in 2008 through our Kansas orchard and nursery, Wagon Wheel Orchard, and are now selling them in earnest, along with hundreds of other varieties of apples and pears, at www.WagonWheelOrchard.com .
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.