by Alice DeLuca
I stopped by the gourmet cooking shop this week and idly asked the proprietor the identity of their best-selling item. Without hesitating, she said “towels.” I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t towels. Is everything wet, that it must be dried? Is everything dull, that it must be polished? Where are the cooks, the armies of well-intentioned flavor-mongers inspired by a reality-chef show to go out and purchase a kugelhopf pan, individual casserole dishes for pastel de choclo or half-pint canning jars for tiny gifts of strawberry guava compote? I myself have dozens of towels at the ready, and only one steel crepe pan that will last a lifetime, so maybe the disposable nature of towels is the explanation.
I am reminded of flour-sack towels, which were, obviously, made from actual flour sacks. They were very large, and are still available, although not as a cost-recovery measure from the Depression, but as a new purchase from the Vermont Country Store. Frankly, the flour-sack towels are not as good for drying glassware as the new microfiber towels. But, they led my mind down the garden path a ways, and I was reminded of why a cotton pillow case is of great value when making jelly in the home kitchen.
When we were young we made a lot of apple jelly. I am not talking about a few jars of apple jelly; I am talking about gallons. We made this jelly from antique apple varieties, Stark, Baldwin and Hurlbut varieties that grew on tall, old, gnarly apple trees you had to climb. We were drawn to these apples like moths to the flame; I learned later that one or our great-grandfathers, someone I never met and never knew, actually died after falling out of his favorite apple tree, getting hurt and contracting pneumonia. Coincidence? I think not.
There are thousands of varieties of apples, of which hundreds are now available. The Baldwin apple originated in 1750 or so, and is good for making cider and pies. According to Tom Burford[i], it was once the most popular apple in New England, until a very cold winter in 1934 took a terrible toll on the Baldwin orchards. Today, there are fewer than a dozen apple varieties in our local grocery store, even though the farm stands on all sides sell many other kinds. The popular apples in the grocery store are “crisp” and juicy and, like any movie star, an apple popular this season may not be so sought after the next, prompting orchardists to change the apple varieties they grow. None of the modern grocery store apples is as highly flavored as antique varieties like Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel or Calville Blanc d’Hiver.
Today’s apple trees are dwarf trees, apple varieties grafted to root stock that cannot produce a tall tree. The apples on a modern dwarf tree practically walk in to your hands. Conversely, to obtain apples from the top of the antique tree requires planning, cunning and athletic activity. In coastal Maine, you may have to compete with industrious porcupines that sit in the tops of the trees, moving slowly around as they munch the crop.
You can use a strange-looking ladder (narrower at the top than at the bottom), a picking pole resembling a lacrosse stick (with a basket at the top), or risky climbing techniques, to pick the apples in a really tall apple tree. You can shake the tree, causing the apples to fall on to a waiting tarpaulin, but if you plan to make fresh cider from the apples great care must be taken not to include any wind-blown “drops” that have been lying around accumulating bacteria from local wildlife.
Whatever method is selected, once the picking is done, you will be confronted with the hard facts – you will most likely have picked more apples that you know what to do with. After all, only 8 apples are needed for a single deep-dish pie. What will you do with bushels?
This brings us back to the subject at hand: the need for a pillow case in a modern kitchen. Save those old worn out pillow cases, just like they did in what now should be called “the Greater Depression.” Launder one well, using a minimal amount of perfume-free detergent and an extra rinse, and use it as a jelly bag for making apple jelly. I will tell you how in a minute.
Homemade apple jelly is like no other apple jelly. Due to the pectin in the apple skins, the juice of fresh apples will make a jelly that clings to toast and shakes, just like Santa’s belly[ii]. Real jelly made with just apples and sugar has double the flavor of commercial jelly. The commercial pectin allows you to jell a much more dilute, watery juice, and allows for the addition of a lot of sugar. The result of using the commercial pectin is a consistently-textured jelly with minimal flavor, requiring only a few minutes of time at the stove. If you can even find a commercial apple jelly in the market today, it will likely contain added pectin and corn syrup, and taste like apple juice concentrate found in the back of the freezer after a long winter. Instead, take your chances, spend some time making jelly with the pectin that is native in the fresh apple’s own peel and you won’t be sorry.
Homemade apple jelly on a Royal Copenhagen plate
Alice’s Apple Jelly
Ingredients: Apples, fresh water that is not chlorinated, sugar
Time required: 2 days
Make the Jelly Juice: Wash thoroughly enough strongly flavored apples to fill a jelly pot. Use apples that would make a good pie — sourness is desirable, and strong apple flavor is mandatory. They need not be “crisp” but they must be very tasty. Cut the apples in quarters, then use a paring knife to remove the stem and blossom ends and any worms that have taken up residence. To the apples you may optionally add 1/2 cup of cranberries or crabapples, halved, for color. Pour in un-chlorinated water, barely enough to cover the fruit.
Washing “antique” apples
Bring the apples and water to a boil and simmer until the apples are very soft.
To strain the juice: Open the clean pillow case and place it in a large, clean pot that will hold the whole pillow case and all of the cooked material. Pour the hot cooked apples material and all the juice in to the clean pillow case. This is hot material, so you have to be careful not to burn yourself, and you must keep small children away during this activity.
Pick up the top of the case and tie it up carefully with twine or rope. You will be hanging the pillow case full of cooked apples and liquid from a hook or knob that will hold this heavy weight. We used to hang the case from a cabinet door knob, suspended over a pot. You may have to study up on your knots so that the knot you tie will cause the bag will stay put. (Useful knots are demonstrated at Animated Knots by Grog.)
Hang the pillow case filled with hot apple mush over the pot and let the heavy, sagging bag drip overnight. Despite the strong temptation to do so, do NOT squeeze the bag or the resulting jelly will be cloudy. You will notice that the exterior of the bag is slimy – that is from the pectin in the apple peels.
The next day, take down the pillow case and discard the apple material – it is perfect for the compost heap. Wash the pillow case as before, using minimal detergent and no fragrance, and store it to use again another time. If you have used cranberries or apples with a lot of red color in their skin, the bag will be stained in interesting ways. The juice in the pan will be slightly cloudy, somewhat pink if you have used pink apples or added red-skinned fruit, and somewhat slimy from the pectin. The juice will be thicker than plain apple juice or cider. (You cannot substitute plain apple juice.)
To make the jelly, here is my recipe: for every 4 cups of jelly juice, add 1 or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice.
Put the juice in to a jelly pot – this would be a large heavy-bottomed pot that is wider than it is tall and that will hold the juice with plenty of room for boiling up. I use a 5-liter pot that is 9 inches in diameter and 5 inches deep. Bring the juice to a hard rolling boil, reached when all the juice is turning over and over as it boils (whereas when simmering there will be only little bubbles at the edges) and boil the juice for 7 minutes.
Then add 3 cups of sugar and boil the mixture “until it jells.” (The ratio of juice to sugar is 1 cup of juice to ¾ cups of sugar. Checking an historic recipe from the Settlement Cook Book 1940, recipes sometimes call for more sugar.)
How do you know when the syrup has reached the jelling stage? Take a large metal spoon, dip it in the boiling syrup and hold it high up over the pan, with the bowl of the spoon facing you and the handle parallel to the floor. If the jelly is ready, the syrup will “sheet” – as the syrup drips off the spoon, the drips will come together to form a band of syrup that falls off the spoon as a sheet, rather than 2 drips of syrup. You will know it when you see it, and it can take quite a while (15-30 minutes). Alternatively, a half teaspoon of syrup spooned on to a cold plate will jell; however this method is flawed because the syrup is still boiling while you test, making for a harder finished product.
Stir the syrup, removing and discarding any “scum” or foam that rises to the top. As soon as the syrup reaches the jelling stage, turn off the heat and skim off any last bits of unattractive foam on the top of the syrup. Pour the jelly in to sterilized jelly jars and cover the surface of each jar with melted paraffin wax, or if you are using canning jars you can process the jelly in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, per your Ball Blue Book’s instructions.
One note on the paraffin wax sealing method: If your house has a lot of carpenter ants, the ants will find the jelly and mount a campaign to help themselves to the jelly by damaging the paraffin around the edges. Sadly for both the jelly maker and the ants, these campaigns result in numerous ant casualties by drowning. So, it is advisable to store jelly that has been sealed with wax in such a way that ants cannot gain access.
If you have some organic rose geranium leaves (an herbal geranium variety scented like roses), you can flavor the jelly with these beautifully aromatic leaves, to obtain a rose-flavored medieval jelly. Rose geranium flavored jelly is found to be delicious by adults, but not generally appreciated by children.
2 different Rose Geranium leaf varieties on a reproduction Dedham Pottery plate with raised bunnies
When you spoon your homemade apple jelly on to toast, you will know why people used to spend so much time boiling down syrup to make jelly – the lovely texture and richly concentrated flavors are not obtainable in any other way. Your old pillow case will serve well for many years as a jelly bag, proving the old adage:
“Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”
[i] Burford, Tom. Apples: A Catalog of International Varieties. Mr. Burford is also known as Professor Apple and his family has been involved in the Virginia fruit industry for 7 generations, since the early 1700s. Click here to listen to him on Meet the Farmer TV!
[ii] A reference to the children’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, published first in 1823, which contains the following description of Saint Nick’s (Santa’s) belly: “He had a broad face, and a little round belly that shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly.”