There are many reasons—and seasons—to love crabapples. Their spring effusion is glorious, with scented flowers crowding the trees’ distinctive fretwork of branches. At the other end of the waning year, they are remarkable again, the tiny apples offset by turning foliage, the leaves yellow, orange, or red, according to their cultivar. The fruit can persist through months of snow, festooning bare branches and looking—but not tasting—as tempting as maraschino cherries. And they offer a banquet for birds who seem to relish them more the longer they hang (cold blets the tannic the little pomes).
Crabapples can be a delectable treat for humans, too, their cooked flavor matching their good looks, and they are festive fare for the holidays.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Because of their high pectin content, crabapples are a natural for jelly-making. The little apples also yield delicious home-made cider and excellent vinegar (use the Market Apple Fizz recipe in this link) if you have the patience to wait for the results.
But for a uniquely pretty seasonal treat, a slow-cooked crabapple preserve is one of the easiest and most effective uses for the miniature pomes. And they make great gifts.
My own crabapple epiphany has been a gradual one (if that’s not an oxymoron). For several years I have been slow-cooking good-looking crabapples to preserve the whole fruit, which become candied, essentially. It’s a technique that many cultures embrace, from the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East’s spoon sweets to Eastern Europe’s varenye.
Then one autumn I saw an unfamiliar yellow pome at a Brooklyn market: they were tejocotes, the fruit of Crataegus mexicana. This species of hawthorn is native to and popular in Mexico and especially associated with the festival of el Día de los Muertos, when they are cooked with spices, and served as a traditional snack or in a hot punch. While researching them, I stumbled upon another preserved-fruit technique: crack seed, a salty-sour snack popular in Hawaii, with roots in China. In my fruit-suffused brain, these two traditions blended, and my crabapple preserves became distinctly more interesting.
Adding spices native to the Northeast—juniper (Juniperus virginiana, usually known as eastern red cedar, which really is an oxymoron since it isn’t a cedar at all) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin)—with a whisper of salt in the cooking syrup, transforms preserved crabapples into a regional treat.
Spiced, Candied Crabapples
These candy-like crabapples are cooked entire in a syrup infused with juniper and spicebush, with a whisper of salt. The crabapples can be eaten as spoonsweet, as a tiny dessert, as a complement to cheese or charcuterie, or as an edible garnish in grown-up or wee-person drinks.
It is essential not to let the fruit boil for longer than a few seconds the first couple of times, or their fragile skins will burst. Later, when they are more syrupy, the boiling-time can be increased.
- 2 lb crabapples, stems attached
- 2 cups sugar
- 6 cups water (more if needed)
- 2 teaspoons juniper berries, crushed
- 10 dried spicebush fruit, crushed
- ¼ teaspoon salt
(Spicebush can be purchased online from IntegrationAcres.com and store-bought juniper can be substituted if you don’t have the trees where you live!)
In a pot arrange the crabapples in a single layer, stems up (if they cannot fit in one pot, use two). Add the sugar, spices, and the water. Over medium heat bring the liquid to a gentle boil, for no more than 30 seconds. Turn off the heat. Allow the liquid to cool to tepid. Turn the heat to medium again and bring to a brief boil. Turn off heat and repeat the cooling.
Repeat this process until the liquid is thick and syrupy; that might be another five to six times. As the syrup turns darker and becomes thicket you can increase the (gentle-versus-rolling) boil-time to a 3 to 4 minutes. When the syrup is thick and tends to set like jelly, and the fruit is soft and sweet to the core, it is ready.
Once completely cool, transfer the apples carefully into sterilized jars and top with the remaining syrup. (Even if not covered in syrup, the apples will stay good for several months, thanks to their sugar-content.) To serve, just pull them gently from the jar by their stalks. Their seeds can either be crunched up (they become quite soft), or discarded.
Back from the Dead
A teaspoon of the spiced jelly from candied crabapples makes a good drink for Halloween and el Día de los Muertos. The juniper-sweetness offsets the smoke of mezcal, and the tartness of the new season’s citrus fruit.
- 2 ounces mezcal
- 1 ounce blood orange juice
- 1/2 ounce lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon candied crabapple jelly
- 2 candied crabapples, conjoined at the stem
Perch the candied crabapples on the edge of your glass, one in, one out. In a shaker combine the mezcal, juices and jelly. Add 4 ice cubes and shake well. Strain, and pour.
For more of Marie’s recipes, see:
- Matsutake: The Sought-After Pine Mushroom (and Its Lookalikes)
- Myoga Buds: How to Grow the Autumn Asian Delicacy
- Lablab: An Ancient Crop and Stunning Vine