Apple is a fruit of mind-blowing variety – some six thousand (or more) apple cultivars exist spread throughout the world. It is therefore infinitely sad that the shops only give us access to about a dozen of them. In the Netherlands, almost half of the commercial orchards is planted with just one variety – the ever popular Elstar. It is a nice enough apple with a good balance of sweet and sour, but I wonder how many of the thousands of varieties exceed it in terms of flavor? Plus this apple is a child of the 50’s breeding programs which concerned themselves more with color of the fruits than disease resistance because what else have we all the fungicides for, right? Needless to say, it is not an ideal variety for organic gardeners. Luckily, there are many healthier apple cultivars, some of them dating back to an era before chemical solutions were the answer and some the result of recent breeding programs opting for more sustainable solutions.
In October we went to England for a week and finally visited a place that I’ve been wanting to visit for years: Brogdale, the home of the British national fruit collection. The large orchards house (apart from other fruits) 2200 apple varieties. We went on a guided tour lead by an elderly gentleman who was very knowledgeable and encouraged us to taste many varieties. My daughter went a little wild when confronted with such an abundance and kept stuffing her pockets with windfalls, until our guide took pity on her and offered her a plastic bag. Later that day the kids requested an apple-tasting session and we had a lot of fun sampling the different varieties, comparing notes and picking favourites.
Back at home, our apple supplies are dwindling, but there were still enough to do a little preserving.
This year, I made more preserves than ever before. Apart from the strawberry-elderflower jam and sour cherry-red currant jam, there are countless jars of grape jelly, blackberry jam and goosberry preserves neatly lined up on the shelves in our cellar. (My life might be messy, but my cellar at least is perfectly organized). But while all of them are delicious, this caramel apple jam is definitely the most unusual. The recipe comes from a wonderful book called The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
that I got as a belated birthday present. The first part of the book gives recipes for all kinds of preserves, jams, aigre-doux and pickles, the second half contains recipes showing you how to use them throughout the year. But the most important thing: the recipes are enticingly original. Almost every recipe has an unusual component or a twist (smoked apple butter, brussels sprouts saurkraut, peach saffron jam…) that makes me wonder how exactly it will taste.
The caramel apple jam has many things going on: first, the sugar is boiled until reaching the delicious caramelized stage of deep amber. Than there are the spices: thyme and pepper. I was afraid that the amount of pepper might be too much, but it’s not – it is what makes this jam the perfect thing to eat with cheese and crackers. (Though I’ve been eating it on toast, too, and my kids ate it by the spoonful.) Last: the apple flavor is deepened by the addition of cider.
A note on cider: if I understand correctly, in America “cider” usually refers to unfiltered apple juice. In Europe, it’s more likely to mean the fermented, slightly alcoholic apple-juice based beverage. While the author of the recipe, being American, probably meant the non-alcoholic version, I made the jam with the fermented cider made from heirloom apples we bought at Brogdale. I presume both will work – my jam certainly turned out wonderful.
Caramel Apple Jam
Adapted from The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
Makes about seven small (half-pint) jars
2,5 kg (4 ¼ pound) apples
250 g (1 ¼ cup) sugar
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
500 ml (2 cups) apple cider (see note above)
First make sure your jars are absolutely clean. I boil the jars for 10 minutes to sterilize them, then let them dry upside down on a clean tea towel.
Peel the apples, core them and roughly chop.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, mix the sugar with a splash of water – just a little bit, so that it looks like wet sand. Let the sugar melt over medium heat and continue to cook until it reaches a deep golden colour. If your pan is not lightly coloured, it can be difficult to judge the colour of the caramel, in which case it is helpful to drop a bit on a white plate. Or use a candy thermometer and boil the sugar until it reaches 175 degrees Celsius (345 F).
Lower the heat and add the thyme and pepper – be really careful because caramel is awfully hot. Remove the pot from the heat and pour in the cider – again, careful, because it will splatter. The caramel will harden on contact with the liquid, but just return it to the stove and simmer, stirring frequently, until it dissolves. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the cider is reduced by half. Add the apples, stir and cover the pan. After 5 minutes, uncover and cook the jam further, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened, about 10 – 15 minutes.
Carefully pour the jam into the sterilized jars, close them and turn the jars upside down for ten minutes. The jam should keep for at least a year. Once open, store in the fridge.