Cuisine, Memories, Stearns

Crabapple Temptations

A flowering crabapple tree is a sight to behold. Its canopy of fluffy blossoms kicks winter in the hinder, then suddenly it’s spring.

Or so I always thought, observing our St Cloud neighborhood’s sole crabapple specimen – a mature beauty brightening an otherwise drab back yard.

Through boiling Minnesota summers, this tree gave its all. Layers of hard green orbs grew into shiny wee globes until late autumn. Harvest time.

It’s just as well the tree always had a bounteous crop, for plenty of its little fruits never made it to autumn. And plenty of those ripe for picking never made it into a glowing jar of crabapple jelly or syrup.

They were just too darn tempting.

Their ruby color was a siren call for squads of bored kids seeking airborne missiles, or those hungry enough to try a puckering mouthful while waiting for dinner or supper.

Most of us learned to admire the blossoms and fruit, but to resist actually eating Mrs O’s apples, even when they were ripe. For several reasons.

Firstly, some of the apples had worms – you needed to check before you took a bite, and if you were snatching Mrs O’s apples, there was no time for checking.

Secondly, jelly and syrup tasted nicer than the apples. It was better to go hand in hand with your mother to ask if you might pick a bagful for your autumn preserves, for no one else had a crabapple tree, and if you made a polite request, Mrs O was always generous.

Thirdly, Mr O rightly resented anyone who took his fruit without asking. You didn’t want to cross Mr O.

Over time others lived in the tiny house.

They didn’t care about the crabapple tree, or its springtime blossom display, or the perfect little apples that grew and matured but were then left to rot, fodder for the hornets, vermin, worms, and birds.

These gorgeous trees are commonly found in back yards and in the wild across Minnesota and Stearns County. If you know of a crabapple tree, an approach to its owner could yield a bushel or two. And if your garden has its own tree, do pick your annual harvest, or share it at least. You might even buy a tree from the Colorful Seasons Garden Center in Alexandria, so you can make syrup and jelly every year. 

There is no finer sight or taste than crabapple preserves, especially over winter. Keep yours on the window ledge, where you can appreciate its magical hue, remember how the apples smelled while they were stewing, and that day (perhaps with someone special) you filled the jars.

Lois Thielen’s Crabapple Jelly

Cousin Lois is famous for her ribbon winning entries at state and county fairs and her crispy sugar cookie recipe, to name but one. You can’t go wrong with a Lois Thielen recipe.

Ingredients 5 pounds of crabapples, 8 cups of water, and sugar

Method Remove stem and blossom ends from washed crabapples. Cut in half if larger varieties like Whitney; leave whole for smaller varieties like Dolga.

Add water and cook until the fruit is very soft, about 10-15 minutes. Strain the mixture through the jelly bag. Do not squeeze or force juice through the bag. Ideally, cook fruit in the evening and let the juice drip through the bag overnight.

Measure the juice. You should have about 7 cups. Stir in 3/4 cup sugar for every cup of juice. Bring to the boil quickly, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and cook rapidly until jellying point is reached. Test by putting some jelly on a saucer and refrigerating; if it sets in a few minutes, the jelly is done. Skim off foam and pour into hot, sterilized jelly glasses or half-pint canning jars. If canning jars, seal at once; if glasses, pour melted paraffin wax over glasses immediately after filling. Makes about 4 half pints.

This recipe is reproduced from The Melting Pot, Recipes of Minnesota’s ethnic and pioneer past (proceeds dedicated to the restoration of the Statue of Liberty by Minnesota Women of Today). Lois’s recipes feature throughout this 1985 soft cover, and my mother Marie (Lena Thielen Zwack’s daughter) tried many of them. I feel her close, seeing her batter-splotched handwritten suggestions across the pages. The book was a gift from Lois. My mother died in 2012. She is buried next to my father, with their parents nearby, in St Cloud’s Assumption Cemetery.

Photos Marekuliasz, One Pony, and Lovely Peace, istock

2 thoughts on “Crabapple Temptations”

  1. Lois Thielen says:

    Love the blog! I first tried crabapple jelly at the home of my aunt, Katie Thielen Gelking, who was a sister of Lena Thielen Zwack. She had a crabapple tree that produced the small but intensely red apples that produced the reddest crabapple jelly and I would pick some there every year.

    1. Editor says:

      I adore crab apple jelly but it is not commonly found in New Zealand. Maybe the MN crabapples have a more intense flavor. I love it for the color alone.

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