At its most fundamental level, cooking is pure chemistry and physics. At its most profound, it is art, tradition, culture, identity and love. Nothing arguably combines both as purely as making preserves. Thus when I took up the most recent challenge in The Canadian Food Experience Project chose to make it personal, I found myself with the challenge of not only “cooking” to devise the flavour structure I imagined, but I also found myself with the challenge of managing the physics and chemistry in terms of how exactly I was going to pull this off.
If you’ve read my article on this challenge in “Preserving our Canadian Tradition,” you’ll know that my quest was to develop a specific preserve that combined two profound influences in my culinary life: apples and maple syrup. What I devised in my brain was Maple-Apple Jelly.
While I’ve never tasted such a thing, I was confident these flavours would work well together. I’ve made apple jelly a few times in my life with good success so I felt reasonably comfortable with the jelly part of the process which would begin by cooking down the apples to produce a deeply flavourful and pectin-filled apple juice, then build into jelly by adding the sugar and acid. In theory, I assumed, I’d be able to substitute maple syrup for a portion of the sugar. What I didn’t know was how much I could or should substitute to keep the maple and apple flavours in balance … and, more importantly, how much ‘liquid sugar’ (aka maple syrup) without screwing up the chemistry of it all.
The challenge was what to do about the pectin, a naturally occurring polymer essential to setting any jam or jelly. Apples are loaded with it — or rather the skin and seeds are loaded with it. Maple syrup, on the other hand, doesn’t have any at all.
I could have and perhaps should have relied on the “added-pectin” method to gel up the juice. However, I reasoned that I could forgo the addition of pectin because I was going to more ‘traditionally’ use skin on the apples which should have produced a lot natural pectin to do the job. I’d also fresh lemon juice, also packed with pectin and some necessary acid to complete the chemical process. Still, I wasn’t sure how the maple syrup — and its extra liquid and different pH level — would alter the chemistry. So I thought, perhaps I could keep the sugar ratio (4 parts juice to 3 parts sugar) I was assuming but restore balance with some additional pectin. In essence, what I was doing was creating a hybrid of the so-called traditional method of making jelly and the modern no-fail method which uses twice the sugar, added pectin, and little cooking. In other words, it hoped to produce a jelly state with lower sugar, natural pectin in the fruit, and a longer boil.
I had nothing to guide me in this assumption other than courage. I knew that pectin is a delicate molecular ingredient that needs some heat to be activated but that with too much, it can be destroyed. Many failed jellies are the result of not enough boiling … or, conversely, too much. But the real guesswork, the real leap of faith, was the quantity of sugar. I don’t have a sweet-tooth and I wanted the essence of the jelly to the flavours of the apples and maple, not ‘sugar.’ The modern method of adding external pectin to the juice requires 7 cups sugar to 5 cups of juice — yes, again, that’s effectively twice the sugar as the traditional method. As much as any sane-minded individual might want to reduce the sugar, you can’t: because the the ratio of sugar is a constant for the added pectin to work.
Hopefully you get the challenge that I faced ….
The good news is that I actually succeeded against, upon reflection, huge odds — all the more so because the article I was writing presumed I could actually create the preserve. Failure wasn’t really an option or I’d lose both my apples and my writing.
The result is perhaps an unconventional jelly method that admittedly evolved a bit as I began the process … and the recipe quite literally only gelled when I relented and added a second package of pectin near the end.
Why did it work? I’m guessing that in boiling the crap out of the juice and trying to get it to gel, I clearly reduced my liquid substantially. By all accounts, the 12 cups of juice with which I started, combined with the 9 cups of sugar/syrup should have yielded 18-24 jars of jelly. My yield? A mere 11 jars. If you do the math, the result is twice as much sugar in each jar as I should have needed … or wanted. In essence, I used a traditional jelly method to produce a product just as sweet as if I’d only used added pectin… well almost.
Here’s the difference — my jelly has twice the flavour too because half the water evaporated which resulted in a more concentrated liquid to go with the sugar. As such, I produced an intensely flavoured jelly that resoundingly tastes like what I imagined before I started.
Beyond the backstory and an explanation of what I did, here are a few other cooking notes. First, I chose from apples that were in season and I chose apples that were higher in liquid and sugar: 50% Lobos with the other 50% combined Empire, Gala, and Honey Crisp. The product therefore is more “applely” and doesn’t rely on any one for flavour and provides a better balance of the essentials: flavour, sugar, and acid. Secondly, as much as I wanted the flavour of the maple to resound, I wasn’t confident I could use as much syrup as I wanted. Therefore, to impart more of the earthy and caramelized flavour into the jelly, I also substituted brown sugar for some of the white sugar — a decision that worked very well. Finally, some recipes will tell you to let the apples drain overnight. There is no harm in this as I can attest that I did so myself wanting to get the maximum juice out of the apples as possible. The truth is, though, that 75% of the juice extracted poured out in the first 30 minutes. Another 20% came in the next 2 hours. Overnight? I got perhaps 1/2 cup more juice — hardly worth the time and the risk of bacteria if you ask me. My recommendation: drain your apple mash for 2-3 hours and then pack up and freeze the remaining apple pulp for other cooking uses (e.g. smoothies, cakes/muffins, cookies, or served just by itself).
I hope some of you have the courage to try this because, in a spoonful of this jelly, my own palette was immediately transported back to the orchards of the Okanagan Valley of my childhood and at the same time transported to the flavours of the winter sugar shacks of my adopted home here in Ottawa. It is a truly delicious creation and it will be amazing in the dead of winter.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Straining: 2-3 hours
Jelly: 30 minutes
Canning: 30-60 minutes
Total Time: 4-6 hours
Yield: Dozen 250ml (12 ounce) jars, but yield could be higher depending on how
long you boil and reduce liquid
- 14 lbs (6.5 kg) apples
→ Ideally a combination of sweet juicy apples such as Lobo, Gala, Delicious (very sweet), Fuji (slightly tart), or Braeburn (slightly tart). By combining different varieties, you’ll get the best of all: sugar, flavour, and acid, all of which are crucial.
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 5 whole cloves
- 4 cups white sugar
- 3 cups brown sugar
- 2 cups maple syrup (medium)
- 1/2 cup of lemon juice, strained
(approximately 2 lemons)
- 2 packages of powdered pectin
- 1 teaspoon of butter
- 1 pound apples = 1 cup juice
- 3/4 cup white sugar per cup of juice
- Substitute 1/4 white sugar for maple syrup
- Substitute 1/4 white sugar for brown sugar
- 1.5 teaspoons of lemon juice per cup of juice
- 16 quart stock pot
- Canner (or a second large stock pot)
- Cheese cloth
- Canning funnel
- Dozen+plus 6 extra 250mL jars, lids, and rings
- Wash the apples and remove any rotten or off bits.
- Fill a large stockpot with 1½” (3cm) of water. Core and chop apples and place them in the pot. Do not peel. An “apple divider” which cores and slices the apples at the same time is a huge time saver for this step.
- Cover the apples and bring the water to a boil.
- Once they have come to a boil, reduce temperature to medium-low and continue to simmer for about 30 minutes until apples have softened and just beginning to break down.
- Mash the apples with potato masher.
Stir in the spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and whole cloves. (Don’t add them earlier or they’ll impart too much flavour).
- Line a large colander with 2-3 layers of cheese cloth and set over a large bowl or pot, ensuring ‘holes’ of colander are inside vessel (choose carefully) and so there is good clearance from bottom of colander to bottom of pot for the juice to collect.
- Fill the colander with the apple mash and let drain for 2-3 hours.
As tempting as it might be, DO NOT squeeze, force, stir or do anything to the straining apple mash. The result with otherwise be a ‘cloudy’ juice.
- After 2-3 hours, you should have collected roughly an equal amount of juice relative to the number of pounds of apples you started with. You can stop the draining once the juice has slowed to a relatively infrequent ‘drop.’Measure out the juice so you know exactly how much you have collected.
- Freezer, save, or otherwise discard the remaining applesauce. I recommend keeping it because it is loaded with nutrients and great for cooking (because it has less liquid) and eating.
- Fill canner with water and bring to boil.
- Meanwhile, begin to prepare the jelly by filtering the apple juice through a fine mesh strainer into a 10-16 quart pot (don’t pick a pot too small or you run the risk of things boiling over).
- Add in the brown sugar
Add in three-quarters of the white sugar.
Add the maple syrup
Squeeze the lemon juice then strain out the seeds and pulp. Add this to the juice as well.
Add the teaspoon of butter as well (this is to mitigate foaming).
- Bring the pot to boil and boil for 25 minutes — a strong boil — stirring frequently and watching that nothing boils over or burns.
- Once the canner has come to a boil, add the jars to it and boil for at least 10 minutes. If jelly still isn’t ready at this point, lower temperature to low on the canner and keep the water and jars hot and covered while the jelly finishes.
- Meanwhile, in a smaller pot of water, boil the canning rings for 10 minutes.
Add the lids to the water 5 minutes before canning. Do not boil the lids.
- After 25 minutes, lower temperature on the jelly, and, Using a fine mesh sieve or skimmer, skim off any foam from the jelly and discard foam.
- Mix one packet of pectin with the remaining sugar and quickly sprinkle it over top of the jelly while simultaneously whisking vigorously, ensuring no jelly lumps form. Boil for another minute. If after another minute mixture still isn’t jelling, sprinkle second packet of pectin over jelly and immediately whisk it in.
→ Important Note: It really depends on the pectin level of the apples you are using. You may not need this second packet; conversely, you may even need a third packet. Either way, watch your jelly extremely closely at this point. Don’t add too much pectin and don’t overcook.
- Remove pot from stove.
- Quickly and carefully remove jars from water and place on counter. While the jelly is still ‘hot’ and runny (stir it well and return to heat for a few seconds if necessary) use the funnel to fill each jar within 1/4″ of the top making sure to not get any jelly on the rim (if you do, wipe it off with a sterile paper towel).
- Using tongs or magnetic canning ‘wand,’ carefully place a lid on each jar. Then, carefully place a ring over each lid and tighten until you meet resistance — then screw a bit more until fingertip tight.
- Carefully (these jars are very hot) place each jar in succession in the canner. Bring to boil. Once it is boiling, boil for another 10 minutes (not less).
- Using tongs or a jar remover, VERY carefully, remove jars from water and let cool on kitchen towel overnight.
- Check to make sure all jars have sealed properly (each lid should be ‘sucked’ down, tight, and not spring back when a thumb is pressed to the top). Any that did not seal, put in your fridge and eat immediately.
- All other jars: tighten lids finger tip tight, label, and either gift or store in a cool dark room. They should keep well for a year.