I always add crabapples to my cider. They add a bit of extra bite to a blend of cooking apples, if you’re using them (like I do) because you can’t get your hands on true cider apples, like the marvellously named ‘Slack my Girdle’, ‘Broxwood Foxwhelp’ and ‘Tom Putt’. (These varieties are available in New Zealand, though you’ll have to get your local garden centre to order them for you. )
I have three favourite crabapples. Purely for spring beauty, I adore Malus ioensis ‘Plena’. This ornamental variety doesn’t produce proper fruit – it blows everything in its arsenal on a marvellous display of bright pinky-red buds that open to pale pink spring blossoms.
But for fruit, I think ‘Jack Humm’ and ‘Jelly King’ are the perfect pair. ‘Jack Humm’ has masses of vibrant red fruit, so vibrant that they look like those small fake red apples sold as Christmas decorations. The fruit is slightly oval in shape, and just utterly, utterly beautiful in autumn.
‘Jelly King’ isn’t quite as spectacular but, as its name suggests, its blushing orange/red fruit make lovely crabapple jelly. It’s absolutely prolific and the birds tend to leave the fruit alone until quite late in autumn. But, more importantly, I like ‘Jelly King’ because it’s perfect for making teeny tiny toffee apples. I made a batch of them today in between stirring the quince paste and scooping feijoas into jars to preserve.
Toffee apples are never as nice as you think they’re going to be. Not just because you end up with sticky gloop all over your face, but because the toffee’s generally too sweet to eat in such a large dose, and the apple is invariably all soft and mushy underneath. Which is where the crabapple really comes into its own: crabapples are crisp,tart and utterly terrific-tasting with a coat of toffee.
To make a dozen toffee crabapples, wipe the fruit, twist out the stalks and cut out the little hard bit on the base of each apple. (I’m sure there’s a technical horticultural term for this but blowed if I can think of it right now.) Then press a kebab stick into each apple.
To make the toffee, you need 1 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vinegar (use cider vinegar if you have it, otherwise white vinegar), 1 teaspoon butter, a couple of drops of red food colouring and 3 tablespoons water. Place in a small pot and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for 2-3 minutes, until a small dribble dropped into a cup of cold water turns hard and thread-like. Don’t take your eye off it as it turns from red clear toffee to burnt brown caramel in a matter of seconds. Take the pot off the heat, tilt it to one side and then dip the apples in, give them a slow spin to evenly coat in toffee, then place on a piece of baking paper on a tray. The toffee only takes a minute or two to set, which is about as long as it will also take you to chomp down the first one… and then a second…