Making use of garden produce when it’s in abundance is one of my favourite things. I usually get landed with a whole pile of something when I’m least ready for it, but that’s part of the fun too.
Mostly it’s a case of – it has to be used NOW! or it will all go bad, and what a waste that is.
The good thing about apples, which is what I am dealing with today, is that they last well if they are kept somewhere cool, like a fridge or proper cellar.
I was given a big bag full a few weeks back, when a branch on my friend Robyn’s over-loaded apple tree broke. The fruit wasn’t quite ripe, but it wasn’t that far off. And then more apples were added to my collection a couple of weeks later, and then a few more. They are mostly Granny Smiths and a few golden delicious, with one red apple from another source. I’ve kept them in the fridge, where they have lasted nicely.
Today’s project is using about half of the supplies. I’m heading up to Daylesford tomorrow and I’m hoping I might find some quinces at the market (if it’s working on Easter Sunday), which will combine with the apples for quince and apple jelly. That’s my favourite of all, and the prettiest colour, and has been top of my list for years.
But today I’m making something new – a softly fragrant apple and lemon verbena jelly. It’s a beautiful combination.
When I started making jellies, I searched and searched for detailed information,
but mostly all I found was pretty vague. I had the impression that the country cooks who were still making what is a fairly old-fashioned spread had been doing it for so long, the process seemed very straightforward to them, and the explanations provided were minimal.
But it really isn’t that obvious if you haven’t done it before. Even if you have!
Over the years I’ve become quite good at it, but it has taken a lot of experimentation and quite a few failures in the process. And there is really not much worse than bottling several jars of jellies and realising that they haven’t set and you have to do it all over again.
As a result, the recipe that follows is as detailed as I can make it, with as many tips as I can think of. Give it a go. There’s a tremendous sense of achievement in creating a perfect, crystal clear jar of jelly.
Apple and lemon verbena jelly
Wash the apples and remove any bad bits. You’ll want at least a couple of kilos. Chop them into quarters or eighths – pips and core included. Put them all in a pot and barely cover with water. Bring to the boil and cook until the apples are completely broken down. Squash them with a masher to make sure.
Let it sit in the pot until cool. (This is not essential, it depends on the time you
Strain the whole mix through a clean cloth – un-dyed muslin, plain tea towel, something like that. I usually put a colander on a large saucepan, line it with the cloth and then pour the mixture through. Don’t squeeze or push the pulp – you want it to drip through at its own pace. Forcing it can cause cloudiness in your final jelly. Let that sit for at least several hours, or overnight.
When you’re ready to cook the jelly, get your clean jars out. Place them in the oven, set at 100C, to sterilise (and they must be hot when you put the boiling liquid into them or they might crack). Put the lids into boiling water and then let them drain. Make sure they are dry before you use them.
Measure your liquid: add 3/4kg of sugar for each litre of liquid. I use raw sugar, but white is more typical.
Put several clean saucers in the freezer for later testing of the set.
Put the liquid and sugar in the biggest stock pot you have. The temperature you need for jams and jellies is very high and the liquid will boil rapidly and expand enormously. Your pot should be at least 4 times bigger than the amount of liquid you start with.
Put it on the highest heat you have. I use the wok burner.
Once the sugar is dissolved, add several handfuls of fresh, fragrant lemon verbena leaves. I used whole young branches. You can use dried, though you will need a
lot. Luckily, lemon verbena bushes are at their biggest now, before they start to die off for the winter.
Bring it to the boil. Some minutes after it comes to the boil, check the flavour. You’ll remove the lemon verbena leaves when it’s reached the intensity of flavour you want. But it will lose some of that flavour intensity through the cooking process, so let it go past what you’re after.
Attach your sugar thermometer to the pot if you have one, but it’s not necessary. If you do, you’re aiming for at least 104C.
If not, then you’re looking for the moment when the liquid is boiling so rapidly it threatens to boil over. You want to see it heading for the top of the saucepan. Either with a thermometer or not, from this point you’ll have to monitor it and adjust the cooking temperature as necessary so it doesn’t boil over, but still keeps boiling very hard.
Anyone using a sugar thermometer will notice that you get to 100-101 fairly quickly, but the last 3-4 degrees takes quite a while.
To get to the point it will set, it usually takes at least 10 minutes boiling at this level – from the first time it threatened to boil over. It’s really not worth starting to test until then. (A note: not all fruits are the same, and some will take less time than this, but they all have to get to at least that point of threatening to boil over. I’ve found that with apples, they need that 10-15 minutes after that. Others are done in less than a minute).
At this stage, get some of the liquid into a spoon and check it. You should notice it has thickened. The boiling liquid gets a bit gloopier too.
Put a few drops onto one of the frozen saucers and put it back in the freezer for 20 seconds. Leave a few drops in the spoon and let it sit at room temperature (do this each time you check).
When you get the saucer out of the freezer, push the liquid with your fingertip. If it’s ready, you will see a couple of clear wrinkles in the jelly around where your fingertip is pushing. If not, give it another minute of boiling and then put the next lot of liquid onto the next frozen saucer. You might do three or four before it’s right.
But you should also check the spoon left at room temperature. Sometimes it is clear the jelly is setting – you push your finger through it and the jelly stays on opposite sides and doesn’t come back together.
Don’t stop the boiling until you see clear signs that it’s starting to set. And once you do, stop. You can overcook it too, and you won’t get a jelly out of that. (I did that with feijoas one time – it’s one of those fruits that you apparently have to bottle long before it shows any sign of setting, and it sets in the jar over the next couple of days. I had no idea. I waited and waited for signs of it setting and ended up with an intense dark paste. Delicious in its own way, but not at all what I was after).
When it’s setting, turn the heat off. Once it’s calmed down skim off any scum left on the surface.
Get the jars out of the oven (no more than 2-3 at once). Fill a jug with the liquid (either pour it in, or fill with a ladle) and pour into the hot jars, leaving some space at the top, maybe 1½cm-2cm. Seal the lid on tight immediately. After a while, you should hear the lids pop loudly as the jelly cools and pulls them down, creating a seal.
Usually, you’ll know if they are going to set nicely quite quickly, but don’t despair if it doesn’t look right straight off, it can take up to 24 hours.
Verdict: delicately fragrant and beautiful.