The word ‘jelly’ fills me with a little bit of horror. Firstly, it conjures up images of lurid children’s birthday party food, weirdly fluorescent transparent goo in odd shapes that wobbles under the pressure of a spoon or a fat youthful finger. I’ve never liked jelly or even tried it, as I recall; I think I’m afraid of the strange way it would feel in my mouth, not solid but not quite liquid either, trampolining oddly against the teeth. I have an irrational aversion to the stuff.
The word also makes me think of the American way of referring to jam; specifically, the concept of a ‘peanut butter and jelly’ sandwich, another cause of gastronomic revulsion for me. I imagine American ‘jelly’ to be like the worst incarnation of jam you can find over here in the UK: cheap, artificially coloured, no visible piece of fruit in sight, just a gloopy mass of sugar and unnatural things that bears no resemblance to anything that ever grew out of the ground.
However, there exists another kind of jelly that might just have the potential to redeem the word in my eyes. It’s less of an everyday product than the other two, but if you’ve ever spooned a glistening heap of redcurrant jelly onto your Sunday roast, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This jelly is a preserve, made in a similar way to jam but using just the juice of fruit instead of the fruit itself, extracted by boiling and then strained through muslin to give a clear liquid which, when cooked with sugar, sets to a gorgeous glistening clarity.
The most common types are quince jelly and redcurrant jelly, but you can make jelly out of a wide variety of fruits – the basic principle is the same. Recently I tried a delicious little jar of apple and sloe jelly, which was a gorgeous damson purple and delicious both with cheese and spread over thick slices of sourdough toast for breakfast. There’s a lovely simplicity about a jar of jelly – no chunks of fruit, just a simple uniform flavour and texture. It can be an aesthetically beautiful thing too – I remember visiting the Real Food Festival a few years ago and being entranced by a display of stacked jars of apple jelly backlit by a lamp, dainty little star anise suspended in the red-gold liquid. They looked like something you might find in a fantastical apothecary.
I decided to have a go at doing something similar, mainly because my house and garage are filled with huge crates of apples from my very prolific tree, begging me to do something with them before they turn brown and rot. I also nearly killed myself scrambling about up a ladder in slippery muddy boots trying to harvest them all, so I wanted to make sure I hadn’t risked my life and limb in vain. These reasons aside, though, I also liked the idea of making a preserve that didn’t involve peeling, coring and chopping kilos of apples – having done so to make two big vats of spiced apple and date jam earlier in the year, the thought of a repeat makes me want to cry.
The beauty of jelly is that you just roughly chop the fruit, simmer with water, then strain through muslin. No need to peel or core – in fact, the seeds have lots of pectin that helps the jelly to set. It’s an easy way to get rid of four kilos of apples in one fell swoop, and it makes the most fabulous sweet-tangy preserve, a gorgeous red-gold colour that has an incredibly pure apple flavour. It would look fabulous on its own in jars, but I decided to be a bit more decorative (I was giving some of these away as Christmas presents) and put some warm, aromatic spices into my jars, both for decoration and to infuse the jelly with a hint of their flavour.
In terms of prettiness, cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, star anise and cloves all look fabulous suspended in jars of this amber jelly. You could mix and match – a cinnamon stick and some star anise, for example – or go with one variety of spice, depending on the look you fancy. Ladle a little jelly into the jars before adding the spices, so they stay suspended in the liquid. The result is a gorgeous glowing jar of jelly, sweet and tangy and deliciously appley, beautifully decorated and perfect as a Christmas gift (or a gift at any time of the year). It is also, I should add, a real gift to those who just have too many bloody apples in their life and may well have a nervous breakdown if they look at a peeler one more time.
Festive apple jelly (makes around 5 x 400g jars):
The amount of sugar below is a guideline – the actual amount used will depend on how much juice you extract from your apples. You will need 150g sugar for every 250ml apple juice.
2.5 litres water
1.8 kg caster sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
A mixture of cinnamon sticks, cloves, vanilla pods and star anise
Roughly chop the apples (no need to peel or core) and put in a large stockpot or jam pan (you may need to use two pans to hold them all). Add the water and bring to the boil, then simmer for around 30 minutes until the apples have collapsed.
Line a large colander or sieve (again, you may need two) with muslin or cheesecloth and suspend over a bowl. Pour the apple mixture into the sieve(s), then leave overnight for the juice to drip through. Don’t press down on the apples, though, as this will turn the jelly cloudy.
The next day, measure out the apple juice. I had 3 litres, but the amount will vary, so put the juice into a large pan and add 150g sugar per 250ml of juice. Add the lemon juice then bring the mixture to the boil, stirring regularly. Put a small saucer in the freezer to test for a set later. Boil the mixture for around an hour to two hours, stirring occasionally and skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. It will turn thicker, glossier and more golden red as it cooks.
Meanwhile, sterilize a range of jars – I do this by washing them in hot soapy water then putting them upside down in the oven at 120C for half an hour. I wash the lids thoroughly then put them in the oven too for the last ten minutes.
You can test the jelly for a set using a sugar thermometer – it should read around 220-230C – or by spooning a little of the jelly onto the cold saucer from the freezer. If it wrinkles when you run your finger through it, it’s ready.
When the jelly is ready, half fill each sterilized jar with it (put the jars on a mat as they can sometimes crack if they are straight on the worktop), then add your spices and top up with jelly so the spices are suspended. Screw on the lids then leave to cool.