There are some fruits that just provoke a standard, knee-jerk response in the kitchen. Glut of apples? Make apple pie. Lots of bananas? Banana bread. Been too enthusiastic with the pick-your-own strawberries? Jam, of course. Oranges mean marmalade, and blueberries pancakes. Rhubarb equals crumble. When my supervisor told me she had a surplus of crab apples, and needed recipe suggestions, her only stipulation was “Don’t say jelly.”
Because, really, when do you see recipes for crab apples that don’t involve jelly? As a matter of fact, when do you see recipes for crab apples at all? They’re hardly the most common fruit, probably due to the fact that they are intensely sour and thus cannot be plucked and eaten raw. (Oh, the sad swathes of fruit that suffer undue neglect for this reason. Damsons, rhubarb, quinces, gooseberries…such delicious potential, if only people would make the effort). They’re also not something you’d ever find on a supermarket shelf, so the vast majority of the population have no idea what to do with them. Unless you grow your own, or are a keen forager, crab apples are likely to be a novelty.
But what a beautiful novelty. The irresistible attraction of crab apples, for me, is the way they look like perfectly formed apples in miniature. My supervisor gave me two different types; the bigger of the two looked exactly like a diminutive version of the blood-red, glossily seductive poisoned apple that the queen gives to Snow White. The smaller ones looked like engorged cherries, beautifully coral pink with a cream blush, pearly and inviting. It’s a shame that, should you accept this invitation, you will be met with rock-hard, deeply tannic flesh and a completely impenetrable core.
I figured there had to be life for the humble crab apple beyond the muslin jelly-straining bag. I’d read somewhere that you could roast them with lots of sugar and eat them for dessert. My supervisor tried baking them in a mulled wine-style mixture of spices and citrus fruits: they were delicious, sweet and tart and crunchy, perfect with some vanilla ice cream. I decided to go down the same route, but as I’d be eating them on my porridge in the morning, I didn’t think wine was quite right for the baking liquid – I haven’t yet reached that level of autumn-induced desperation.
So, I experimented with chai tea. It occurred to me that the spiced wine you often poach fruit in (pears etc.) is basically jazzed up with all the components of chai tea: cinnamon, cloves, orange and lemon peel, maybe some ginger or cardamom. I infused a couple of spoonfuls of loose chai tea in boiling water, adding some extra ingredients to liven it up a bit: fresh lemon and orange peel, a vanilla pod, some cloves, and some orange peel powder (I get this from JustIngredients and it gives a wonderful deep, musky citrus earthiness to whatever you use it in). I sweetened this solution with sugar and honey, figuring the apples would need a bit of help in the sweetness department due to their sourness. I let the chai syrup simmer for a good hour or so to infuse and thicken a little, before pouring it over the halved and cored crab apples in a dish and baking, covered with foil, for half an hour (crab apples are not the easiest things to core – you need a small sharp knife and a bit of patience).
In the oven, the apples soften in the tea, some collapsing while others hold their shape a little more. The end result is a wonderful dark pink compote, deliciously sweet and aromatic from the sugar and spices, with a hint of tartness from the fruit. I think I actually overdid the sugar, imagining the apples would be more sour than they were – you could probably get away with using a bit less, especially if you want to serve this on porridge or with ice cream, where a bit of tartness is a welcome thing. There are hints of vanilla, warming citrus, and the perfume of cloves. The syrup is rich, thick, flecked with speckles of vanilla and perfect for drizzling over a bowl of porridge before topping it with a generous spoonful of the soft, sweet apples.
Should you not be able to get crab apples, this would work well with pears, plums, apricots, peaches, and probably normal apples too. You can’t really go wrong with the combination of soft, roasted fruit and sweet spice: it makes a delicious autumnal breakfast or dessert. If only Snow White had decided to bake the proffered apple in chai tea before eating it…how differently the story might have turned out.
Crab apples roasted in sweet chai tea (makes 4 servings):
- 600ml water
- 3 tbsp loose chai tea, or 3 teabags
- 1 vanilla pod
- , scored lengthways
- 3 cloves
- ½ tsp orange peel powder
- 5 tbsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp honey
- 3 strips orange peel
- 3 strips lemon peel
- Around 15 crab apples
Put the water in a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients except the apples. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 30-60 minutes or so, to infuse and reduce.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Halve the crab apples then remove the core with a small sharp knife. Arrange cut side down in a baking dish. Strain the tea mixture through a sieve and pour over the apples so they are about two thirds covered. Cover the dish with foil, then bake for 30 minutes until the apples are soft and starting to collapse.