Welcome back to another installment of Historic Everyday Eats! This time, I chose to delve into a kind of cooking with which I have very little experience (aka no experience): jelly making! The recipe for apple jelly that I chose to follow came from the same cookbook I featured in my last post, “The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker,” published in 1846 and written by Eleanor Parkinson. I had a very interesting journey on my way to making apple jelly, and I’m excited to share it with you!
First, the recipe:
“Take either russet pippins, or any good baking apples, pare and core them, cut them in slices into a preserving pan containing sufficient water to cover them; then put them on the fire, and boil them until they are reduced to a mash. Put it into a hair sieve, that the water may drain off, which you receive in a basin or pan; then filter it through a flannel bag. To every pint of filtered juice add one pound of loaf sugar, clarify, and boil it to the ball. Mix the juice with it, and boil until it jellies, stir it with a spatula or wooden spoon, from the bottom, to prevent burning. When it is boiled enough, if you try it with your finger and thumb, as directed in sugar-boiling, a string may be drawn similar to the small pearl: it may also be dropped on a cold plate; if it soon sets, it is done. Take off the scum which rises on the top. This is in general used for pouring over preserved wet fruits. This jelly may be coloured red with prepared cochineal.”
Now, let’s take a look at what the author means by “boil it to the ball” and her reference to sugar-boiling. Earlier in the book, she discussed the candy making process, which means boiling sugar to different stages. Her description for “The Ball” is below:
“Provide a jug of clean cold water, and a piece of round stick. First dip in the water, then in the sugar, and again in the water;* take off the sugar which has adhered to it, and endeavor to roll it into a ball between the finger and the thumb in the water: when this can be done, it has attained the desired degree. If it forms a large hard ball which will bite hard and adhere to the teeth when eaten, it is then termed large ball, et contra.”
“*This should be performed as speedily as possible.”
The above description means that you take a scoop of boiling sugar out of the pot, place it in cold water, and then manipulate it into a ball shape with your fingers to see if it will keep its shape. DO NOT do this without dipping the sugar in cold water, or you will suffer unimaginably painful burns!
As you can tell, this recipe is very light on ingredients and is more about technique, which is why it took more than one attempt for me to get it right! Let’s go through attempt one.
First, the ingredients:
Sugar and apples (and water!). For my first attempt, I used:
2.7 pounds of honey crisp apples (not russet pippins, but still a good baking apple!)
2 pounds of sugar
6 cups of filtered water (I used filtered so that the end product would taste as pure as possible!)
To make the apple jelly, I first peeled and cored the apples and then placed them all in a large Dutch oven.
A quick note about using the Dutch oven: when making candies or jellies, it’s important to use tools that are nonreactive so they will not affect the acidity level of the fruit or the production of pectin (the compound in the fruit that will actually make it jelly). This is also why the recipe calls for using a wooden spoon and why I used one as well for stirring!
I then covered the apples with 6 cups of water, which ended up being way too much, I discovered later. After boiling the apples for 30 minutes, I drained them in a sieve lined with cheese cloth.
After draining the apples and smashing them with a spoon to extract as much juice as possible, I had 4 cups (or 2 pints) of juice. I added this juice back to my Dutch oven and added 2 pounds of sugar (by weight). This would be approximately 4 cups of sugar.
I brought this mixture to a boil and used a candy thermometer to measure the temperature.
Boiling to the right temperature is where many mistakes can come into play (and where they did for me). Since the recipe above stated to “boil to the ball,” I went by the “soft ball” temperature mark on the thermometer, which was 230 degrees. It took a very long time (probably another 30 minutes of boiling) to get the mixture to that point because it there was so much water in this mix. (The more water there is, the longer it has to boil to release steam and become more of a syrup/candy mixture.)
I wanted to try to follow this recipe as closely as I could though, even though it said both to “boil to the ball” and then “boil until it jellies,” which I took to mean the same thing. (It’s not.) I boiled this mixture to 230 degrees and then transferred it to a VERY clean mason jar with a new lid and band.
It looked pretty in the jar and definitely seemed to be jelly-like when I poured it initially! I let it cool to room temperature on the counter and then placed it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, my husband and I tested it.
This was not my finest culinary moment. The mixture was way too hard, and I had to microwave it to get it to come out of the jar at all. When I did, it came out in sticky ropes. It was definitely more of a candy than a jelly – maybe even an apple honey. It tasted good, but there was no way you could easily spread this on a biscuit or a sandwich. I was disappointed, but I did still manage to use some of it as a sugar replacement in a batch of orange cranberry cookies that I then took to work and everyone loved (so not a total loss)!
I waited a week, did some research with modern recipes for jelly, and gave it another go. This time, my ingredients were the same but in smaller amounts:
1.7 pounds of honey crisp apples
1 pound of sugar
3 cups of filtered water
I followed all of the first steps mentioned above again: peeled and cored the apples and placed them in the Dutch oven. I put enough water into the pot to just barely cover the apples, 3 cups this time, and boiled the apples for 25 minutes. This time, the apples were much more “mashed” when I finished boiling.
I then drained the apples in cheese cloth and a sieve again, this time squeezing as much juice out of the apples (wearing a “hot hands” glove).
This time, the amount of juice that I got from the apples was 2 cups (or 1 pint). I added this to the Dutch oven and combined it with 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) of sugar. After reading many modern recipes for jelly making, I decided to boil this mixture to 220 degrees, just 10 degrees shy of soft ball stage.
As soon as the thermometer hit 220 (after about 10 minutes of boiling this time), I turned off the heat and pour the mixture again into a very clean mason jar, topped with a new lid and band.
This mixture looked very pretty again the second time around, and I let it cool to room temperature on the counter and then placed it in the refrigerator overnight. Then all I could do was wait!
The next morning, I made biscuits from scratch and hoped for the best!
When I opened the jar of jelly, I knew I had done it this time! The mixture was easily stirred but still gelatinous, all from the natural pectin that the apples released combined with the sugar! It was glorious to behold!
The jelly tasted very apple-y, and it looked and felt just like modern jelly, only without the preservatives and extra pectin added!
The lessons here were to not add too much water in the beginning and to only boil the mixture to 220 degrees. As for the author’s instructions to boil the mixture to the ball, I believe she may have been referring to either making a separate syrup mixture before adding the remaining apple juice to it, or she may have cut it off right before the ball stage. Either way, I was able to use the core of her recipe to make something great, even if it took a couple of tries! Since this was my first time ever trying something like this, I’m so happy it only took me twice to get it right!
Experimenting isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always worth it! Until next time, I’ll be eating apple jelly on everything! 😉