It turns out, we have an apple tree in our backyard; and it turns out, it bears fruit. A lot of it, too. No brand names that I could boast of by any means—just plain, green, petite apples that look and taste a bit on the wild side.
I suspect, these are crab apples—the local backyard staple.
Crab apples are known to be sour, tough, and far from being juicy. However, the first time I tried mine, I found them to be a delectable cross of tart and sweet.
I immediately thought of the powerful sun of the high desert that had been ripening them all through the summer.
“Of course, it is all about the heat!” I shared the news with Kevin later that day. “Heat brings out the best in fruits—their natural sugars.”
The apples we picked from the outer sections of the tree were sweeter than those that came from the lower branches obstructed by the bordering rose bushes and the fence.
Those areas clearly needed more time to ripen; but since my 6-year-old was involved, those were the areas that got picked first. I let the apples sit on the counter in brown bags for a couple of days to speed their ripening, but the fruit was still too tart for our taste.
“Let’s try grilling them, honey,” Kevin suggested.
The apples grilled fast and easy. As Kevin was picking up a batch off the grill with a pair of tongs, I noticed one leave a thread of caramel behind. I grabbed it, waited for it to cool, sprinkled a pinch of cinnamon on top, and bit in . . .
For a moment, I weighed if I should run into the house to get a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream to go with it but felt lazy and stayed put.
“Like candy,” I thought again and looked at the quirky little apple tree with long branches and oversized leaves that stood lone in the farthest corner of our backyard.
The autumn sun was going down, bathing it in its soft, warm glow.
Tart crab apples will benefit tremendously from all manner of heat: grilling, roasting, baking.
The idea of using them for a traditional apple pie won’t sound so far-fetched if you blind cook them first, so to say. Like they blind bake (same as par-bake) a pie crust because some fillings take only a short time to cook. Try sautéing thin apple wedges in butter, sugar, and spices before folding them in.
This will allow them to sweeten and mellow.
I roasted a mix of tart and sweet crab apples into butter. Scroll down for my recipe for oven-roasted apple butter.
It is delicious.
Mom suggested we make sun-dried apple chips and volunteered to do all the slicing.
If your crab apples are on the small side, it’s best to cut them crosswise into paper-thin rounds.
The weather favored us: it was hot, dry, and slightly breezy. We spread the apple slices on cooling racks that were nestled inside baking sheets, covered them with cheesecloth, and set them out in the sun.
We didn’t shy away from eating the apples out of hand either.
Nicole who was short of 4 teeth at the time declared they were too tough for her to bite into and suggested we dip them into caramel.
I wasn’t sure how the latter was going to improve the biting issue for her; but a victim to her toothless mouth that curved up wide and open as she smiled, making her freckled little nose wrinkle and her eyes squint, I went ahead and dipped about a dozen.
I went even farther than that—I let most of the caramel run off her apple, creating a huge puddle that just asked to get polished off with a finger.
Unless you are under the influence of a mischievous 6-year-old, let excess caramel drip off back in pan.
But no harvest is ever as sweet as when you get to share it. We shared some of ours with wildlife.
A squirrel that dug himself up a temporary lodging right by our apple tree went out to pick the fruit when we weren’t around. Naturally.
We worked in shifts, so to speak.
The squirrel contented himself mostly with the apples that we left by the tree for him to haul away. And everything was going fine until one day, close to a dozen of perfectly ripe, big (the biggest they can get), sun-kissed apples from the top of the tree that I didn’t get to photograph the day before due to poor lighting conditions simply vanished overnight.
“If wildlife is after them, they must be real good,” Kevin tried to cheer me up.
“Or maybe this hard-working fella is a sign of an early and snowy winter to come?” I theorized, a lot of hope in my voice.
“I hope so, honey. I really do.”
We will see.
In the meantime, I think I’ll make a couple more jars of my oven-roasted apple butter. Stocking up on food for the long winter ahead is a tradition deeply rooted in me.
Recipe for Olga’s Original Oven-Roasted Apple Butter *
1. 3 lbs. crab apples
2. 3 cups unsweetened apple juice
3. 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4. 1 teaspoon ground cloves
5. ½ teaspoon ground allspice
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Peel and coarsely chop apples. Place them in a 13 x 9-inch roasting pan and cover with juice.
3. Add spices and stir around to coat apples.
4. Cover pan with foil and roast apples for about 30-40 minutes or until soft.
5. Remove and discard foil and coarsely mash apples.
6. Decrease heat to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and roast apples for another 2 to 2 ½ hours or until dark brown and reduced to about 1 ¾ -2 cups.
7. Let cool completely. Pulse a few times in a food processor, if a finer texture is desired.
8. Store butter in the fridge for up to 3 months.
Makes about 1 ¾ – 2 cups apple butter