Exquisite Elderberries 1: Elderberry and Crab Apple Fruit Butter

At this time of the year, my fingers are usually itching to go elderberry picking. Elderberries make rich fruity preserves and syrups but also contain beneficial compounds that are said to help treat various ailments. Interestingly, elderberry extract has been found to have antiviral properties in medical studies. So the traditional use of elderberry syrup for treating coughs and colds definitely seem to be more than an old wives tale. While using elderberries to make tasty and healthy treats, you should be aware that elderberries must not be consumed raw and must be cooked. (If you don't want to experience nausea and, erghm, significant laxative effect.)

  An unplanned Sunday trip with friends turned out to be a perfect opportunity to relieve me of my foraging urges. My children and I spotted several elder bushes heaving with ripe black-purple elderberries and also a crab apple tree with hundreds of tiny apples. 

My past encounters with crab apples were not particularly pleasant- the fruits were extraordinarily astringent and of generally unpleasant taste. But these tiny yellow apples with red cheeks were surprisingly tasty, even raw. There was no way I could leave these little beauties behind without picking at least a few handfuls.  So I returned home with a bag full of elderberries and crab apples.

The combination of crab apples and elderberries just called for a low sugar jam. (Low sugar because I have never been a fan of traditional sickly sweet jams, marmalade and fruit preserves) We could also call it by a considerably posher sounding name Elderberry and Crab Apple Fruit Butter. Contrary to what the name seems to suggest, fruit butter doesn't contain fat of any kind.  It is a variety of very smooth rich fruit spread. Usually, whole pieces of fruit are cooked until mushy and then pushed through a sieve to create a smooth puree that is reduced by cooking until desired thickness is achieved. My Czech grandmother used to tell me of traditional plum butter that was so thick one had to cut pieces off with a knife and dilute them before using. Various fruit butters, especially plum butters are common and well loved in Eastern European cooking. Traditional recipes for sugar-free and very thick fruit butters would call for vigorous stirring that would last for hours, even overnight. But don't worry, for a light set fruit butter, the cooking time is nowhere near that. While making fruit butter, you don't need to worry about usual jam gelling agents, such as pectin. Just get some elbow grease and be ready to stir.  Due to a higher concentration of fruit solids, fruit butter will be darker, less vibrant in colour and will have more robust mouthfeel than an ordinary jam. It is a highly concentrated fruit product, and it has a rich taste, but also higher acidity, so while it is possible to make fruit butter without added sugar, you may still want to add a little sugar to balance the taste.

The question of sugar

The usual approach to making jams typically calls for 1kg of sugar to 1kg of fruit, or 1:1 ratio. There is one main reason for this  extravagant amount of sugar. Sugar acts as a preservative. If your fruit spread contains high amounts of sugar, it is unlikely to go bad, as long as you store it with a pinch common sense. Also, you will likely get away with just plopping your hot jam into clean hot jars without the need for thorough sterilisation.

It is possible to conserve fruit with a lower amount of added sugar (or no sugar at all). But there are at least two things one has to have in mind when making low sugar jams, fruit butters or other preserves: 

Most importantly, you are missing out on the preserving agent. This means that your product will be more susceptible to moulds. There is a way around this. If you plan to store your fruit creations long term, you will need to pay more attention to the process of sterilisation.  Your glasses and lids should be scrupulously clean, tight fitting and sterilised before filling. And once you fill your jars and close the lids, you will need to sterilise them once more. As long as you follow a few easy rules there is no reason your low sugar fruit conserves shouldn't last you a year, until the next season. 

Second important role of sugar is that it helps to thicken your jam. Without sugar, you might as well end up with a strawberry soup or blackcurrant drizzle. Which are great if this is what you aimed for, but not when you want to spread those on toast. To achieve thickening, rather than relying on the interaction of pectin and sugar, your preserve will need to be thickened by cooking. In other words, you will need to evaporate the excess water until you achieve the desired thickness.


How to make apple and elderberry jam or fruit butter: 

This recipe can be easily adjusted for any amount of fruit. I suggest starting with at least 1kg of apples and elderberries (combined weight).  But if you still would like some numbers, for this particular batch, I used 1kg of crab apples, 800g of elderberries and 400g of sugar. This made enough jam to fill 3 and a half 300ml (half pint) jars.  

1. Wash elderberry heads and pick off berries either by hand or using a fork. Remove as many stems as possible - stems would make your preserve taste bitter.If you put your berries in a bowl of water, it is quite easy to remove debris, leaves, stems and the odd unripe berry as they mostly float to the top.

Cleaning the berries can feel like a futile never-ending task. Relax and don't overthink it, if an odd piece of stem or dry petal stays here and there, its okay and it will still work fine, because we only use the juice of elderberries in this recipe. If you wanted to add whole elderberries you would have to make sure that your elderberries are super clean, which is a really labor intensive venture.

2. Put elderberries in a saucepan, add a half cup of water and bring to boil. Simmer gently for approx. 10-15 minutes. 

3. In the meanwhile wash your apples, remove stalks. Halve crab apples - to check for unwelcome visitors*, but there is no need to remove the seeds. If using ordinary apples chop them up in smaller pieces.

 *You could leave the crab apples whole, but in particular, if you picked your lovely organic apples in nature, there will likely be a few pieces that host an unwelcome visitor in the centre. Understand a worm or other creepy crawly. I found an earwig in one of my apples. I would probably have a heart attack if I found it simmering in the pot. I wish growing and picking my own food meant just floating around with handfuls of organic-non-gmo-pesticide-free superfood. Unfortunately, it also regularly entails dealing with not so pleasant creatures that we are no longer used to seeing while living in cities(....... Or, if you can stomach it, you may just forget all about them and consider them a protein boost.)

4. Put your apples in another saucepan, add approx. 1 cup of water and simmer on low flame until very soft. (approx 10-15 minutes)

5. Line a strainer with a muslin (old-fashioned handkerchiefs are perfect for this purpose ) and strain your elderberry juice. Use the muslin to squeeze the last drop out. 

6. Mash your soft apples in the pot lightly (or whizz a few times with a stick blender), then press the mixtures through a strainer using a spatula or spoon to remove any bits and to obtain a smooth puree. It is easier to do this a few spoonfuls at a time.

7. In a clean pot mix your elderberry juice and apple puree. Add sugar to taste and boil until your jam starts setting. Stir frequently to prevent burning.

To check if your jam is setting: Put a little plate in the freezer for some time.Put a few drops of jam on the cold plate and wait a minute or two. Once your drop of jam cooled down, move the plate around and touch it. It is ready if your jam holds shape in a little mound and is not runny. If it is still runny boil a little longer and test again.  

Now you can fill your purple goodness in clean jars. If you want to store your jam beyoond a few days it is advisable to sterilize jars (before filling and then again once filled up and lidded) using your preferred method - by boiling steaming, in the oven or in the dishwasher. More on sterilization soon.

Katerina QabahaComment