A surfeit of fruit

It’s that time of year, when the U-Pik signs go up along roadsides, advertising cheap berries for the effort of crouching in the fields over low strawberry bushes, sticking your hands into god knows what…. Sorry. Bad childhood experience.

Did you know? Most U-Pick places also have some already-picked flats for purchase. And the cost is not that much more. There are better ways to earn your Janie Dollaz. Like, say, making jam!

Making preserves is one of those kitchen magic things – people who’ve never done it assume that it’s difficult and intimidating. And frankly, I count on that. When I give someone a Christmas gift that includes two jars of jam, they often react as though I’ve handed them the keys to a new Vespa. When I was younger and dumber, I used to reassure them. “Oh, no. It’s just jam! It takes no time at all blah blah blah.” Now I’m all “Damn STRAIGHT you got jam. Only my favorite relatives get JAM.” It’s win-win.

If you’ve never made jam before, I’m sending you to the store right now. Buy about 8 cups of cheap, in-season fruit, a 5 pound bag of sugar, a couple of lemons, and a box of pectin. Sure-Jell if you can find it. Oh, and jars. Buy the 8 ounce jars if you’re giving them as gifts – they’re the prettiest jars, AND you get more gifts out of your jam that way. Wash your jars with lots of soap and hot water, or run them through the dishwasher. Open the Sure-Jell box, and read the insert that came with it. Follow the simple instructions to the letter – when to add the sugar, when to add the pectin, how long to boil. This is the first way I learned to make jam, and how I made it for years. I recommend it highly, just to get a sense for the satisfaction that comes from turning fresh fruit into preserves.

Canning Kettle

At the very beginning, you don’t even have to buy the tools of preserving. When I had my teeny apartment, the one where I could literally stand in the middle of the floor, pivot on one foot and reach every appliance, drawer, and surface in the kitchen, I didn’t have space for a canning kettle. I just placed a kitchen towel inside my deepest pot, filled it with water, and put my finished jars into that, fishing them out with tongs as necessary. You can also buy a canning funnel and a jar lifter – they make your life easier, and they’re pretty cheap, but not mandatory.

Canning Tools

The only problem with making strawberry jam with powdered pectin is that it tends to set up pretty firm. Almost a jell-o like set. And I love a jam that has a melting softness to it. So I started playing around with recipes that don’t call for added pectin. The best one I’ve found is from The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard. And it pretty much ensures that you will win the Christmas martyrdom sweepstakes this year. Because it takes THREE DAYS. Make sure you say it like that: “It took THREE DAYS to make it, but nothing is too good for you, my favorite relative. My favorite color of Vespa is green, by the way.”

Evening of day one: 8 cups of halved or quartered strawberries and 4 cups of sugar go into a bowl and sit together for eight hours. Give them an occasional stir to make sure that the sugar is dissolving, but you can pretty much just leave it alone. Go to bed.

Morning of day two: Put your berry mixture into a deep saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup of lemon juice, return to a boil, and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 24 hours.

Berry Mixture

Morning of day three: Put a small stack of plates in the freezer. Fill your canning kettle with water, and turn on the heat under it. Put your canning lids and rings in a shallow pan and pour almost-boiling water over them, but don’t put them on the heat. Just let them hang out in the hot water until you need them.

Bring berries to a full boil over high heat and boil rapidly for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, skimming off any foam that forms. (Save the foam in a little bowl – it’s delicious in its own right. My sister and I used to fight over who got the jam foam. ) Slide your pot off of the heat. Take a small spoonful of jam and drop it on a chilled plate, and let it sit for a moment. Push your finger through the now-cooled test jam. Is the puddle forming little wrinkles in front of your finger, or is it more syrupy and yielding? If it’s a syrupy liquid, you need to keep cooking – slide your kettle back onto the heat and give it another 3 minutes of heavy boiling, and then test again.

This is the hardest part of jam making – you’re standing over a roiling cauldron, the boiling jam can splatter and it is hot like lava, and wow the mess. If you need photographic evidence of how hard you worked making presents for everyone, now would be the time to take those pictures.

Ladle the finished jam into your clean jars. Fish out lids and rings. Wipe the lip of the jar clean, place the canning lid on top, and then screw on the ring. (You’ll want to hold the jar with something heat resistant. See above: hot like lava.) Submerge the closed jars of jam in a boiling water bath, and let them hang out for 10 minutes. Fish them out, put the jars on the counter, put your jam cauldron in the sink to soak, and go to bed. Listen for the soft *pop* of jars sealing themselves in the dark kitchen.

Should make 5 8-oz jars of jam.

Ooo, jam