I’ve had inquiries into how i make my preserves, and i have to admit straight off that a learning process is taking place and that they keep getting better. Practice does not necessarily make perfect but it tends to improve.
On the other hand, we do things for years out of habit, even when we’re not all that satisfied with the results. Similarly, i’ll be following a procedure that i’ve used for literally decades when suddenly the thought will hit me that a slight modification in technique will yield an equally good or even better result with half the expenditure of effort and time. Just recently i’ve had a couple of aha experiences with my jams and jellies.
For decades i’ve followed the “Waterless Grape or Berry Jelly” recipe that has been in every edition of The Joy of Cooking for the last forty years. And yes, the recipe suggests that you use “slightly underripe” berries and with admirable honesty includes the line, “This doesn’t always work”.
The Beckers tell you that if the jelly fails to set, “nothing but time is lost. Allow one apple and a quarter cup of water to every four cups original fruit used. Cook the apple and water until the apple is soft. Strain off the juice, add it to the unjelled jelly, and recook it as for any other jelly.”
Nothing but time? What the hell am i shortest of? And they neglect to mention that you’ll have to remove all the jelly from the jars and then clean them. And since jellies keep setting as they cool, by the time you’re willing to admit that the stuff hasn’t jelled enough, hours have passed, the utensils are all crusty, and you are way beyond the jelly-making mood.
Regarding using “slightly underripe” berries, i guess if i were picking my own berries or were closely supervising my personal berry picker (Naw, put that one back), i could get underripe berries, but my carefully picked vendors don’t bring underripe berries to market.
So anyhow, for years i’ve been turning out jellies that were only marginally set and then in many cases shipping them across the country under the tender care of the USPS whose clerks refuse to promise that they’ll be extra careful not to agitate the box. In fact, they give it a good shake to make sure there’s nothing loose inside, so the jellies arrive liquefied.
I tell myself that well, the taste is more important than the texture, but still i admit that it’s tedious to have to keep your toast level so that the jelly doesn’t run off and that you hate to have to warn people that if they don’t go ahead and eat their jellied toast fast, it will start looking like one of Dali’s watches when they hold it by a corner.
So i’ve been background processing on this problem and have been experimenting with some new techniques, which i’ve appended to the discussions of the various preserves. A new ingredient i’ve taken to adding to all the jams, jellies, and chutneys is a well chopped, salt-preserved lemon. The bit of salt they add brightens the fruit flavors in the jam, and their pectin helps in setting.
One shortcut before i get into the recipes: instead of steaming up the whole kitchen by boiling the jars and lids, years ago i started just putting them into a 225 degree (110 Celsius) oven for a few minutes. I was both flattered and reassured to learn that the famous June Taylor had independently invented the same technique.
For the jams i normally use enough chopped fruit to fill this container that i’d been thinking was a couple of quarts but which i just measured and is more like a couple of liters or five pints. Alternatively, just use five pounds of fruit. To this i’m adding all but the core of two shredded apples, the juice of a couple of lemons, and a quart of white cane sugar. I simmer this until it’s thick enough that it’s threatening to stick and burn if i don’t stir frequently. Then i scoop it into the jars that i’ve had heating in the oven, holding the jars with an old hotpad and immediately screwing the lids on tight so that the lids poink down as they cool.
Note: If you’re using strawberries, you have to watch the pot like a hawk as you’re heating it because they want very badly to boil over and make a hideous mess. All jams should be watched closely for boilovers, especially at first, but in my experience, no other fruit is so eager to boil over as strawberries.
A late note on the jams: For sure i don’t want apple seeds or lemon membrane and seeds in my jams, but i can at least shred all of the apple except the seedy core, especially since i sometimes use my stick blender on the jams just before jarring them. Not that total homogeneity is necessarily a plus in jams, and you certainly wouldn’t want to blend a cherry jam.
A later note on the jams: after reading the section on preserves in Harold McGee’s highly recommended On Food and Cooking, i finally understood that while i can crow that my jams have about half the sugar found in typical jams, if i went ahead and used more sugar they sure would set a lot better. So i now suggest that you increase the amount of sugar to as much as two quarts. You can just eat half as much of the jam. I was also unpleasantly surprised by McGee’s discussion of the role of lemon juice in helping the jams set. Yes, i knew they helped in setting, but hadn’t known i should also increase the amount of lemon juice to three or perhaps four lemons per two-liter batch of jam. Brightens the flavor and, more importantly, lowers the pH and thus better wards off pathogens.
The only jellies i make are of raspberries, blackberries, and tayberries, and for all of them i use an entire flat (12 boxes) per batch. I shred in two apples and everything but the peel of three lemons, and i use an old potato masher to juice everything up a bit. Bring to a simmer and cook until the bits of apple and lemon are soft and easily mashable. Strain this mass into another pot. I have a large sieve with a mesh just fine enough to catch all but the smallest immature berry seeds, and it fits into the tops of the two pots i use. I switch the sieve back and forth between the pots when the level of the drained liquid nears the bottom of the sieve. I pour off the drained liquid into a measuring container. Toward the end of the draining, i help the process along by some mashing around on the pulp with the wooden stirring spoon although if i were cooking up an entry for the State Fair and wanted maximum clarity i wouldn’t do this.
Measure the strained liquid and bring it to a simmer. Slowly stir in one and one-half times as much white cane sugar and bring the temperature back to the boiling point. I use my old Pyrex pint measuring cup to scoop the jelly into the hot jars, screw the lids on, and cross my fingers that the jelly sets.
You can steep the strained-out pulp and seeds in big jars with white vinegar for a month or so in the refrigerator and then strain it through a cloth for a delicious berry-flavored vinegar.
Late notes on the jellies: For years i’ve been putting into my jams and jellies the pulp of an apple (for its pectin) and the juice of a lemon (to brighten up the taste while lowering the pH, which helps setting). In July it struck me that hey, since i was straining the seeds out of the jellies, i could stop wasting the time to seed and devein the jalapeños that are appearing in more and more of the jellies. And sometime after that i realized that well, i didn’t have to peel the apples, either. And then sometime even later i realized that, hey, why not just put the whole damn shredded apple in there (except for the seeds!!) since i’m straining everything. And go ahead and use two apples and three lemons.
And also, i shuddered to imagine how much time i’d spent painstakingly chopping apples into tiny pieces when it occurred to me that i could use the coarsest side of my square grater to shred an entire apple in thirty seconds, especially if i wasn’t too fussy about getting an occasional piece of knuckle in there. See, that part also gets strained out.
And then i thought about the lemons. The seeds and membranes in lemons contain a lot of pectin. Why not just put everything but the peel into the pot since anything that’s not liquid gets strained out?
And you know what? My jellies are setting better now.
I am fortunate to have friends with citrus trees, and from them in season i get Rangpur limes, Meyer lemons, and blood oranges, all of which make excellent marmalade.
The first time Carol gave me a bag of her little Rangpur limes, i called them “Carol’s little bitter oranges” because their color was orange and they were so very sour that i mistook this taste for bitterness. I went online and looked at a number of marmalade recipes. I followed one that was astonishingly tedious, requiring me to juice the limes, julienne the peel, put the reserved seeds and pulp from the juicing into a cloth bag, cook the whole mess together, and finally squeeze the pectin out of the cloth bag. Then i discovered Molly Watson‘s recipe for Meyer lemon marmalade in the San Francisco Chronicle and converted to it for all my citrus marmalades.
Here’s my take on Ms. Watson’s recipe: Cut 5 lbs. of citrus fruit in half and pick out the seeds. Put the halves flat side down and cut them into thin slices. Put the sliced citrus into a pot with 4 cups (a cup is about 475ml.) of water and 5 cups of sugar (a bit more for Rangpur limes and blood oranges since you want some sweetness to shine through the sourness/bitterness, but you can keep tasting as it cooks down). Simmer for an hour and a half or so until you’re getting bigger bubbles and it’s acting like it wants to stick. Ladle it into hot jars and seal immediately.
Warning: Shortly after it starts acting like it wants to stick, it will. And very shortly after that, it burns. And little is more disheartening than having to compost the result of all that expense and effort….and then having to chip away at the burned residue in the pot.
Owing to all that pectin in the pulp, the marmalades will set like concrete after jarring if you let them get thick in the pot. However, if they end up too thick, just tell the recipients to mix a little water in after they open them.
Late note: As my energy declines, i’ve started taking shortcuts, one of which is to simply throw the seeded citrus into the food processor and give it repeated zaps until it’s reduced to small chunks. Hell of a lot easier than thinly slicing all that fruit. And no, doesn’t look quite as nice and may not even taste quite as good although the latter may be my imagination.
Actually, considering that i’ve simplified Molly Watson’s simplification, i probably shouldn’t even be calling my stuff “marmalade” anymore. How ’bout “marmalam” since it’s really more of a jam?
One final note on marmalades: if a friend of yours ever gets her lemon tree pruned when there are green lemons on the branches, as my friend Gloria did several years ago in Santa Rosa, get her to save the green lemons so you can make marmalade of them. Use extra sugar, as they are bitter as well as sour, but oh my goodness, what a strange and delicious marmalade they make! On the other hand, after this great success i tried making a marmalade of green blood oranges and found it inedible. Go figure. But keep experimenting.
In addition to two generous liters or five pounds of the primary fruit, the chutneys include a cored shredded apple (red, yellow, or green), two medium or one large onion (red, yellow, or white), and a couple of cups of raisins (red, golden, white, etc). All chutneys also contain a quart of brown sugar, a teaspoon of salt, 1 & 1/3 c. vinegar (white, white wine, apple cider, or fruited balsamic or a combination thereof), fresh hot peppers to taste, but it’s not chutney if you can’t taste the pepper, people (or chile powder or red pepper or Patak’s hot lime relish), and two inches of peeled and chopped fresh ginger. They are flavored with 2 bay leaves, 1 t. cardamom, 1 t. of cinnamon, 9 cloves, 1 t. cumin, 1 T. fennel seeds or 2 star anise, 1 t. mace, and 1 T. turmeric. I was backed into a corner about specific pepper quantity and will suggest now that for your first batch you try four seeded jalapeños or three whole ones….maybe one less for the New Englanders and other sissies. Regarding the above spice quantities: you might consider doubling them.
I went through a phase in which I thought it was nifty to use whole spices because one of my favorite restaurants, a little Pakistani dump in the Tenderloin called Shalimar, uses them. Somehow, you feel like you’re getting more bang for your buck when you chomp down on a whole cardamom lurking in your curried spinach. Having inedible chunks in there somehow makes the chutneys seem more “real” although I’m not sure it makes them taste any better, and this is off-putting enough for many people that i’ve broken down and returned to using powdered herbs and spices…..well, except for the bay leaves, cloves, fennel, and star anise.
Niabell Grape Jam
OK, i’ll do a separate entry for this delight. Sybil and i were shopping at Hamada’s in the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market one Saturday in late summer 2013 and she handed me a grape. Taste this.
I was stunned. Maybe the best grape i ever ate, so i bought a bunch and devoured them over the next couple of days. And then realized that even though they had tough skins and big seeds, i had to try making a jam.
So i went browsing around for ideas and came up with the following method: rinse off five pounds of grapes, position two big bowls side by side, grab a bunch of grapes with your left hand and hold it over the right bowl, remove a grape and hold it down in the bowl while squeezing it from the end opposite the stem so that the pulp squirts out into the bowl, and drop the skin into the left bowl. No need to try to squeeze all the pulp out because the main point is to remove the seeds. Repeat for all the grapes. And no, it doesn’t take all that long if you get a rhythm going, especially compared to pitting cherries.
Simmer the pulp and seeds until the pulp has broken down and then put the juice and seeds into a sieve and mash around with a spoon until there’s nothing left in the sieve but seeds. Until i figure out something to do with grape seeds, i’m putting them into the compost. Umm, better yet, feed ’em to the wildlife.
Late note: For the second batch, i broke down and bought an Oxo food mill, which sure was a lot easier than mashing pulp through a sieve.
While the pulp is simmering, put the skins into a food processor, puree them well and add them to the seedless pulp and juices.
Add a couple of shredded apples and the juice of a couple of lemons and cook at a low boil with two quarts of sugar until thickened sufficiently.
Pour into hot jars and seal. ta da!
And oh, credit where it’s due. Hamada is the only vendor i know who grows these beauties.