Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hope you like jammin' too

I want to talk about jam, but first I want to talk about culinary failure. Reading many food writers can leave you with a sense of unworthiness. Everything they make sounds so good. Everything they eat is beautiful, nutritious, fresh and perfectly cooked. It's irritating.

Food blogs provide a nice corrective to traditional food writing. Regular people who describe the regular cooking in their lives write about overcooked meals, undercooked meals, fallen cakes, undersalted meat, dull soups. I have made all of these and more. Usually, at this point in my life, I can be fairly confident that anything I cook will be pretty good. (My early twenties, on the other hand, were a pretty sketchy time, culinarily speaking.) Sometimes, I achieve excellence. Maybe once a year I achieve transcendence. Sometimes, my food is edible, but not what you would call good. Sometimes, I fail utterly.

Now (deep breath) onto the jam...

I love making jam, and I've had a lot of success with it. Jam isn't hard, just a bit fussy. Lots of prep, lots of time, but the end product is pretty much assured as long as the fruit is good.

This summer I've had a hard time finding good fruit. One week I bought two quart baskets of strawberries from the same vendor who had sold me delicious strawberries the week before. The strawberries were flavorless. I sliced them, sugar them, doused them in Grand Marnier and ate them up. I was not going to waste the time to make jam out of lackluster berries, even if my very best jam of the year before had been strawberry with black pepper and balsamic vinegar, and I was dying for some more.

I've been itching to start making jam, so when I saw tiny red plums at the farmer's market, I figured the time had come.

Plums like this inspire jam sessions. Posted by Picasa

I bought two baskets, which turned out to be less than the amount required for Christine Ferbinger's plum jam recipe, so I cut it down by a third. Her recipes are for small batches to begin with, so I was really taking on a lot of work for a tiny amount of jam, but I persisted. I cut the plums in half and removed their pits, then combined them with the sugar and lemon juice and let them sit for an hour. Then everything got brought to a boil, taken off the heat immediately, and allowed to sit overnight.

This is a pretty standard method for good jam. The fruit starts to absorb the syrup before the final cooking. You're minimizing the amount of time the fruit is actually cooking.

The next night, I strained the juice into my beautiful, Kitchens Etc.-closing-sale-bargain, wide copper preserving pan, reserving the fruit to the side. I brought the juices to a boil.

And here's where the failure part kicks in.

You see, there are two major methods people use to check whether a syrup has reached the jellying stage. The first is the homey, old-fashioned method: you chill a stack of saucers, remove one, put a bit of the syrup on it, wait a minute for it to cool, and tip it up. If the syrup runs like, well, syrup, it's not done. If it rolls down the saucer sluggishly, thickly, if you can run a finger through it and the line stays clean, then you've got jelly. I have used this method successfully for making jam for about ten years now, at least four or five batches a summer.

Then there's the candy thermometer method. It's easy, just check the temperature with a thermometer.

Gadgets are nice, aren't they? A number seems so much more legitimate than a saucer dripped with syrup. A thermometer seems so scientific, so precise. Also, the saucer method? You have to use a clean, cold saucer for each test. That's a stack of saucers to clean up afterwards. So I was lazy and only used the thermometer.

The syrup had only boiled a minute or two before I figured I would take a baseline temperature measure. The little red line kept rising and rising, until it shot past the aimed-for temp. I panicked. How could it have gotten so hot so fast? The syrup didn't even look thickened yet. Ah, but it was a tiny batch in a big pan - evaporation had clearly happened very quickly. Overcooked jam is worse than undercooked. I added the fruit, let everything return to a boil, boiled five minutes as instructed, then processed.

Cooking the jam, round one. Posted by Picasa

The processing is the part that makes jam-making a bit of a hassle. You have to wash the jars, then boil the jars, scald the lids, fill the jars, wipe the edges of the jars very carefully, put the lids on, put the jars back in the boiling water, boil ten minutes, then remove them. Your reward is the incredibly satisfying popping noise each jar makes as, cooling on the counter, it seals.

So I processed 5 tiny 4 oz jars and 1 smallish 8 oz jar of jam and went to bed most pleased with myself. I woke up and went immediately to the kitchen, because when you've made jam the night before, you have to inspect your jars first thing, and put the labels on, and hold them up to the light, and admire them endlessly. Except that when I held a jar up, it sloshed.

My jam hadn't jellied.

I had made red plum halves in syrup.

The only other complete failure I've had jam-making was also red plum, so now I'm very suspicious of plum jams and don't intend to be making them in the future. But I still had jars of red plums in syrup, and frankly that's useless. Red raspberry syrup is fine, or blueberries in syrup, but what the heck am I going to do with red plums in syrup? So I screwed up my resolve and when I got home last night, I emptied the jars into the strainer, recooked the syrup, added the fruit back in, and actually ended up with jam.

I was too irritated to go through the whole processing business, though, so I scalded two big jars and just put the jam in the fridge. Instead of cute little jars for giftgiving, I've got my own personal plum jam stash for flavoring yogurt and spreading on toast. Not bad, really, except plum isn't really my favorite jam flavor. Sigh. But at least I saved the fruit.


mzn said...

I'm impressed that you didn't throw the whole thing away. I admire your sticktoitiveness. And I agree completely about food blogs and failures. This was a really fun post to read even if the jam was a pain to deal with for you.

Ann said...

I admire your resolve to make the plum syrup into jam. I make hundreds of jars of jam and other preserves in the summers, just for Farmer's Market, and I would have bought your "loose" plum preserves for sundae topping.
Best of continued success jammin'.