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Playing with pectin

This is the week when canning buddy and I hit the pick-your-own farm and come back in a car that smells like summer. Then we race to turn the soft fruit (usually strawberries and raspberries, sometimes currants and cherries as well) into countless jars of jam in the hope that it will remind us of summer right through a Canadian winter.

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But I’ve written about the summer can-o-rama before, and there’s a limit to how many times you I can brag about how many jars of jam we made (44 this year). I want to opine instead on the pectin problem, given that strawberries don’t have enough of it for a jam to set, and strawberry jam is up there on the list of must-have jars.

I am not a fan of how regular commercial pectin gives my jam a gelatinous feel, so I’m always in the market for a workaround. The addition of a kiwi fruit, recommended by the New York Times a few years back, produces a nice, soft strawberry jam, although you have to be careful to remove all the kiwi’s woody core, and the black seeds are mildly disconcerting, a gentle reminder that it’s not all strawberry. Other recipes suggest adding an apple (I tried that with a cherry jam one year and it ended up like cherry jam with apple sauce), and last month I hit the jackpot by adding home-made crabapple pectin to a strawberry jam, which produced a genuinely “wow” jam, which might be one of the best I’ve ever made.

But I’m out of crabapple pectin. In the course of a mad canning afternoon, we tried out four alternatives, all of which seem to work around the strawberry-set problem. I’ll add the ratings when I get round to opening the jars.

1. Strawberry jam with Pomona pectin.

I’ve read a lot about Pomona pectin on the interwebz, and fans say it offers the set without the sour, so you don’t need as much sugar and you don’t cook your jam as long. It’s a U.S. product, so I was sort of surprised to see it at the local health food store. Expensive, yes, but worth a go.

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Because it was the first time, we followed the recipe pretty slavishly for this one, mixing one of the two packets in the box to produce a calcium water, and then stirring the recommended volume of the pectin packet into the sugar before adding sugar/pectin to hot strawberries and boiling for another 1-2 minutes. It all seemed pretty vague — between 3/4 of a cup and two cups of sugar to four cups of mashed up strawberries — and Pomona said firmly that strawberries didn’t need the addition of lemon juice. But it was definitely worth a try.

It’s early days, but while the set was firm (too firm, perhaps?) I do admit the first taste was not as truly yummy as I thought it ought to be. Maybe strawberry jam needs the bitterness of lemon to bring out the strawberries? Or maybe 2-1/2 cups of sugar to 8 cups of fruit just wasn’t quite enough? We have eight jars. It’s still strawberry jam.

Second workaround was one we’ve used many times before, mixing strawberries with pectin-rich raspberries (and lemons) for glorious burst of flavour. The first taste is raspberry, but then the strawberry creeps through, and it’s always a lovely set. We make this jam each year. No reason to stop now.

Recipe number 3 swapped out raspberries for gooseberries, which have even more pectin than raspberries do. And while the strawberry-raspberry jam used 3 cups each of strawberries and raspberries, the strawberry-gooseberry one was a ratio of 5:1, with a little extra sugar to cut the gooseberry bite. Nice set. Taste rating to come.

imageThen things got a little more experimental, and if the crabapple pectin worked so well, what about making a gooseberry pectin, which meant boiling the berries up with a little water, and then straining the juice out in a jelly bag. In an ideal world I’d have left the goop to drip overnight, but we wanted now. So we added two tablespoons of gooseberry pectin to 6 generous cups of strawberries, and jammed them up with 4 scant cups of sugar and the juice of two lemons. The taste is good. The gooseberry elixir adds a bitterness which I rather like, and you don’t have to top or tail the gooseberries, a sticky, frustrating and time-consuming task.

Plus there are 10 little ice cube trays of gooseberry pectin waiting for the next jam.

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We got five jars of that jam, but one jar had an accident in the waterbath. It’s only the second time that’s ever happened. Too many jars in the canner? A flaw in the jar?

Who knows. It was almost the end of the session, so we abandoned the idea of waterbathing the last 7 jars of pure raspberry jam and retired to the Ribfest up the street.

Despite that broken jar, it was a seriously successful day.

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Spendidly special strawberries

Strawberries are a slightly quirky fruit — not the best jam for the beginner — because they don’t contain much pectin and have this distressing tendency to turn to syrup rather than to jam. But my last strawberry jam, a last-minute marriage of strawberries, rhubarb and mint, was amazingly delicious, with a rich, red glow, a beautiful, soft set and a delicate taste of mint. Could I repeat that magic? Can I get a strawberry jam to set without using bought pectin, which I try to avoid because I don’t like the texture it offers.

Cue a recipe from the New York Times last year, which suggests adding a pectin-rich kiwi fruit to the mix. We made two batches with mint and one with lavender, and wow are these yummy. Lovely soft set, deep red color, beautiful fresh taste. The first jam was a little sweet, so we doubled the lemon for the second batch as we jammed our way through a generous eight pounds of fruit. For the first batch, we put the sprigs of mint in at the start, and fished them out at the end, as per the recipe. For the second we chopped the mint up really fine and threw it in at the end. I think the taste is better that way. The boil was far less than the 35-40 minutes the NYT says it will be.

The only problem: Our three batches of jam, two using three pounds of fruit (and three cups of sugar) and one with two pounds of fruit and two cups of sugar, produced a can’t-divide-by-two 11 jars. “There will be blood on the streets,” I muttered, before canning buddy graciously allowed me to take the extra jar, given that I picked the fruit, and will give a couple of jars to the friend who took me out there, helped me pick and drove me home.

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Here’s our take on the recipe.

Strawberry mint (or lavender) jam)
3 pounds strawberries, hulled and sliced
3 cups sugar
1 kiwi fruit, peeled and diced
Juice of 1 (or 2) lemons
4 sprigs of mint (or lavender), stems removed and leaves chopped finely

Put the strawberries in a big pan with the sugar, lemon juice and kiwi fruit, and leave them to sit while you prepare the next batches of fruit. (The recipe says at least 2 hours, we didn’t have that sort of time, and it didn’t seem to matter.) Heat, gently until the sugar dissolves, and then at a rolling boil until it sets. Stir often — this jam stays liquid (and very foamy) for a longish while, and the foam suddenly vanishes and it starts to set. Take it off the boil, stir in the chopped herbs, wait for 2-3 minutes to let the fruit settle a bit, and then bottle in sterilized jars. Water bath for 10 minutes.

The very detailed  recipe says boil the jam until it reaches 210F on a candy thermometer, but I’ve never managed to make the candy thermometer idea work. Instead, we test our jam for set by putting a small blob on a cold plate and seeing if you can draw your finger through and leave a gap. But you also get a good idea from how easy it is to stir. And even a syrupy jam works just fine with plain yogurt, which is my preferred way of using up my jams anyway.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Boring, I know, but it’s another drop-dead delicious jam.

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Strawberries start the season

My new gig this year is volunteering at the local community garden, which involves hard work, grubby feet and an unpredictable stash of organic produce. This week I scored a little container of small, sweet strawberries, a few stalks of slightly woody rhubarb and a couple of sprigs of mint. The plan was to stew the rhubarb and eat the strawberries, but at the last minute I veered off into jam, supplementing the precious community garden strawberrries with a few from the farmers’ market.

Getting ready to jam. The little pink squares are my home-made crab apple pectin.

But how was I going to get that jam to set, given that both strawberries and rhubarb are low in pectin, and I had neither commercial pectin (which I try not to use anyway) nor a kiwi fruit, which was my 2013 revelation after the New York Times printed a recipe that used a kiwi as pectin for a stunning strawberry jam?

Cue the last two cubes of my home-made crab apple pectin, which I froze in ice cube trays a long, long time ago — that’s the little pink squares mixed in with the fruit in the picture.

It worked. I have a deep red jam with a soft set and a delicate taste of mint.

Recipe, more for me than for anyone else, given that I suspect it’s rare to have ice cubes of home-made pectin in the freezer.

Strawberry rhubarb jam

3 cups strawberries, washed and chopped to chunks
2 cups chopped rhubarb
3 cups sugar
Juice of two lemons
2 cubes of home made pectin (or use a kiwi)
3 sprigs of mint, chopped very finely

Let the fruit, lemon juice and sugar macerate for an hour or so until the juices flow. Add the pectin (or kiwi) and head, gently until the sugar melts, and then at a rolling boil until it drizzles rather than pours off the spoon and you can run your finger through a blob on a cold saucer and leave a jamless streak. Stir in the mint, and leave for a few minutes so the fruit settles (I am told this prevents the fruit from floating to the top of the jar), and then bottle in sterilized jars.

This gave me 3-1/2 jars of jam, so I decided not to waterbath them. Instead, I turned the jars upside down for a few minutes after I put the rings on, and I listened happily as they sealed with a satisfying pop. I can always keep them in the fridge.

Can I open one of my three jars now, or do I have to use up the 2013 jam stash first?

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

I opened a jar. This jam is amazing. Absolutely, totally, utterly amazing.

 

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I give a fig

Good fresh figs are one of those to-die-for fruits, although they don’t travel well and are usually both underripe and scarily expensive up here in the Great White North.

So when my local store had ripe-looking one-pound packs of figs on offer for $7 for two on a day I had set aside to can tomatoes, I couldn’t resist the deal.

Surely the 45 minutes it takes to waterbath a batch of tomatoes is plenty of time to rustle up a batch of jam?

And how could I resist a peppered balsamic fig jam that the author says “started my love affair with canning”?

Turns out it was super easy, although I’m not quite sure if it’s a jam or a chutney. You chop the figs, simmer them with a little water for a bit, throw in the rest of the ingredients and boil until thick. The only thing I changed was crushing the peppercorns and adding them rather than fiddling around with a sachet of peppercorns and fishing it out at the end. The finished product is a rich, deep purple, with flecks of golden seeds, There’s a cup of balsamic in it, but it tastes mostly of spicy, peppery fig.

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With cheese, perhaps? A sharp, sheep’s cheese?

Rating: 3-1/2 (out of five). We opened one jar to go with the cheese starter for Christmas lunch, this was not as awesome as it ought to be. It was ok, but a little watery. More pepper next time? More balsamic? Or just decide to eat figs fresh.

And yes, it was done while the tomatoes were still doing their stuff. I wrote about tomatoes before, so I don’t plan to blog about them this year. Suffice it to two canners are sharing 22 jars of summer in a can. That’s down from 40 jars last year. I see shortages ahead.

How many jars of tomatoes is actually enough?

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Bits for burgers

I have almost all the trimmings to turn a burger into something well beyond the store bought stuff, thanks to bitingly spicy mustard greens in the garden, our first home-grown tomatos, and the latest of the bread and butter pickles as a substitute for the sliver of sourness that a commercial burger offers.

And now, thanks to the canning buddy’s niece’s insistence that we repeat a recipe I didn’t even like that much last year, we have the corn relish to slather on the top.

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We made that relish before the apricot jam last week, zipping the kernels off a dozen ears of corn and boiling them up with sugar, vinegar and spice, as well as some chopped up red peppers that we burned black on the stove, then peeled and chopped. I didn’t much like the taste that the basil offered last year, so we substituted dill, and we also cut the sugar and amped up the onion and the spice.

The recipe goes something like this.

Corn pepper relish (adapted, yet again) from The Complete Book of Pickling)
4 chopped, roasted red peppers, skin removed
1-1-2 cups sugar
2 tbsp salt (it was supposed to be kosher salt, but wasn’t)
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds
3 cups cider vinegar
8 cups cooked corn kernels
2 cups chopped onions
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
1/2 cup finely chopped dill

Roast the peppers by putting them directly on a gas burner and turning them round as they sizzle and char. Dunk in cold water, peel off most of the skin, and then chop them and set aside.

Put all the ingredients except the red pepper and dill in a pan, heat gently until the sugar dissolves and then simmer for 30 minutes or so until it thickens. Add the peppers and simmer for another 5 minutes. Stir in dill and ladle into clean, hot jars. Water bath for 15 minutes.

And to my surprise, it’s actually rather good. Last year I rated this a mere 2-1/2 out of five, because it was too sweet and because the basil went sort of brown and yucky on us. The dill adds a nice pickle tang, and the fact that it has less sugar makes it far more palatable to me. If there’s a next time I will add more turmeric, to add to the yellow hue.

Rating: 3-1/2 (out of 5). It’s far better than the gelatinous stuff you buy in the store, but I can’t see myself using it in the way I use pickles or chutneys. 

As for the mustard greens, I reckon this is the perfect thing to grow in a tiny square foot garden like ours. It grows fast, produces over several weeks, adds a serious bite to lunchtime sandwiches and you can’t buy it in the stores. We had five different types this year, one of which bolted already, and one of which didn’t seem to like its container in front of the sunroom door. But these frilly numbers, the most biting of the lot, are doing fine.

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Almost black

Canning buddy and I braved the hot kitchen in the Toronto heatwave for a quick jamming burst this week, with a jam from a mix of sweet and sour cherries because that’s what I picked up on a trip to the Niagara cherry country. I stoned them the night before, and left them in the fridge overnight with sugar according to the simple 3:2:1 formula that I’ve used for almost all my jams this year. That means 3/6/9 (generous) cups of fruit, 2/4/6 (skimpy) cups of sugar and the juice of 1/2/3 lemon(s), depending on how much fruit you have.

Cherries are low in pectin, and all the recipes suggest adding a pack or a pouch of powdered or liquid pectin to encourage the jam to set.  I try to avoid commercial pectin — it gives me too firm a set — so am always seeking other options. Last year we tried adding apples to a cherry vanilla jam, which was sort of meh, but we had amazing success with adding a kiwi fruit to a strawberry jam earlier this year. (I opened one jar straight away because the seal didn’t take, for some reason, and it’s very, very yummy. A 4-1/2 out of five at least.)

But this year I had some home made pectin to play around with, after an experiment last summer boiling down a couple of pounds of crabapples into a pretty, pink syrup that I froze to pretty pink cubes. We threw two pectin cubes our cherry syrup after 5 minutes of a rolling boil, and Eureka! Five more minutes of boiling and we had an almost black jam with a fairly firm set. It’s a very good cherry jam.

I will add one reality check, and after years of trying to like cherry-flavored stuff, I am forced to admit that cherry jam will never be my favorite. I don’t like the chewy texture, and I don’t like the taste of cooked cherries all that much.

Am I alone in not really liking cherry jam?

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OMG!

There was a moment in our quickfire Sunday afternoon canjam when canning buddy and I scraped every last streak of rhubarb-strawberry jam from the very bottom of the preserving kettle and let out a collective “oooooh.” This jam is lick-the-spoon, scrape-the-saucepan and lick-your-finger good. And it’s beautiful to boot.

The inspiration came from Food in Jars, although we scaled the recipe up hugely, increased the ratio of rhubarb to strawberry, added a little sugar and threw in the juice of a couple of lemons.  It’s spoon-on-yogurt runny and a rich red, with a bite of rhubarb and that glorious taste you only get from local strawberries that have not spent the last three weeks in a refrigerated truck. And in fact it’s so good that we did it all over again the following week.

We made two jams that first week, that one, plus five jars of a rhubarb-lavender venture that Tigress in a Jam posted about a few years back and that I’ve made both with lavender and with rosemary. This time I used used lavender from the garden, which made it almost feel home grown.

Talking garden, we have a large number of still green raspberries that should be enjoying the rain we’ve been getting more than we are. I’m hoping there might be enough to jam, although I worry that the critters might get to them before we do. I guess the summer was warmer the last time I used home-grown raspberries. It was July 5, and we had been eating raspberries for weeks.

But the latest jam making came just in time, I admit. Before adding the latest jars, there were just four jars in the cold room, which was starting to make me feel a little nervous.

Lovely to know that the canning season is starting over again.

Strawberry rhubarb jam
4 lbs strawberries
5 lbs rhubarb
6 (and a bit) cups sugar
juice of two lemons

Chop the fruit, add the sugar and lemon juice, stir the mix and then let it sit around for a couple of hours to let the juices flow. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a rolling boil until it sets. It took about 10 minutes, and it spattered madly. Wear a red shirt, and shoes rather than sandals.

Bottle in sterilized jars. Water bath.

Easy.

Rating: 3-1/2 4 (out of 5) This one tasted wonderful as we made it, but the taste seemed to dull over the summer. A jar opened in August was sharp rather than fruity, Too sharp for yogurt, a dribble too runny to boot. Strange.

Edit: Raising the rating to 4 (out of 5) on this one on the realization that it’s actually all about the pairing. This jam is a notch too tart for yogurt, but it’s absolutely perfect atop vanilla ice cream. Sadly this means I will be eating more vanilla ice cream.

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