Posts Tagged star anise

Blue plums = red jam

I have never quite understood how blue skinned plums with green or yellow flesh can boil up into a rich red jam or chutney. But there’s some alchemy there that turns plum preserves into one of the prettiest jams there is, and I have a whole shelf full of the magic to enjoy over the year ahead.

This year’s plum stuff included a couple of attempts to use up the fennel flowers, plus a batch of  the chewy plum-star anise jam from last year, although I used German blue plums instead of the damsons I found last year. It’s based on a recipe from the lovely Food in Jars web site, although I played around with the quantities to match the amount of plums available. I ended up with 5 cups of plums,  3 of sugar and the juice of two lemons, along with a generous spoonful of chopped ginger root and 3 super-fresh star anise stars.

From there it was on to chutney, and I loved the look of this offering from the strangely named Evil Mad Scientist web site. It uses lemons and lemon juice rather than vinegar,  and there seemed to be a nice mix of the sort of spices that I like. I did about 2/3 of the recipe, but kept the spice levels more or less the same, as well as doubling the ginger. It’s nice, with a decent kick, and will (as chutneys do) presumably only get better with time.

But there were still a lot of plums to use, so I hit the internet again for a similar-yet-different plum apple chutney from the BBC’s Good Food web site. It’s heavy on the garlic, and a little sweeter than I would like, probably because Canadian Macintosh apples are sweeter than the Bramley cooking apples I grew up with.

Memo to Canadian growers: why does nobody here (or indeed anywhere in North America) grow a good Bramley apple, which are huge and sour, and which melt away to velvet applesauce in no time at all?

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Made in heaven

I’ve been playing around a lot with fennel flowers this summer in a gallant attempt to persuade our two fennel plants to concentrate on bulbs not flowers. But I think it’s a losing battle. The fennel flowers are a gift that just keeps giving, which means more experiments, more couscous and risottos with fennel, and still more small batch jams.

I’m proud to say that the latest venture, a blue plum fennel jam, is amazingly delicious, and paired with a sharp cheese (cheddar, manchego, an espresso-washed hard cheese from Wisconsin), it’s a marriage made in heaven.

I made just 2-1/2 jars of this in a quick evening experiment on Thursday, and the half jar is already almost gone, which means I bought more plums today to try to recreate the magic. Here was the (approximate) recipe.

Plum fennel jam
1 quart blue plums, stoned and quartered (this made just under 4 cups of chopped fruit)
2-1/2 cups sugar
juice of one lemon
a dozen fennel flowers, chopped very, very fine
2 star anise stars

Mix all the ingredients together and let them sit around for a couple of hours so the sugar dissolves a little. Taste, to be sure that the star anise flavor isn’t going to overpower things, and fish the anise out if you think it’s strong. My star anise were from last year, so they have lost a little of their pungency. I took them out midway through the boil.

Heat the mixture, slowly until all the sugar dissolves, and then at a fast rolling boil until it sets. My plums were pretty unripe, which means oodles of pectin, so this one set fast. From boil to bottle took something like 5 minutes.

Bottle in sterilized jars. Waterbath 10 minutes.

Easy as pie. Actually a lot easier than pie, if I think about it. No pastry to make, roll out and worry about.

Rating 4-1/2 (out of 5)
I love the taste, texture and set, and I absolutely adore the way this goes with cheese. But the little bits of fennel are marginally disconcerting, like the little seeds in a blueberry jam.

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Plums, plums and plums

I admit I’m getting bolder in the jams I make this year as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t and get a better idea of what sort of jam might set. Things like strawberries, rhubarb and peaches need a lot of help to turn into a jam, which seems to mean macerating the fruit with sugar overnight, fishing the fruit out of the sugar syrup that emerges and boiling that down a bit before throwing the fruit back in and cooking it anew. Plums and on the other hand set like  nobody’s business, but have a tendency to get a little chewy for my taste. (Cherry jam is just chewy, and unless the spouse asks really nicely, I’m not planning to make it again.)

But the other thing is that I’m daring to mix and match a little, taking a bit of one recipe and squirting in a bit of another, or abandoning recipes entirely with a guess at the appropriate proportion of fruit sugar and lemon juice, which are my ingredients for just about any jam. I’ve not had any total failures, although there are a couple of jams that I’m not quite sure about, for one reason or another.

My latest ventures are probably just about the last of the season (unless I try something with pears), and after yellow plum jam and red plum jam (edit: I am starting to wonder if the red plums are actually something called pluots, which are a plum/apricot hybrid), I switched to blue plums this month. It worked, although I admit to tentative reservations, as listed below.

First off came what the farmers market here seems to call prune plums, although I know them by their wonderful tongue-twister German name of Zwetschken. They are a medium small, purple-blue plum with a dusty finish, which are tart when unripe and amazingly sweet and juicy on the rare occasion that the farmers leave them on the trees long enough to ripen properly. My mother used these for Zwetschkenkuchen, with cinammon-sprinkled fruit atop a semi-sweet yeast  dough that was baked so the plums melted into the dough. I used them for a not-quite-regular jam, adding a couple of spoons of Chinese five-spice for a bit of a kick.

My inspiration was the excellent Food in Jars web site, which raved about a plum-star anise jam recipe. But the local Chinese supermarket looked at me blankly when I asked for star anise, so I switched to five-spice.

Vaguely following the Food in Jars recipe, I let 5 cups of fruit, three of sugar, the juice of two lemons and the two teaspoons of five-spice sit around for a day or so before boiling them all up together to the gel point, which went scary fast. It has a lovely set, and a lovely taste, but the plums are a little bit chewy, and I could have cut the sugar. Three out of five, perhaps.

From there I switched to damsons, the tiny, dusty-blue plums that bind the flesh to the stone in an almost impossible way. A couple of British recipes (one was from the BBC) suggested simmering the fruit in a little water first to soften the skin (and prevent the skins getting chewy), and they insisted that a good simmer would let the stones separate out and float to the top, so you could fish them out before you add the sugar and boil it up to jam.

This jam was also pretty easy, and this time I did throw in the star anise, which was available downtown if not at the Chinese supermarket. Tragically it exactly filled four jars, so I can’t offer a taste test yet, beyond saying that the stuff I licked out of the pan was pretty awesome. But there are bound to be stones I missed, so we’ll have to eat it carefully.

Damson jam with star anise

Simmer 5 cups of damsons with a cup and a bit of water and three star anise stars until the stones of the damsons separate out fairly easily, and remove as many stones as you can find without spraying dark, red damson juice all over the kitchen. (I only had three cups of damsons, but I had enough of the other plums to make up five cups of fruit. I may have to make this jam again with damsons only, for taste-test comparison purposes)

Add a scant 3 cups of sugar, simmer until the sugar dissolves and then boil at a rolling boil until you think it’s set nicely. It took less than five minutes.

Remove the star anise stars, and bottle in sterilized jars. Waterbath for 10 minutes to meet tough U.S. waterbathing standards.

My reservation: Surely there has to be an easier way to remove the stones.

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