Saturday, September 25, 2010

IT’S JAM-MAKING TIME – GRANDMA’S PRESCRIPTION FOR A HAPPY SWEET-TOOTH ALL WINTER LONG.

It’s the end of September and, if you’re like me, your thoughts are beginning to run to how this winter’s going to be. Some say that the coming months will be among the coldest we’ve seen in many years. So, the next thing that comes to mind is: "How are we going to stay WARM AND HAPPY?" Well, speaking for myself, last year was cold also. Staying warm in my small house was pretty well taken care of what with my propane gas stove, a small electric heater that I carried around with me, and several layers of winter clothing (including thermal underwear). Staying happy through the cold months is a somewhat different matter - it will take some welcome company - human and canine - and a lot of good food. And, part of winter eating happiness, as well as year-round, includes sweets.

And, that’s what this post is about – making sweets, and in this case, preparing homemade jam. Jam-making has been a valued art throughout the centuries, if not millennia. Like a lot of domestic arts, it takes a day or two to prepare and cook, and that means we have to dig into our time schedule. But, like the wise saying goes: “Time is all we have.” As a mostly-retired person, I do have the luxury of some time, and I like to spend a bit of it preparing (and eating, of course) delicious food.

Now, there are a lot of sweet possibilities for jellies, jam, and liquored-up fruit out there. The fall fruit is in season (meaning it's good quality and as cheap as it's going to get). We’ve got a bunch of choices - from our own trees, if we’re so lucky, or at the farmer’s market for the rest of us. We have apples, apricots, peaches, pears, and plums, to name a few. And, as the heaps of fresh fruit appear (and, all too soon dwindle), the urge is strong to eat a lot now and to preserve some more for future pleasure.

So, there’s no problem for fruit selection. Next comes the motivation. If you’re like me, you probably don’t like to do really big cooking deals alone. Large-scale cooking seems to be a lot easier with a family member or friend. This year, I’m lucky to have a good friend and neighbor who likes to cook all kinds of good things and also, - and here’s the great advantage, is an even better cook than I am. So, next Tuesday, we have a pact to overcome our early fall laziness and make plum jam.

Now, we aren’t too ambitious in this undertaking, and neither of us is so inclined or has enough storage space to throw ourselves into heavy-duty canning. So, I suppose, and at least according to our plan, the quantity of jam we’re talking about is about 16 pints – 8 for her and 8 for me. But, even that’s more jam than my husband and I are likely to eat in a few months, so I’ll probably give some jam away as gifts.

Oh, and why plums? Mostly, because they’re as cheap as any fruit right now, and my husband and I absolutely adore plum jam. Also, not all of it has to go on bread or biscuits. I’m thinking now of other delights - and already beginning to taste - vanilla custard with plum jam on top, plum and apple tarts, and plum jam upside-down cake. The possibilities for sweet plum jam combinations are almost endless.
(If my neighbor and I don't wear ourselves out with jam making, which could happen, we're hoping to make plum jam empanadas - individual rich, oven-baked pies - later next week.)

A simple plum jam recipe

Here’s an easy recipe for plum jam that’s made without adding any pectin. All you need are plums, sugar, water, and some lemon juice.

4 lbs. plums
4 lbs. sugar
1 pint of water
2 Tbs. lemon juice

Wash your plums, remove any bits of stalk, and drain them a bit. Put them into a large heavy saucepan along with the water. Heat the water, fruit, sugar, and lemon juice on moderate heat until the sugar dissolves. Be sure to stir constantly so that the mixture doesn’t burn.

Next, take the pan off the heat and remove the stones with a fork or small tongs. Then continue boiling the plums – don’t overcook them. Skim off the scum with a large spoon and check for the right moment for jam setting. Do this by letting a spoon full of boiling jam dribble onto a cold plate. Let it cool down for a couple of minutes, and then, test it. It’s ready when it looks something like thick honey and shows a tiny impression when you push it around with your fingertip.
(This recipe makes about 6 pints of jam.)

Bottling and storing your jam
When the jam is ready, turn off the heat, and let it cool just a bit. Then use a ladle to transfer the hot liquid from the pot to warm, pre-sterilized jars. To avoid jar cracking, place a teaspoon in the jar while you fill it up. Do not fill the jars up to the top – just to about 80% of the capacity. That way, if by some chance the jars freeze, you won’t lose the jam (and jars) due to breakage.

Cover the filled jars with parchment paper rings and screw sterilized jar lids on tightly. Let the jars sit until completely cool, and then place them in a cold place for storage. Sugar acts as a preservative, but it’s not foolproof. So, if you have any doubts about the temperature of your storage shelves, put your jam in the refrigerator where it should last several months.

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