A couple of weeks ago after reading David Lebovitz’s blog on apricot jam I stumbled on a flat of beautiful apricots for about $6 and decided to make a batch. It turned out surprisingly well – perfectly, actually – considering the 20 years elapsed since the last time I made any.
Preserving was one of the unremarkable and occasionally annoying givens of a life I once had on a the side of a short alp. I made a lot of jam before returning to the land of supermarkets, but I thought I’d managed to break the habit. Perhaps Lebovitz’s blog got me going, or Barbara Haim’s animated account of teaching her City College students how to put up preserves, Maybe it was the $12 half pint jars of apparently precious preserves at a farmers’ market that got me going. Whatever the impulse I’ve fallen hard off the no-canning wagon.
A line of pretty, jewel toned jars are now sitting on my top shelf. They are all good – far better than what I could buy – but the best so far is the peach and rose petal jam. The petals – organic by dint of laziness rather than credo – were intended to add color to the pale fruit, but the flavor is exquisite.
The basic recipe is simple: Three cups of sugar to a quart of finely cut or mashed peaches, a touch of lemon to brighten the flavor and keep the color, and a packet of pectin. (Peaches require a little help, but pectin also allows the jam to cook for a shorter time, so it doesn’t take on a cooked down sugar flavor). Put everything in a pot at lowest heat until it juices up, turn up the heat and bring to a boil.
As the jam simmers there is a change in its appearance shortly before it seizes up – the syrup becomes visibly more viscous, and the bubbles begin to look quilted. From that point it takes between five and ten minutes for the jam to thicken. The hardest part of jam making is determining when it is right before it gets too thick or the pectin breaks down. I pour the liquid back and forth between two spoons to cool it and see if it thickens and “sheets off the spoon” rather than dribbling. Lebovitz suggests putting a drop on a plate cooled in the freezer and seeing if it forms a small mound.
You pour the jam into canning jars you have boiled leaving about 1/2 inch head room, cover them immediately and turn them upside down.
The USDA insists that jam needs to be boiled in a water bath, but considering that the boiling jam is hotter than boiling water, the inverted jar should sterilize itself and form a vacuum seal with the lid. It’s certainly more effective than the earlier method of sealing the jars with wax. On the other hand, opening a jar of jam and finding mold on top is distressing enough to warrant the extra step. (Jam is generally acidic, especially if you add lemon, so there’s little danger of botulism.)
Have I saved money? Debatable. Yes, if you consider the current celebrity status of artisan preserves and their resulting prices, but compared to industrially produced jams, perhaps not. Jars run $1 and change each, and one time investments for canning equipment such as a wide mouth funnel, jar lifter and a terrific little stick with a magnet for lifting lids for a few dollars each or a water bath or canning kit for perhaps $30 raise the ante for the first year, but I haven’t seen white peach rose jam on the shelves yet. It is, by the way, fabulous.