Jam session

I’ve tried canning exactly once. It was back when we lived in Manhattan, and had a whiskey-barrel garden on the roof of our building. One year we ended up with a nice crop of red peppers, both hot and sweet, so I thought we’d try hot pepper jelly.

We picked, we chopped, we processed. We followed the instructions to the letter. We even had little labels printed up: Rooftop Red – Hot Pepper Jelly. We ended up with about twenty little jars. Those were twenty little jars I was very proud of, what with this being my first canning attempt.

I’d read quite a bit about hot pepper jelly, and several experienced canners warned that it might take time to set – even a couple of weeks. So we weren’t worried when the contents stayed liquid for the first day or two. We just put our jars in a corner and checked their beautiful red-gold contents every morning, waiting for the day we finally had jelly.

Hope is said to spring eternal but, in the case of jelly, it peters out after about a month. That was when we resigned ourselves to being the proud possessors of twenty jars of unset hot pepper jelly. We took our labels, crossed out ‘Jelly,’ wrote in ‘Syrup,’ and made the best of it.

Turns out, hot pepper syrup is a very useful ingredient. It can go in sauces and stir-fries, particularly those with an Asian bent, to add both sweetness and heat. I started using it regularly, and even gave some jars to friends.

One went to Kevin’s friend Dave, a serious cook. Although Dave lives in Vermont, he is a dyed-in-the-wool southerner, as is his wife, Bonnie. Although I have never actually met Bonnie, I am given to understand that she has mad canning skills, and can turn just about anything even distantly related to fruit into a jam that’s worth getting up in the morning for.

I didn’t witness what happened when Dave took our jelly home and showed it to Bonnie. I only have it second-hand, but I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye.

Bonnie took it and held it up to the light. She tilted the jar, and saw that the contents didn’t tilt with it. She sighed, and put it down on the counter. And then, in a honeyed Southern drawl, in pity rather than censure, she said, “Damn Yankees can’t can.”

Is there something in the water south of the Mason-Dixon line, so that you grow up just knowing how to fry chicken and bake biscuits and can anything that isn’t tied down? I’m generally opposed to bottled water, but if they could bottle some of that and ship it up here, I’d stock up.

Being as that’s unlikely, I thought I’d move on to Plan B.

Jam, step one: recruit adorable children like young Sophie here to do the heavy picking

Fortunately, it turns out that canning skills aren’t the exclusive province of Southerners. My friend Mary, Yankee though she be, can most certainly can, and she was willing to take me on as an apprentice.

September is canning season on Cape Cod, and it wasn’t long before we got our opportunity. Our friend Dianne (who is editor of Edible Cape Cod, a fine publication for which Mary and I both write) has a robust berry patch that left her with more blackberries and raspberries than she knew what to do with. Could we harvest the berries in return for a couple of jars of the resulting jam, we asked. Yes, we could!

Over the course of two morning sessions, we picked about eight pounds of fruit. Of course, we had the help of Mary’s two small children, Sophie and Alasdair, who, unlike children the world over, actually put more berries in the basket than in their mouths.

(Sophie and Alasdair are two of the most photogenic children on the planet, and the berry-picking incident made me a little afraid that their behavior might be as angelic as their appearance, a circumstance that would make them too insipid for words, like something out of Dickens. I have since learned, to my great relief, that they both hold their own in the mischief department, and Alasdair may even be ahead of the curve.)

We brought the fruit to Mary’s house, washed it and picked it over, and combined it with the other ingredients (specifically, 2 ¼ pounds fruit, 3 ¾ cups sugar, juice of one lemon, 6 pieces star anise – a variation on a recipe out of Mes Confitures, by Christine Ferber). From there, it was all about the boiling.

In fact, I don’t know why they call it canning at all. They should cut to the chase and call it boiling, because that is the only thing that’s involved.

You boil the ingredients until the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Meanwhile, you boil the jars, lids, and rims. When the jam’s ready to go, you pull a jar out of the boiling water, fill it (leaving headspace) with boiling jam, wipe the rim with more boiling water, and then put on a lid and a rim. Once you’ve got a bunch of filled jars, you submerge the lot of them in boiling water and boil them for fifteen minutes.

Voila! Jam.

Mary made it look easy; she’s got the equipment, the expertise, and the can-do attitude. I just hung out in her kitchen, did what I was told, and walked away with eight lovely jars of blackberry/raspberry jam.

As a token of my appreciation, I was thinking about giving her a jar of red pepper syrup, but I’ve been down that road, so I gave her tomatoes from our garden instead.

17 people are having a conversation about “Jam session

  1. What a nice story.
    And I think that pepper syrup sounds good!
    I’ve had two jelly/syrup failures this year – Mint “jelly” and Black-raspberry/guava “jelly”.
    Oh, well! They still taste good.

  2. It sounds like you’ve got yourself some tasty jam.
    And Mary gets some of those tasty tomatoes – I know they are tasty, because we got some of the bounty of your garden too.

  3. I love canning season. Mostly with fruit I’ve picked in the wild. The only thing I’m willing to pay money for is damson plums. But growing wild – or free from yards where they’re a nuisance – I have:
    Saskatoons, Concord grapes, Chokecherries, Whiskey Cherries, Crabapples and, if I’m visiting family on Vancouver Island in August, blackberries. All the jars of jams, jellies and curds are the only jewels I have. And I love them all!

  4. A jam thermometer makes it easy – do you have these in America? They have the setting point marked – or you can get it to a rolling boil and do the cold saucer test – put a teaspoon on a cold saucer, put in the fridge for a couple of minutes to cool, and if when you push the surface of the jam/jelly there is a wrinkled skin then it has reached setting point. If you then pot the jam into hot sterilized jars (you can also do this in a low oven), and cover, you don’t have to reboil – just leave the lidded jars to cool, and then store.

    Pomona x

  5. KB — Funny you should mention wild Concord grapes. Mary and I are planning a grape day when the local crop ripens in a few weeks. I can’t help wondering how you get the seeds out …

    Any suggestions?

    Pomona — It may surprise you to learn that thermometer technology has indeed made it to our continent! I don’t own a jam thermometer, but I do have a candy thermometer, and as they both measure the same thing I suspect I can look up setting points and go from there.

    As for not reboiling after potting into sterilized jars — really? I’ve heard that’s dangerous, but you’re still here to tell the tale.

  6. In the UK we don’t normally boil our jam after filling the jars. As long as the jars and lids are sterilised beforehand it is fine. I also use waxed paper to seal in the contents before I add the lid. I’ve never had any problems and I don’t know anyone who has.

    As an aside I’m interested that you are writing about ‘jam’ because I was under the impression that what I call jam Americans call jelly. Can you enlighten me?

  7. Sorry Tamar – I didn’t mean to imply any lack of technology transfer – it would be more likely be from you to us anyway! I meant, are they commonly used – I had read that in the US people tend to use pressure cookers for preserving, and thus they just might be something that is not widely available because of not being customarily used. I myself prefer the wrinkled skin method, although I do have a thermometer as well. You might find that the jam setting point is marked – mine has jam and sugar points on it.

    I agree with Sarah – all the preserving bibles follow this line – it is just important that the jars and lids are sterilized, and that you pot the jam while both are still piping hot, and cover immediately. I don’t use waxed discs, just recycled jars and lids. The high sugar content in jam inhibits the growth of nasties – the only dangers in preserving are in bottling vegetables, I think, which has a risk of ?botulism.

    Pomona x

  8. I’m pretty sure Christina Ferber and a lot of the European jam artisans, as well as, yes, Southern belles, have a long history of not boiling the filled jars.

    I think Ferber pretty much just turned them over. The risk is pretty low, what with all that preserving sugar, but most of us, I think, feel better doing the extra step. (I’ve sold at farmers’ markets so I’m sure the buyers appreciate the extra step too!)

    Really enjoying the site; I came over from cottage smallholder, although I’m in Connecticut and thus have really come the long way ’round!

  9. I make jelly from the grapes, so everything gets mushed in water(and when the grapes are bursting, a bit of a pulse with an immersion blender) and then the pulp and seeds get strained out. The colour in the jar is a gorgeous deep purple, and the jelly itself is deliciously tart, which I prefer. I don’t think I could ever go back to sugar flavoured store jams and jellies.

  10. I’ve just started hot water bath canning for tomatoes and it’s great fun.

    In the UK we don’t can jams, chutney, jelly or marmalade. We only can vegetables, meat and fish and these are canned in a pressure canner.

  11. Sarah — What we call jam is the stuff with fruit in it, and what we call jelly is the clear stuff made from juice rather than whole fruit.

    I’m fascinated by the continental divide on boiling the jam once it’s in jars. Everyone I’ve talked to on this side of the Atlantic boils the jars, and everyone from the UK who’s weighed in here doesn’t.

    American risk aversion at work?

  12. sarah, we are big jam eaters over here, actually! If you go buy the general grocery-buying public, mint and grape are the preferred jellies, and everything else is some form of jam, preserves, fruit butter or marmalade. We do tend to freely mix up our terms, though, so “jelly” is probably a catch-all phrase.

    In general, Americans are comfortable with only a narrow variety of fruit, be it fresh or in preserved form. You don’t see a lot of hedgerow fruit available beyond raspberries and blackberries, for example.

    On thing I’ve learned from the cottage smallholder site is that even when one makes jellies, there’s still so buch that can be done with the pulp — the concept of something like a quince cheese was totally alien to me.

  13. We don’t boil jams and jellies after putting them in jars here, either. As long as the lid pops down, it’s all ok. And I like hearing that pop as I fall asleep. I think that’s why I always make jams/jellies/marmalades at night, solely to hear that snap the lid makes as the contents cool.

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