Saturday, June 20, 2015
The last jar
This week, I opened our last jar of plum-apple jam. I made it last summer, with plums from our own trees. We had a bumper crop, and from our three front-yard trees, we must have picked ten pounds during June and July. Some of it became fruit leather, made in our dehydrator. The rest became jam, made with a few store-bought Granny Smith apples because our apples were not ready to pick yet.
It was my most successful jam to date, and I was really proud of it. We all worked together to pick the plums, and the Bear and I spent night after night pitting and chopping them, to be stored in big Ziploc bags in the fridge until we had enough for the jam, or the fruit leather. Then I spent a morning in the kitchen making jam with the prepared plums and the apples, and ended up with a lot of it, enough to get us through the next few months, I'd hoped. As it turned out, we made it through almost a full year with this jam. I supplemented here and there with a jar of store-bought jam, mostly for variety. I think I bought three jars over the past year - a raspberry, an apricot and a cherry. We all enjoyed the plum jam, but it seemed okay to mix it up a little now and then. Otherwise, it's been all plum jam, all the time, and it was nice to eat something we'd grown, picked, prepared and preserved, each of us doing something toward the storage of our own produce.
I would love to be more self-sufficient. It's not easy to achieve this on a semi-urban fifth-acre lot in the desert. I don't use that as an excuse. I don't necessarily want the labor that would be required to make this little lot work harder for us. I've come a long way, though; if you'd asked me five years ago whether I'd ever want to keep chickens, I'd have laughed in your face. Chickens are dirty and noisy and you can't bond with them, I would have told you with deepest conviction. I knew what I was talking about. I also knew that making jam was frivolous. I've done both now and I realize that I was wrong. And other things too: sewing and crocheting things instead of buying them, composting, upcycling the weirdest old junk. I can do a lot more, but I already feel better about the space I'm taking up.
Jam-making, for me, has been an exercise in patience - with the fruit and with myself. Some years, it just won't grow. In others, I'm pelted with plums every time I walk under the trees. Or apples rain onto the roof above our bed all night long, their soft thuds waking me in the wee hours. The apples have been less reliable than the plums, though I can usually bake a couple of pies or crisps each year. Last year, I even tried apple jelly for the first time. It was beautiful when I first made it, but after a month or so in the pantry, the second jar turned funny on me. It was like the world's thickest honey, but not pourable or even spoonable. And it smelled like cheap applejack, which when combined with the texture, made for the world's worst sandwich.
I was disappointed. It had seemed so right - the plum jam had worked so well a couple of months before, why was I taking two steps back with this wretched apple jelly? Who knows. Bad apples, maybe. Or not enough juice in the recipe. Or too much sugar, or too much cooking, or not enough pectin. It doesn't matter. I tried it. It didn't work. It's not the end of the world. I'd rather eat plum jam any day. And if I must eat apple jelly, like if I got an overwhelming urge to eat some now, I can buy a jar in the grocery store for something like $1.99. It hasn't happened yet.
Two weeks ago, I made my latest jam, tarragon strawberry, and it was a success. I noticed afterward, when the jars had cooled and been put in the pantry, that I hadn't been scared at all while I worked. It all just flowed. I was in a jam zone, like I'd been doing it all my life. But I only tried making jam for the first time two years ago, with my first batch of strawberry jam, which didn't quite set and was probably just barely safe because I knew very little about sterilization or processing. We ate it, and we lived, but there was plenty to learn.
Some things I've picked up along the way, in case you're interested:
- You can can without a canner. Just use your biggest stockpot, put a folded kitchen towel in the bottom and watch it like a hawk so it doesn't boil over and flood your cook top. Not that I would know anything about that...
- You can sterilize your jars in the oven on a low heat. Just put them on a sheet pan or a stack of newspaper. You can bake your jars at 200 degrees Fahrenheit on top of the Sunday comics and they won't yellow. Your family won't even know you took them before they had a chance to read them.
- Fruit is really forgiving. Jam can be made with the ugliest bruised or greenish strawberries and nobody will ever know the difference as long as you use some really nice ones too.
- You can use less sugar than the recipe states. For my most recent batch of tarragon strawberry, I halved the recipe, which required 7 cups of sugar in its full form, and only used 3 cups of sugar in the half-recipe. It still worked. Liquid pectin is the bomb.
- You can keep your liquid pectin in the pantry for two or three years, even though the package says you should buy a new one every year. I won't tell.
- The sound of a jam jar sealing is like angels singing (when you've been feeling particularly unsure of yourself).
- Men and children like sugar, a lot. Nothing else matters.