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.

28 comments:

  1. A great post Jennifer. The plum jam sounds lovely. There certainly is great satisfaction in making things whether it be crochet, upcycling or jam :-) Mother-in-law came down yesterday with three jars of strawberry jam for us that she had made and last week an elderly couple we know came with a box of jams that he had made!! He really is amazing, grows loads of fruit and makes jams with it. I think we are getting a reputation for our love of jam. In the days when I had more energy and we were given lots of fruit I would freeze it all and then in October I would make loads of mixed fruit jelly, it was delicious It usually had gooseberries, wild blackberries, apples, rhubarb and plums. The only Jam I have ever made was a microwave recipe for plum jam which we all enjoyed. I have a lovely apple and tomato chutney recipe if you are interested as a way of using up apples, that is if you get any :-) Have a great weekend. x

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  2. Wonderful post! Plum-apple sounds lovely and I have never heard of tarragon strawberry. Something to try next season.
    I just finished our last jar of homemade strawberry jam and I am faced with the prospect of buying jam! I am hoping some fruit, any sort, will be on super special so I can make some more, as we have only lemons at the moment.
    I agree about the jar lids popping - I love listening for that sound!

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  3. If you make more Plum and Apple this year try a batch with finely diced fresh chillies added for the last 5 minutes, is is wonderful for stir fries. Grated root ginger is a good addition as well.

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  4. I have never made jam, but as an example of those satisfying home arts you are enjoying, I appreciate the endeavor very much! I used to make blackberry syrup from the wild blackberries that grew in abundance around our house, when there were plenty of opportunities to pour it on pancakes for a large family. And many other things "from scratch," none of which I am currently doing, so I wonder why I am rambling on like this....well, yours is a lovely post that conveys the way things like jam and love and a happy homemaker can blend together and the joy ripple out to the rest of us. Bless you for making jam and for sharing it.

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  5. I really loved this post Jennifer, I like it when you share the things you've made and done, especially the more self-sufficient style ones. I've had my share of odd jam results. Ones you can pour, ones you have to carve out of the jar. It's a triumph when I get a good one. I don't think people "can" in this country as much as in America. Mostly I think we just pour the hot jam into a sterilised jar and whack a lid on. It's good to know that you can can without a canner though. I know people can vegetables as well, it's something I shall look into now that I know you don't need a special bit of kit. We're reaching the end of our jam as well. Not long now until the blackcurrants are ready though. CJ xx

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  6. Good for you making jam and planting your own fruit to do it!

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  7. I remember when you made this jam. It still sounds good!
    I agree with you about the sound of jars sealing.

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  8. Beautifully written as usual Jennifer. Love your list at the end. Sharing stuff learned is a generous thing to do. I, too, had a fear of jam-making until we moved here and there were gooseberry bushes heaving with fruit. We made the best jam I've ever tasted! Sadly we've not had a large enough crop since but it's great to experiment with other fruit. Have a good week. Sam x

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  9. Yum!

    I am a jammer, too! I think that in the case of your funny jam, you cut the sugar too much - that is the preservative that will keep the bugs at bay if the lids don't seal. Try upping the level of sugar to about 1/3 sugar to 2/3 fruit. I wouldn't dare go any lower than that. (I do 50/50 and don't care about health - it's all bad for you anyway!!)

    The other thing is, you don't need to pit plums or cut them, if you are going to jam them just cut roughly into quarters and chuck the whole lot into the pan with no sugar and a little water. The pits will float to the top and you can skim them off. This works for cherries and peaches, too! The only caveat is that you WILL miss the odd one so be careful when you spread your jam!

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  10. It's a wonderful thing being able to eat your home grown produce right the way through the year, opening up a jar of jam in the depths of winter is like opening up your own little bit of sunshine.

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  11. we're strawberry jam people here....and for some reason (!!!!) my daughter and DIL expect me to supply their families as well as hubby's obsession. Which means.....before the strawberry season is over (and it's close)....I'm going to try your tarragon strawberry jam. this week. (If I put it in writing, I'm more likely to actually DO it!!!) thanks for the recipe!

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  12. I too have had my share of jam making failures and successes over the years, but you learn from your mistakes and move on. The strawberry tarragon jam sounds delicious, I have never tried that one before.

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  13. We're raspberry jam people here.. and it's soon time to make some for the whole year! Have a great day today.. ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

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  14. You've just reminded me that my hubby hasn't made strawberry jam again this year. He usually makes this and then blackberry jam later on. I will have to put the order in :-) There's nothing like having this on toast especially in the winter months thinking about the summer we had. Have a wonderful week xx

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  15. Oh gosh Jennifer, this is the second time you've mentioned jam making now... I really think I'm going to have to get stuck in myself when I move! Your blog and the way you describe your life make me hopeful that I'll be able to live a more self sufficient life, so I think you're doing really well with your space! x

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  16. The plum jam is a gorgeous rich colour. Thanks for the top tips too! X

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  17. I just made our first batch of jam of the year, (if you don't include the dandelion jelly and lilac jelly a few weeks ago), on Friday. We picked the strawberries in the morning and by dinner I had 11 jars of jam :) This is the first year we have made it season to season with our jam, we had just finished our last jar of peach jam two days before.

    Strawberry tarragon jam, that sounds delicious, might have to give that a try. Great tips!!!

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  18. I love your honesty in your blog posts Jennifer. It is like talking to a good friend reading your posts. I can remember the first time I made jam and feeling panicky like Meg in Good Wives. Now I like to think I'm an old hand but I alwys treat pans of boiling fruit and sugar with a great deal of respect. My tips are to use dry (preferably unwashed) fruit and, especially when making strawberry jam, to try and include some slightly unripe fruit as that helps with setting. I never use added pectin but may add the juice of a lemon, again to help with setting. Jam maiking is a science and as you've found it's fun to experiment.

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  19. I'm so lucky to have a very good friend who has every year the generosity and the kindness to furnish all those home made goodies to me. I know nothing about this. You are so perfectionnist in cooking and baking Jennifer!

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  20. I've never had plum jam! My cousin made apricot jam one year and gave me a jar...it was the best jam I had ever eaten. I'm not even much of a jam person, and I found I was toasting some kind of bread every day just so I could eat the jam. ;-) Otherwise, I rarely eat jam and my husband and son don't like it at all, so I never even have any in the house. I'm trying to quit sugar, too (for the most part), so no jam, baked goods or candy for me. I think you're doing very well with being "green" and leaving a small footprint. Every step counts!

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  21. The thing about jam and jelly-making is not to be scared of it! It's a huge myth that there's anything difficult about it, though I may slightly disagree with you on using bruised or green fruit but that's just my personal opinion. If it works for you, go for it. I think I've given you this piece of advice before, Jennifer, about your jam not setting but instead of adding more sugar, adding half a lime or lemon to the rolling boil will help it set. Over here, we have jam sugar with added pectin which is a great bonus. Apple jelly is an artform! Straining it through muslin helps to produce the crystal clear liquid which is necessary for a perfect jelly. Same when making redcurrant jelly and the results are amazing both in flavour and texture. Good luck with your jamming season. x

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  22. Hi Jennifer! I so enjoyed your post today. I've canned a lot in my life, but I've never made jams or jellies. For some odd reason they scare me. :-) You have encouraged me today to maybe give it a try. I wish I had mastered it when the kids were at home, we went through LOTS of jelly. Now, with just Hubby and I, not so much. Thanks for the helpful tips too. Happy Summer!
    Blessings,
    Betsy

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  23. thanks for sharing.. not a big jam fan.. but i remember my mom who is a jam lover make plum jam when we were little.. i got to put my hands in the cooked jam to fish out the seeds

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  24. This post brought back so many memories for me Jennifer. My grandmother was a jam maker. I have very fond memories of eating her homemade bread with her delicious Jam. Plum was one of my favorite as was her strawberry and marmalade. Your tips up there have just convinced me that I need to try my hand at this craft in honor of my grandmother. It is really easy just to get sucked back into how society does things in this day and age....run to the store and buy....but I like your way better. More self-sufficient even in a suburban setting. I still would like to get chickens but we have not moved on it it yet. Inspiring my friend! A lovely week to you!!! Nicole xo

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  25. I think this is one of the best posts you've written. I am nodding and smiling while I read it. I am still slightly mystified by what canning actually entails - I pour my hot jam straight into sterilised jars, seal them, and I'm done. Is the canning noise the popping noise the lids make as the jam cools I wonder? Anyway, I want to make jam right now. xx

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  26. I made jam for the first time last year. It was very tasty even if I say so myself. I wanted to take the girls to the pick your own place - hopefully this year! And then make some jam with the collected fruit. Great post -although it's seems UK people just use sterilised jars - canning seems far more complicated!! Xx

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  27. I'm with Gillian, this is a brilliant post. Just as happened with the jam you get better and better at this blogging lark, I'm in awe x

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  28. I can so relate to this post. 5 years ago, I wasn't pregnant yet with my first. We had a pretty fancy apartment in town and thought we were ALL THAT with our 120 sq ft community garden plot that we grew 2 dozen tomatoes and a few cucumbers in. And today, we are officially a small homestead. Do we wish we were more self sufficient? Absolutely. But that takes time. Patience and tolerance are key...

    "The sound of a jam jar sealing is like angels singing (when you've been feeling particularly unsure of yourself)." AMEN!!!

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