Tuesday, June 24, 2008

apricot jam!

Homemade jam on homemade bread...such is the satisfaction of this early-summer morning in June. A day without the chocolate mines! Yes, I've given up my retail gig, so no more hour-long bus jaunts up to the Marina, hurrah. Instead, I'll be teaching down at Stanford as part of their Continuing Studies program, writing for various magazines, and doing some marketing copy for various places, including...Frog Hollow Farm! Yes, the source of some of the best peaches & nectarines in the Bay Area.

And to prove it, I got my hands on a bunch of their much-touted (well, that would be touted by me in particular, in the July issue of San Francisco magazine) Golden Sweet apricots, a beautiful red-blushed, truly golden variety that's juicy without being mushy, sweet and silky with none of that pasty quality that afflicts so many lesser apricots. I meant to buy a scale and carefully, carefully measure the weight of the fruit, the weight of the sugar, etc., but alas, I didn't.

What I did was pit and chop the fruit, probably into rough eighths, dump on what looked like the right amount of sugar--enough to dust heavily and begin to bury at least the top of the mound, plus a little more--mixed it up, covered the bowl (ceramic or glass, not metal) and let it sit at room temp for most of the day. Before going to bed, I scraped the softened, pulpy fruit and now-dissolved sugar into a wide pot, added the juice of a lemon, and brought it up to a foaming, frothy boil, stirring frequently, for 5 or 6 minutes. Then, the whole mess back into the bowl, covered with a towel and left on the counter again.

In the morning, it looked close to jam already.

Got my jars sterilized by boiling them for 10 minutes in a big deep pot. One of these days, I'm going to get me one of those fabulous little jar-lid lifters, just a magnet on the end of a stick that lets you pick up the flat lids one by one out of the hot water they're standing in. Seems like you wouldn't need a specialized tool for that, but the jar lids like to stick together and the water's hot, and it becomes an annoying matter of poking around with slippery tongs, a butter knife (to separate the stuck-together lids) and burnt fingers. Again, it's also very useful to have a wide-mouth funnel (for filling jars), a clean gardening-type glove (for holding hot jars, since potholders are too bulky), and jar-lifting tongs (which are convex-shaped, to hold the hot jars firmly when you're putting them in and pulling them out of the hot water).

So, I poured the now-almost-jammy apricot goo into a pot and brought it up to a simmer again. Stirred frequently to keep it from "catching", or sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan. Unless you're using heavy-duty copper--the best material for jam-making--or high-quality enameled cast iron (like Le Creuset), your pot will probably have a hot spot or two where sugary things will like to stick and burn. Stir, stir, stir, with your favorite wooden spoon.

I like to keep one cutting board and one wooden spoon just for sweet things, just because I worry about some latent garlic-and-cumin flavor getting transfered from the depths of a spoon usually used for making tomato sauce or black-bean chili, or from a oniony cutting board.

So, it doesn't take long til the jam looks like jam. The apricot chunks break down and get translucent, so you can see the veining in the fruit. When you tip a spoonful horizontally and let the mixture run off the side of the spoon, the last few drops gather in a couple of sticky clumps that run together. They're supposed to run off together in a sheet--this is called "sheeting" or the "sheeting test"--but mine has never done this. If two drops more-or-less come together and fall off looking sticky and jamlike, I'm content.

Basically, it's jam when it looks like jam. Apricots have a reasonable amount of natural pectin, so they'll thicken easily. I do like a soft, spoonable jam, though, that's nowhere near as set and bouncable as commercial products. So maybe 10-15 minutes for the final simmer, not more. You want to keep that fresh-fruit taste, not boil it to death.

Turn off the heat, take your jars out of the water and put them on a clean towel on the stovetop, and fill to within 1/4 inch of the top. Wipe the rims with a paper towel or clean dish towel dipped in hot water. Add lids and screwbands, and return to the big pot of hot water (you may have to scoop out some excess water). Bring back to a simmer and let the jars bump along for 8 minutes or so. Take out the jars, place them back on a clean towel on the stovetop or counter, and let them get stone-cold undisturbed. You'll hear the reassuring sucking sound--a kind of slurp-pop--of the vacuum seal setting as the jars cool.

The amount of apricots I had--and alas, I have no idea of the weight, although I'm guessing maybe 3 or 4 lbs--made 2 1/2 pints. That's the thing about making jam without a lot of sugar--you get a small yield of gorgeous, intensely flavored product, since you're not extending the fruit with loads of sweetener. I put the two sealed jars in the pantry, and then stashed the half-filled jar in the fridge for me.

And then today at breakfast I spread a spoonful on a slice of whole-wheat oatmeal bread, baked last night, and it was heaven. A heaven I won't be able to exactly reproduce, since I didn't measure anything, but a heaven nonetheless. Obviously, what's more important than exact measurements is the technique. Lots of sitting around, and minimal cooking, seems to be the ticket. Basically:

1. Wash, pit and cut up fruit.
2. Put in a glass or ceramic bowl, add sugar, stir well and cover.
3. Let sit 6 to 8 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. Stir well, add juice of a lemon, bring to a boil for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Into a bowl, cover, let sit 6 to 8 hours.
6. Simmer until fruit is translucent and mixture is thick and jammy.
7. Pour into sterilized jars, process in water bath, let cool.

That's it. No pectin, no thermometer, no worries.

High-acid products, like fruit jams and jellies, are not hospitable to serious bacteria, so you can't give anyone botulism from your homemade jam. As long as you keep everything tidy and clean as you go--sterilize your canning jars, use clean towels and clean spoons, no double-dipping--you'll have a product that can be safely stored, unopened, in the pantry for several months. If you don't have made-for-the-purpose canning jars, you can use clean, repurposed jam or mayonnaise jars. Just note that they won't vacuum-seal, so you should fill them, let them cool to room temp, and then store them in the fridge. Low-sugar jams are more perishable once opened, so use them within a month.

1 comment:

Julia said...

Thank you for the recipe Stephanie! Got a batch of Blenheim's at the local farmer's market and just made a batch ;-) Quick question - where do you get this technique from? What's the purpose of letting the fruit sit out so long? And will it work with other fruits?

Thanks for sharing!