Earlier this year, I was gifted some wonderful strawberry jam at a most casual meeting, one that didn’t need gifts. It was such a gracious gesture and one that I appreciated very much. Because you see, I have this thing about jam.
As the years have elapsed, this list has gotten much shorter. But there are still a good number of things that intimidate me. Things like stilettos, really big hairdos, sketching (Yes, I get the irony of it vis-a-vis my profession), crotchety grandmas, my high school French teacher,
the idea of anything rare or medium-rare, raw fish of any kind, making macarons, chapatis. Also jamming. No, not the Bob Marley or Michael Jackson variety. Although attempting to dance a la Jackson is a full-blown fear. I wake up nights in terror with a recurring dream dancing badly to Thriller in front of a packed audience. But no, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking spread-on-your-toast-perhaps-with-some-peanut butter-for-company fruity goodness.
Sure, I’ve tried jam a few times. The first time everything went quite well. Call it beginners’ luck. What followed was possibly karmic payback for crowing about how easy it all was because the next three times were bad. The things I’ve seen and tasted! Let me tell you, fermented apricot is as awful as it sounds. Other batches involved watery fruit and inaccurate canning procedures resulting in some lousy batches of jam. So to sum it up, I went from jam intimidation, to excitement, back to intimidation with large dollops of depression and self-flagellation, followed by the complete abandoning of the idea of jamming anything again ever.
It took me a few years to ponder jam-making again, especially to admit that the failures had bruised my ego more than I had cared to admit. Having taken that first step, the second was to seek help and I chanced upon some in a well-timed twist when I looked at the summer class schedule of the San Francisco Cooking School. I had never taken a class here before. It was being taught by chef Cortney Burns of the fabulous Bar Tartine. Given the unequivocal praise heaped on this restaurant, I figured she was certain to know about treacherous undertakings such as jam.
I’ve taken a different class at another place in the past. It was in the teacher’s house and while it was a lovely house, it was no place for so many students to learn effectively. This was much better. You are close enough yet far enough from your class-mates to make it a cohesive learning experience; one where you don’t end up feeling herded like sheep. This class was held in the light, airy and spacious new digs of the school out on Van Ness Avenue. It’s a gorgeous space with a high ceiling and skylights and white walls and tables and cabinets done up in stainless steel. I was so busy looking and learning I forgot to take photos of the space, but it was the sort a cook’s dreams are made of. There is vast amounts of stainless steel open shelving stocked with every sort of kitchen implement and equipment one might need to cook or bake, along with several professional ovens and gas burners. The top shelves were lined with spices and there were large lower bins on wheels for bulk items like flour and sugar. What I loved about the space was that it was generous and uncrowded, with ample circulation space ensuring overzealous amateurs would not end up accidentally dumping bowls of flour over their unwitting classmates. Been there, worn that.
The class began with a quick primer on conserves and fruit to use. Chef Cortney talked about the four key aspects of making jam; fruit/veg, acid, sugar and heat and how they come together to create jams, jellies and conserves. She also spoke about balancing tastes, seasoning your jam and not being afraid to experiment with contrasting flavours. I was intrigued by the notion of salting the jam, something I have never considered before, which she advocated, saying it brings out the other flavours. She also talked about dealing with canning with the aid of the oven as opposed to working with canning pots and boiling water, a method that I’m much more comfortable with because the boiling water method has only made my failures messier in the past. She also pointed to citric acid, available in most stores, as a great balancing ingredient, which adds sourness without the need to add more lemon.
For the next four-and-a-half hours, my team-mates and I chopped and measured, ladled and stirred prodigious quantities of fruit. We were a class of twelve, divided into teams of three and our instructor spent time working equally with each group to advise and instruct us through the recipes that were laid out for that day. There was fresh produce provided by the class for us to choose from; jewel-like berries, ruby plums, bright oranges and lemons, plump orange carrots, even some very early green and red Gravenstein apples. Interspersed among the fruit were herbs and aromatics like culinary lavender, tarragon and ginger. With the exception of a fifteen minute lunch, which consisted of salad, fruit and Tartine rye bread, our assiduous group turned out an astonishing amount of preserves that day. Our three-person group alone made five different batches; strawberry with lavender and black pepper, raspberry and rose-water, orange, plum and tarragon, carrot with orange, ginger and cardamom and a nutmeg and cinnamon-laced apple butter. Some teams made marmalade too. A more productive set of five hours, with so much to show for it, I would be hard-pressed to find.
We sterilized the jars in the ovens and then completed the canning process after the jars were filled in there as well. It was a mess-free process that is much more likely to have me make jam. The day spent in that class has made me a more confident jam-maker. I learned to place more of an emphasis on flavour over consistency, since my secret belief that thinner consistency jams are just as good was confirmed through this class. None of the recipes we used had any additional pectin, relying only on the fruit and the lemon used to provide the needful. We ended up with lovely spreadable jam, one that wasn’t gummy like the Kissan jams of my childhood, but much thicker than syrup, much like an indolent, thick honey.
While I loved all of the recipes we executed, the carrot jam with orange, ginger and cardamom was a big favourite with me. The cardamom in the jam instantly reminded me of gaajar ka halva and it does have that in common, but this jam was entirely its own thing. The ginger, orange and lemon in it create a vivid, vibrant jam with a touch of heat. Our team added some cayenne pepper to our batch, along with a touch of nutmeg, which gave the jam some wonderful depth and heat. The sunset hues of this jam give it a golden appearance. This luxurious jam is a sum much richer than its parts, one that belies its humble ingredients. Since I brought it home we’ve eaten it on toast and also with our chapati and bhendi (okra) bhaji dinner last night. It was like serving the meal with some moramba (sweet mango pickle). So good!
Carrot Jam with Orange, Ginger and Cardamom
Adapted very slightly from a recipe by Cortney Burns
Makes about 6-8 cups
Fresh Carrots – 2 pounds, peeled
Sugar – 28 oz
Fresh Ginger – 2 tbsp, minced fine
Lemons – 3
Oranges – 2
Cardamom – 1 tbsp, ground
Cayenne Pepper – 1 ts
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
To make the jam:
- Place a couple of spoons in the freezer. (This is to test the consistency of your jam later.)
- Grate the carrots fine. Alternatively, you can do a mixture of coarse and fine as this gives your jam an interesting texture.
- Put the grated carrots in a heavy pot or saucepan with enough water to just cover them. Simmer over low heat until they are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the carrots. Retain carrots in the pot.
- Zest the lemons and the oranges, then juice them. Add zest and juice of all citrus to the carrots.
- Add sugar, cardamom and ginger. Place the pot over low to medium low heat and cook down, stirring frequently to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The carrot mixture should cook for about 45 minutes or until it appears thick and glossy. The carrots should not taste raw.
- Once the jam is thick and glossy, move the pot off the heat and let the jam rest for 5 minutes or so. Once it has settled, skim off any foam that may have formed around the edges. Also taste the jam and add salt, citric acid to balance taste. Give the pot a good stir to combine all ingredients.
- Test your jam: Scoop up some jam in one of the teaspoons from the freezer and place it back in the freezer for five minutes until the spoon is neither hot nor cold. A well-set jam will not run when the spoon is tilted. A thinner jam will move gently. If the jam is not thick to your liking, put it back on a low flame to thicken it further. Or else enjoy the thinner jam which will still be very good.
Either follow the instructions your set of jars came with, or use the following:
- Preheat your oven to 225°F.
- Clean your jars with soapy water and rinse. Dry well.
- Place your jars and lids on a baking sheet and place in the oven for at least 30 minutes to sterilize. Leave in oven until jam is ready.
- When the jam is ready, fill the jars to the top, leaving about 1/2″ between the lid and the jam. The rim should be clear. Place the lids on the jars and screw them down tight.
- Return the jars to the oven for 15 minutes to set the jars. (Most lids should pop down to create a seal once heated.)
- Leave out to cool overnight. The jam should now be shelf-stable.
My main takeaways from the class were:
- seasoning a batch with a couple of pinches of salt will help the other flavours shine.
- you don’t need pectin to make some great jam. You do however, need patience.
- citric acid and salt are your jamming friends, and will make a good batch of jam great.
- jam-making is much more fun with a couple of friends. (a big lesson for my solitary kitchen self.) You can make a few different things in less than a day while having a good time together.
- apple butter is ridiculously easy to make. Why haven’t I been making it before? But that is another story.
I definitely see more jams in my future. My longtime Words with Friends partner Sean Timberlake gave me that wonderful strawberry, balsamic and black pepper jam when we met in real life earlier this year. It brought summer to our home on a cold winters’ day, such a perfect treat. Perhaps the next jam I tackle will be this very wonderful recipe for grape jam that I discovered through his wonderful Punk Domestics site. Or something else that would be a welcome surprise mid-winter.
I’d love to know if you have tried to preserve summer’s goodness in the form of jam. Do you love making it or have you been tiptoeing around it too? If you’ve been thinking about it, take the plunge making some this year.