Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blueberry jam with maple syrup and lemon zest

For some updates on techniques and a recipe for plum-peach jam with basil, click here. 

I haven't posted in a while. For the Independence Day weekend, Mike, Sebastian, and I drove to Auburn Hills, Michigan (a little north of Detroit) to visit Mike's sister, her family, and their dad for the holiday (the drive takes 10 and a half hours; my little boy is a champ!). Instead of cooking and eating good local food, we subsisted mainly on junk food and candy bought at rest stops along the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, feeling bloated and gross the whole way. (Sebastian, of course, loved this, but the guy is four, so I can't blame him for having tastes geared primarily toward straight-up salt and sugar.) I did have one really excellent meal: My brother-in-law Russ made some amazing fall-off-the-bone ribs and served them with BBQ sauce, grilled corn, and baked beans. We gorged ourselves on these delectable treats and moaned with discomfort for several hours after dinner. It was totally worth it.

Before we left, I had wanted to make a batch of blueberry jam to make sure that the harvest didn't go by without preserving at least some of it, but I ran out of time. I love blueberries. They may be my favorite berry. I am especially fond of wild lowbush blueberries, but they are hard to come by here in Virginia. When I was a kid in Sweden, I spent much of my time roaming around the woods like a small wild animal, getting damp and muddy and pretending I was a hero of some kind: a knight one day, Robin Hood the next. In my long rambles, I discovered treasured spots where wild blueberries grew in great masses, and I spent many hours seated among the plants, plucking berry after berry and savoring each one. I miss my blueberry spots, especially now that I cook. If only I could wander out into the woods and collect and gather blueberries, bring them home, and preserve them for winter. (I was told once that my Icelandic grandfather Sigurdur was a legendary berry picker; he could fill baskets faster than anyone, fingers moving so fast they blurred.)

But I must settle for domesticated highbush berries, which produce larger fruits that are not quite as deeply flavorful (still good, but not magic). Thankfully, one of my favorite farms, Reid's Orchard, grows berries and fruit organically (although they aren't certified), using integrated pest management techniques and caring for their soil and land in a way that will preserve it for the future (and it shows, just take a look at their peaches--they taste and smell as good as they look).

After recovering from the Michigan trip for a few days, I finally made it out of the house to get food on a steamy Thursday. I went to the Herndon farmer's market and decided to get some blueberries from Reid's. I lucked out because they had a lot of them, so I bought six pints. I had had this idea of making jam flavored with maple syrup and lemon zest. Foods from the same area often taste particularly good together--and sugar maples typically live where blueberries grow, so the combination sounded good. Obviously lemons and blueberries violate that principle, but they are good together. The acidity of the lemon just sparks the flavor of blueberries (as lemons do with so many things).

It was actually so hot and humid the day I bought the blueberries that my camera fogged up. 
So here's how I made my blueberry jam with maple syrup and lemon zest. I started with

  • 3 liters blueberries, picked over to remove any soft berries, stems, leaves, or anything else you wouldn't want to eat, rinsed, and finally drip-dried for 10 minutes or so (better yet, use a scale, you should have 1.5 kilos of berries) 
  • 700 milliliters sugar
  • 200 milliliters real maple syrup
  • 1 lemon, washed
  • 1 tablespoon pectin, mixed with a little water to make a smooth paste

I spread a layer of sugar on the bottom of the pot I planned to use for jamming.

Then I layered blueberries over the sugar, added another layer of sugar, and zested some lemon over the sugar.

At the second layer, I added the maple syrup instead of sugar and zested some more. 

I added more berries and ended with a final layer of sugar and zest. (In other words, one layer of sugar on the bottom of the pot and one to top it all off.)

I covered the berries and sugar with the lid (ants are quite a problem in summer) and let it sit for a little over an hour (you could let it sit up to 24 hours in the refrigerator). Then I set the pot on low heat. At first, not much happened but eventually I could see a rim of liquified berry juice starting to rise around the edges of the pot, followed by a completely wet mass slowly simmering away. (Note that this isn't a project you do quickly, it can take several hours to reach the jelling point. Pick a lazy, rainy day when you aren't going to leave the house to make the jam. Maybe make some bread while you are at it.) 

I added the mixture of pectin and water to the pot and let the mass just simmer away. (At one point, I did get a boil over, so I had to turn down the heat a bit. Almost anything that's made with a lot of sugar has a tendency to get feisty if too much heat is applied.) I skimmed regularly. (Once when making jam as a kid, I made the mistake of not skimming. It left the finished product with a very unpleasant, bitter aftertaste. So if you decide to make jam, don't skimp on skimming.) Oh, and here's a tip to ease your skimming: Keep a bowl of cold water near the stove, dip your skimmer into the cold water before you skim, and then clean off the scum in the cold water, and skim again. You will probably want to replace the water from time to time. 

While the mass simmered, I cleaned and sterilized my jars in boiling water. (You can re-use your jars, but you must use new lids every time. The rubber that creates the seal doesn't hold up to multiple uses. You can probably find boxes of lids where you would buy other canning/jamming equipment.)

You can keep the jars in the hot water on low while your jam continues to simmer. Eventually, I started testing my jam to see if it was ready. How to test for readiness? Get a teaspoon of the liquid in the pot and spread it on a plate. Let it cool for a few minutes, and scrape your spoon through the smear on the plate. If the liquid immediately fills in the lines where the spoon scraped through, you are nowhere near done. If the lines don't fill in immediately, but do eventually, you are getting closer but you aren't there yet. If it bunches up into a jelly-like mass, you are ready to go.

When the spoon scrapes through, the liquid immediately refills the line. This is nowhere near done. 

The liquid isn't filling in as quickly now. The white of the plate shows just a little longer. Progress, but not done. 

The liquid no longer fills in where the spoon has scraped through, and you can create a little clump of jelly. Finished!
When the jam had reached the point where it was finished, I added the juice from the lemon (both for flavor and to help preserve the jam). (I strained it to make sure I wasn't adding seeds.) Then the next step was to add the jam to my warm and clean jars, close up the jars, and boil the jars to vacuum seal them. 

One thing to remember when you add the jam to the jars: Always leave at least an inch of space at the top of the jar. Otherwise, you won't be able to create an effective vacuum. And the vacuum is one of the main reasons that these jars will last for up to year. (That is, if you don't eat them before then. I am almost out of the strawberry jam I made already!)

I've wrapped my jars in newspaper because I don't have a rack to keep the jars stable (yet). 

Ah, pride and joy!
Update: To make sure your jams and jellies are safe to eat, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation. 

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