Thursday, May 17, 2012

Strawberry-lemonade jam

When you start making your own food from scratch, especially stuff like bread and mayonnaise, you take a whole lot of pride in what you've accomplished. But it wears off. Eventually baking your own bread doesn't feel so special anymore; it's just a regular part of your week. And once you get the hang of making mayo, you kind of feel like, "Hey, no big."

So far I haven't reached that point with making jam. (And I hope I never do.) Here I am, glowing with pride while eight jars of gorgeous jam cool in the kitchen (plus a little extra insufficient to fill a jar). I decided to call it strawberry-lemonade jam because I love strawberry lemonade (and I thought it sounded good), but really it's strawberry jam flavored with lemon zest, lemon juice, and a hint of lemon verbena to cut the sweetness. It's delicious. And I was able to keep the color of the strawberries--a first in jam making for me. So I am a little puffed up. Let me enjoy my moment of glory. Wait, I have to run to the kitchen and get a spoonful from the partial jar...

Man that's good. Sorry, I'm back. That was wonderful. I am going to tell you how to make the deliciousness yourself in a moment, but first a few tips for making jam:

  • Get the very best berries you can find and preferably ones that haven't been sprayed. I got mine from Reid's Orchard because their berries are extraordinarily good, and they practice integrated pest management, which means they rarely spray their fruits.
  • Jam is not an excuse for using less-than-perfect berries. If you've got ugly berries, trim the ugly parts and try making saft (a Swedish fruit syrup that's delicious as a refreshing drink when mixed with water or you could also pour a little over ice cream). Or bake something with them.
  • Get everything ready before you start cooking the jam, because once you start you will not be able to leave the stove for more than a minute or two. (Lot of hovering over the stove involved in making jam.) So that means wash and sterilize all your jars, juice and zest your lemons, wash the verbena stems, place a plate with five metal spoons in the freezer for testing, and have a ladle and a funnel ready to go.
  • Be careful. Making jam is an activity not dissimilar to making candy. That means temperatures get very high, boiling can get violent, and the jam can overflow. Also, it can spatter and burn, so take care. Maybe wear an oven mitt while you stir. Or cast caution to the wind and gain some badges of honor (I got one on my wrist today).  
  • Don't start making jam unless you have at least 45 solid minutes to devote completely to the task. You can't really start and stop, and you have to be present at the stove through nearly the entire cook time.    

OK, so those are the general tips. Here are the specifics (both ingredients and equipment):

  • 4 lbs hulled strawberries (keep them whole unless they are huge)
  • 2 lbs 10 oz sugar 
  • juice from four lemons (between 5 and 6 ounces, divided)*
  • zest from two lemons (finely chopped or grated)
  • 1 large branch of lemon verbena (optional, but nice)
  • 1 white plate with 5 metal spoons, placed in the freezer to prep them for testing
  • 1 deep thick-bottomed pot that's from 8 inches in diameter (up to 11 or 12) (if you don't have a jam pan,** a stock pot will work just fine)
  • 1 silicone spatula
  • 1 skimmer, placed in a bowl of cold water
  • 1 ladle
  • 1 wide-mouth funnel (you'll usually find these wherever you find canning supplies)
  • 9 clean 8-ounce jars with banded lids, washed, sterilized, and kept hot
  • Any equipment you are using to process the jars (pot with rack, baking sheet and rack, etc.). For information about processing jams (and any canned good) safely, go to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.      

OK, now that you have assembled everything you need, let's get started:

  1. Combine strawberries, sugar, and half of the lemon juice in a pot. Stirring steadily with the silicone spatula, slowly heat the mass. When the berries release a lot of liquid and the berry-sugar mass becomes more liquid, raise the heat slowly to high and bring the mass to a rolling boil. 
  2. Maintain the berry-sugar mix at a high boil for about 25 minutes, stirring once a minute or so, making sure to scrape the bottom with the spatula. If the mass starts to stick to the bottom, lower the heat a bit. Using a skimmer, skim the scum off the top for the first 10 minutes. As you will be standing here for a while watching the mass boil, you will no doubt notice some changes in the jam: First, it will boil up very high, possibly threatening to boil over. Usually consistent stirring will help keep that from happening, but it doesn't always work. Adjust the heat up and down as you work to maintain a strong boil, while avoiding losing half your jam in a sticky, possibly painful, disaster. 
  3. At about the 25-minute mark, the jam will change color, growing darker and glossier, and production of foam will decrease. (Before this, you will notice the jam feeling thicker and the intensity of the boiling increasing.) Mix in the second half of the lemon juice and the lemon zest. (Take the pot off the heating element when you do this to avoid scorching.) Bring the jam back to a high boil for 5 minutes. 
  4. After the 5 minutes, take the pot off the heat and add the sprig of lemon verbena to let it steep while you test the jam. To test the jam, place a small amount of jam liquid on a frozen spoon and return it to the freezer for 3-4 minutes. When you take the spoon out, feel the bottom of the spoon, it shouldn't feel hot or cold. If that's the case, tip the spoon to let the liquid run. If it runs slowly and sort of gums up a bit, the jam is done. If it runs fast, let the jam cook for another 5 to 10 minutes and test it again. 
  5. If the jam was done on your first try, let the lemon verbena steep for another 5 to 10 minutes. Before you put the jam into the jars, remove the lemon verbena and toss it.
  6. Using the ladle, pour the jam into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch room at the top of the jar. You will get 7 to 9 8-ounce jars of jam. 
  7. Process the jars as directed. Except maybe one that you set aside to "test" for flavor to make sure it's OK. Make sure to refrigerate any open jars. 
  8. Enjoy it. It should be good for 6 to 8 months if the jars form a proper seal and are kept in a cool, dark place. Make sure to check each jar carefully when you open it. If the seal doesn't pop, or if anything seems off or weird in any way (color, smell, rusty lids, etc.), just get rid of it. Better to lose a jar than to get sick.   
* The basis for this recipe is Rachel Saunders's "Children's Strawberry Jam," from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.
** If anyone feels like getting me a jam pan for Christmas, or for any other reason, I would not mind. No really. I wouldn't.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Strawberry upside-down cake

I like making upside-down cakes. They can be a bit of a gamble: Will the whole thing come out of the pan beautifully, or will it crumble into a delicious, but hideous mess? When they come out well, they can be so beautiful: Glorious jewel-like fruit glistening in deep-brown caramel both gooey and with a lacy edge of crispness. Then there is the contrast of the slight hit of acid from the fruit against soft sweet cake. Oh yeah...

The other thing I like about them is that they are endlessly variable. Once you get a basic batter and caramel down, you can switch up the fruit and the flavor of the batter in nearly endless ways (which just sparked an idea about inventing a savory upside-down cake at some point--maybe later this summer with tomatoes and some of the beautiful goat cheese from Cherry Glen--but I digress). For example, during summer you could use peaches, plums, cherries, blackberries--whatever is fresh and good and loading down the tables at the farmer's market. In fall, you could use apples, pears, and cranberries. To complement different fruits, you could flavor the batter with lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla--whatever strikes your fancy and suits your tastes.

In this case, my fancy was struck when I went looking for strawberry-intensive recipes for a treat to bring to a brunch. I came across several tasty ones at Joy the Baker's blog, including a brown butter banana strawberry bread (looks so delicious) and a strawberry balsamic flatbread (most intriguing), but what really sparked my thinking was the strawberry upside-down cake with cardamom. Oh yeah! I could make an upside-down cake with strawberries. Only, instead of using cardamom, I would caramelize the strawberries, and instead of cinnamon in my batter, I would use lemon zest because lemon and strawberries just play so nicely together. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.

So I got to work. I had a quart of strawberries from the farmer's market to hull (I bought two actually, but the other one is for eating fresh), caramel to make, and a batter to whip up. Here's how to proceed.*

  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp local honey
  • 1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced 
(If you aren't using a cast-iron skillet to make this cake, make the caramel separately on the stove and then pour it into the cake pan you plan to use; use an 8- to 9-inch pan. Springform would probably help you out a bunch.)
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  2. Melt the butter, let it get foamy and slightly brown. (Keep an eye on it, you do not want burnt butter in your cake. Or in any dish you make, ever.)
  3. Add brown sugar and honey and stir until the brown sugar is mostly melted. 
  4. Take the pan off the heat and add the strawberries. (The heat of the sugar-butter mixture will slightly cook the strawberries, and a scent will rise that is indescribably beautiful. Just breathe it in and count yourself lucky to experience such a thing of ephemeral beauty.) If you are using a cake pan, pour the whole mixture into the pan. Set it aside while you make the batter.   

Cake Batter
  • 6 Tbsp butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • zest from one lemon, finely chopped or grated
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Using a stand mixer, whip the butter silly. No. Sorry. Whip the butter until it's fluffy. The paddle attachment is good for this.  
  2. Add the sugar to the butter and whip that until it's creamy. If you are starting with cold butter, this could take a while.
  3. While the butter and sugar are working, add flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest to a bowl. Mix everything together with a whisk and set it aside. 
  4. OK, now that your butter and sugar is fluffy and pale gold, add one egg at a time. Beat them into the butter-sugar mixture until fluffy. Even more fluffy! Lots of fluffy. 
  5. Next, mix in the vanilla extract. 
  6. Finally add the flour mixture and the milk, alternating between about a third of the flour and a third of the milk until you've added it all. Mix until the flour and the milk are just incorporated and then stop the machine. (If you keep beating the batter, you will get a tough cake. And you don't want a tough cake unless you are planning to throw it at someone you are mad at. And why would you be mad at someone? You have these gorgeous strawberries and this fluffy cake batter.)
  7. Scrape the batter over the strawberries and caramel and smooth the batter as best you can (this is a thick batter that doesn't spread very easily, but don't worry about it being uneven; it will spread nicely in the oven). 
  8. Slide the pan into the hot oven and let it bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes. Take it out and let it cool for 30 minutes before flipping it over onto a serving plate. Enjoy it warm or cold. Serve it with ice cream or some fresh whipped cream or all by itself.

* This recipe was adapted from this oh-so-good plum upside-down cake from Epicurious.