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Friday, August 16, 2013

Jam Making Foray #3 - Gooseberry Strawberry Jam

I had never had gooseberries before.  

So it was when we went berry picking on the farm with some friends who - in addition to, and after, grabbing as many blueberries and raspberries as we could all carry - also wanted to see about picking some gooseberries.

I wasn't immediately sold on them, but after sampling a few in the fields, I was surprised at how crisp and juicy they were.

So I picked a couple handfuls.  Not much, I know, but enough to make a small batch of jam.

Well, when it came time to making jam I realized that I had barely enough berries for even one jar.  At this time, I had some strawberries going bad in the fridge, so I decided to add them, and go instead for Gooseberry Strawberry Jam.

It wasn't much, and in fact - because I was dealing with a small scale production, or perhaps because I had become an expert by now (this was my third jam making foray, after all!) - this batch of jam didn't take long at all.

Puréed the strawberries and the gooseberries.

I believe the single longest part of this foray was de-stemming the gooseberries!

Then I started the whole thing cooking.  No spices this time.  Just fruit.  :)

My jars (I figured two would be enough) were sterilizing, and my berries were cooking.

This batch was particularly bad for the foam.  Worse than the others.  But it got skimmed.
(That's right, I SHOWED that foam!)

When the jars and my equipment (trusty ladle and funnel) were ready (sterile), I added the calcium water and the pectin.  Again, the ratio is 1 teaspoon calcium water and 1 teaspoon pectin for every 2 cups of fruit.

One thing to note, I chose to use brown sugar today.  Just thought it would complement the berries nicely.

It did.

When the jam mixture was complete and fully mixed, I poured them into my jars.  I ended up having enough jam for two small mason jars, AND a little left over that I just put into a tupperware and put in the fridge to be used immediately.

The jars, however, got sealed and then thrown back in the boiler again for 10 minutes.

Seems like a lot of work to go to for only two (and a half) jars of jam, but it actually wasn't very difficult and not nearly as time-consuming as my previous two jam making forays.

All in all this probably took less than an hour, including clean-up.

And I got more JAM!

Muah hah hah ah hah.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Jam Making Foray #2 - Blueberry Jam with Cardamom and Anise Seed

It's Yum Time.

I made more jam.

It was yummy.

The process was exactly the same as my Jam Making Foray #1 - Pure Raspberry Jam except with blueberries, and some added flavours.

Cardamom seed goes really well with blueberry, in my opinion.

And it has such a unique flavour.

The shells (husks?) of about a dozen cardamom seeds.

Even though the fruit of the seeds are easily obtained, and are quite small by themselves, they still need to be ground a bit in the mortar and pestle.

I threw in a dash of anise seeds as well (not many as they are quite powerful), and then ground it all up.

Anyway, I got everything ready, including puréeing the jam mixture (which, just like foray #1, included lemon juice and zest), but refrained from adding the pectin until the very end.

So, this time, the jars and lids were ready before the jam was.

Which made it really easy and safe to just start ladling as soon as the jam was ready.

It WAS a little tedious to do 12 cups of this stuff though.  Yup.  That's how many blueberries we picked.

So, in case you've forgotten, that means 6 teaspoons of calcium water (which can last in the fridge for weeks, BTW, just be sure to give it a stir before using) and 6 teaspoons of pectin (which also boasts a very long shelf life just out at room temperature).

Some lemon (as mentioned earlier) for acid and flavour, some sugar for jelling (and a little for sweetness), and then a dash of cardamom and anise.

You can see I didn't add much spice, but when the ONLY other flavour in there is blueberry, you can taste it clear as day.

Anyway, after close to an hour of ladling and then boiling again (no more than 10 minutes, remember), I had so much jam.

 So much jam!

And then, with my raspberry jam from the day before, SO MUCH FREAKING JAM!!!


This was after having given some away already.


The cardamom and anise were brilliant, and the jam exquisite.

BTW - this jam ALSO used all the fruit, so the skin and seeds of the blueberries also.

And look at how well it set:


Monday, August 12, 2013

Jam Making Foray #1 - Pure Raspberry Jam

Pure Raspberry Jam.

Everyone knows I love raspberries.  The wife is amazed every time I hoover down a pint in less than a minute, even though I do it every time.

I enjoy berries so much that I drop probably between $20 - $30 per week on raspberries and blueberries alone, independent from other fruit.


Part of that is that berry prices are ridonkulous, but part is also that I aim to have a pint a day (of one of either rasp or blue variety).

So anyway, when I brought home just about 5 litres of berries from picking them on the farm, I WANTED to just sit down and eat them all.  I had an afternoon all planned.

But the wife intervened, and she suggested I try to stretch them out as long as I could.


Now, I'm not a fan of freezing.  Freezing plant (fruit and vegetables) material is really bad.  Sure there are some new-fangled techniques involving words such as 'flash' and such, but there's one simple biological fact that I will always remember from my schoolin'.

Uh-Oh Davey, I smell a science rant a' comin'!

Plant cells (like all cells) are made up mostly of water.  Water contained within a relatively strong, but ultimately fragile, cellulose membrane. Water that freezes below 0°. Water that, when frozen, becomes ice, which is less dense, but occupies more volume (expands).  Ice that crystallizes when formed (and especially when formed slowly, like in most household freezers... we're starting to understand the significance of 'flash' freezing now, aren't we?)  And finally, crystals are what now, class?  Dull?  Smooth?  No!  That's right Sally, they're sharp!  So what do you think will happen to that beautiful cell membrane we were just talking about, that keeps all the cell's insides... well... inside?  Yup, it's gonna be poked so full o' holes it's gonna whistle when it walks.
That's a colourful little path we walked just to arrive at the simple conclusion that freezing fruit and vegetables makes them mushy and watery.  They've lost all rigidity, and it's all because their cell walls have been compromised.  Lysed is the word, actually.
Funny the things I remember from cellular biology.
Well, I may not have become the Geneticist that my 19-year old self wanted to be, but at least all that biochem booklurnin' DID help me run headlong into cooking with a decent semblance of what's going on behind the scenes.

OK... sorry for the tirade.  The learning phase of this rant is now over.

Let's get to the point of this post, preserving fruit.

That's right, children, I'm talkin' bout muthafuckin' JAM, bitches!!!

Yes, I'm excited.  However, let me just say that excitement was singularly responsible for my getting enough jars of jam to last me for at least a year.  

And I eat much jam.


So let's get to it.

Raspberry Jam.


That means this has almost nothing but raspberries in it.  Almost.  There are some things which I discovered were pretty much unavoidable.  Some lemon for acidity, some sugar to help it set, and some calcium to make the pectin react.

So... OTHER than that... pure.


So, let's remind ourselves of the insane amount of raspberries the wife and I picked at our local DIY farm.

Sooooooo many raspberries.  10 cups to be exact.  Well, to be approximate.  I mean, they're berries after all.

So this being my first ever foray into jam making (sure, I've preserved things before, and to great success I might add), I may not have had the most efficient or timely technique.

Namely, I started my batch cooking a little too early.  It all worked out in the end, it just meant that the jam was starting to set already by the time I 'poured' them into jars.

So, what really should have been done, which I did for my subsequent jam making, (foray #2 and #3) was to start the huge pot of sterilizing boiling water much sooner, and to give all the equipment a chance to become sterile before the jam itself has gotten itself too far along.

Not a big deal, like I said I just turned the heat off on the jam when it was ready; it may have started to congeal, but at least the jam was undamaged.

So, that's where we'll start.

Being an amateur preserver, I make do with just a large pot for the boiling of the water.  I do have a small metal cage insert (it actually came with my slow-cooker) that fits at the bottom and keeps the jars and other equipment from directly touching the bottom.  Which is to be avoided.

It doesn't really hurt the jars or the metal rings to be in there for a while, but anything after 10 minutes is certain to have killed anything hiding out in there.

Also be sure to sterilize all your tools.  Anything that might come into contact with the jars before they're sealed.

In this case, I've also sterilized a funnel and a ladle.

Fun stuff.

I don't think I've had an oven mitt / pot holder on my hand for as long a period as I did the afternoon I made jam.


Anyway, WHILE that boiling water is sterilizing all your junk, you can get your fruit a' goin.

Now... technically, and in almost every recipe I consulted, you're supposed to mash the fruit up, cook it down, and then ultimately sieve (cheese cloth) the solid material.

OK, that's great, but I just couldn't stomach effectively losing all of that good nutrient value.  I mean, there's still a ton of good stuff in there.  Even if you cooked it down for a week and ALL the good stuff was certain to have been leached out, at the very least you'd still have a ton of fibre in the skins and seeds.  At the least.

So, you know me, I'm stubborn.  I was going to make this the way I thought it should be made. And I did.  And you know what?  Nothing blewed up.

I did make sure to purée the shit out of the berries.  But that's why God invented blenders, right?

So that picture right there, is just raspberries.  10 glorious cups of raspberry purée.  Seeds and skin and everything else.

Into this, I added the zest and fresh juice of half a lemon.

This then cooked for about 15 minutes on medium, until it started to get really frothy.

For a reason that I didn't look up (just didn't get around to it yet) you're supposed to skim the foam off the top.  If I had to guess, I imagine it just helps prevent air bubbles in your jam.  But who knows... maybe it WOULD have sploded or blowed up if the foam got unruly.

There is a finite amount of foam so don't stress.  Just keep skimming and eventually it'll succumb to your tenacity.

So, the fruit part of making jam is actually pretty straight-forward.  You just cook it up and add some sugar and pectin.  If the acid content is low, you can add some extra (as I did) to help keep it safe (acid helps kill things).

But there is a cool little trick I learned about the pectin.  Pectin comes in a powder.  Or at least mine does.  And many powders like to clump up in hot liquids, so you either want to pre-mix the pectin in something cool first, or mix the pectin in with the sugar and add those together.  Or you could just blend the shit out of it again, in the pot, with an immersion blender.  Man I love my immersion blender.

I choose Pomona's Universal Low-Sweetener Pectin.  I picked it up from Williams Sonoma (I knew they sold it because I like to educate myself online before going into a store, but their amazing sales force of 60-year old retirees - as always - had no idea what I was talking about).  

I used to love Williams Sonoma.  I don't any more.  Ignorant, obstinate staff, paired with a flabbergastingly high mark-up on products... makes me an unhappy shopper.  

ANYway... back to pectin.  And fortunately for y'all, I feel another aside coming...
Pectin is made from fruit peels.  Which is cool.  And considering you can use PECTIN in most places one would use GELATIN, including aspics and jell-os, it really, really, really confounds me that anyone would still be using gelatin.  In case you're not following me here, gelatin is NOT made from fruit or vegetables, but from animals.  Mostly bone, but also other gross and thoroughly disgusting parts like hooves and such.  BLECH.  When I found this out I stopped eating jell-o. Anyway, it makes me wonder why anyone would want to use gelatin over pectin.
Interestingly enough, pectin will not congeal on its own.  It requires calcium in order to jell.  So, because most things you'll be making won't have enough natural calcium, there is often a small pouch of calcium (monocalcium phosphate) powder included.  Following the directions on the box you can mix up some calcium water which is what you'll add to the jam.  It doesn't really impart a taste.

There are various complicated directions for getting the ratio just right, but what I learned after three very successful jam making forays, is that the recipe is quite simple:
1 teaspoon calcium water and 1 teaspoon pectin for every 2 cups of fruit.

So for my 10-cup batch of raspberry jam, that meant 5 teaspoons each of the calcium and pectin.

Simple, right?


So I added the calcium first, mixed in the sugar and the pectin, and then give the whole thing a few long blasts with my immersion blender just for good measure.  (I am insanely diligent about uniformity.)

In terms of sweetener... you can use anything you want to sweeten jams.  Some things are obviously better than others (not sure how things like aspartame or sucralose managed to sneak their way past the FDA or Health Canada...), and less is often better than more.

For my case, I wanted an unsweetened jam, but discovered that some sugar is needed. So, technically it's sweetened, but very low.  2 cups of sugar seems like a lot, but not when it is added to 10 cups of berries.  The end result certainly tasted natural, rather than sweet.

So, at this point, you should endeavour to get all your jars and tools and such ready to go. Which I did not, as you'll note from what I mentioned earlier.  The reason being, pectin can be overcooked.  10 minutes is the magic number.  And remembering that we're going to give the finished (sealed) jars a blast in the boiler again for about that long, that doesn't give your jam hardly any time to stay on the heat at this point.

So, you could either just go right into pouring right now, which would be ideal (and which is what I did for forays #2 and #3), or turn the heat off completely and hope that your jam doesn't completely set while you're getting the jars ready.

As you can see, it did get a little thick by the time I was ready to start pouring, but it all worked out well in the end.

So, after carefully ladling and funnelling the jam into the jars, I sealed them with new lids (while you're not supposed to boil the new rubber seal lids, it is recommended that you still soak them in hot water prior to sealing) and tightened the rings.

Then, in batches, I put them in the boiler again for about 10 minutes.  This just makes extra sure that anything living in there is completely dead.

After this, they just cool on the counter for the rest of the day.  It is most satisfying to be across the house and hear the occasional 'pop' of the lids sealing!

I got me MUCH jam.

Plus I got to try out my new Weck jars!

They're so pretty, wouldn't you agree?

The mason jars were for gifting, but the wecks are all mine.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

DIY Berry Picking

I love berries.

Raspberries and Blueberries especially.

In order to get decent berries consistently, particularly in the off-season, I regret succumbing to buying them from places like California, Mexico, and even further away like Chile.  In a perfect world, there would be enough grown locally (and all year long) for everyone's needs.  Well, in a truly perfect world, I'd have my own hydroponic greenhouse the size of a football field, growing everything under the sun (or artificial UV lighting in this case).

Alas, I love berries so much that I do enjoy having them in the winter, a privilege one could argue humans settling in this climate should not naturally enjoy.

Anyway... I've long thought of stocking up on some berries when they're in season, in order to help see me, at least a little bit, through the winter.

So, this summer I actually made good on this.

I had done a bit of research on some surrounding farms offering 'pick-your-own' services, and was surprised at just how many there are!  It was an encouraging thought.  So, I suggested it to some friends - friends who had the fortune of being more experienced with locally sourced foods and farms around the city - and on their suggestion, we took a day trip to Andrew's Scenic Acres.

A surprisingly large, and innovatively commercialized, pick your own farm.  At this point in time they were only offering a few options, but blueberries and raspberries were at the forefront, so I was extremely pleased!

The farm itself was fairly sprawling, and there was free transport from field to field via regular intervals of tractor trolleys.

The first place we stopped was the blueberry fields.  I'd never seen so many blueberries in one place.

While most were under-ripe, it quickly became easy to spot the choicest berries, and after an hour we were all relative experts at blueberry picking!

We came away with two small pails full.  It took a long time to get that amount, and at the time I felt like it just wasn't enough.  I found out later just how much that translated to, but we'll get to that in a minute.

In fact, when it came time to take the tractor to the next field, and even though all our pails were near to overflowing, each of us still had a difficult time not stopping every few feet to keep picking delicious looking berries.  It's amazing how doing the same behaviour even just for an hour, can make it so habitual that you're effectively conditioned to keep it up.

We actually missed the first tractor out, because we were so caught-up in stopping for blueberries.


An hour and half or so later, we were dropped off at the raspberry fields.

I have to say, compared to the blueberry bushes, the raspberry fields were in a sorry state, and I was exceptionally disappointed.  And I was not alone; most people were all saying the same thing.

Much of the crop(s) were damaged, whether from excess sun or rain it was hard to tell, but in any case, most of the bushes were barren, brown and sere.  Especially around the 'easily accessible' areas of the bush.

It did turn out that there were quite a few raspberries hidden amongst the thorny brambles, but it quickly became apparent that we were going to have to work for them.

After we all conferred afterwards, it turned out that we each one of us had adopted our own methodology or technique to reap the most success.  Some went quickly from bush to bush and covered a great deal of ground, others painstakingly pored over one row slowly. Others still, found getting underneath the bushes yielded the best results. My own technique involved stepping right into the bushes and reaching some of the branches in the middle of the rows which were not as picked clean.

In the end, there were some berries, and many of them quite good specimens, but it was tedious and slightly exhausting foraging for them.

We were in the raspberry fields for over an hour, and we each only got our pails about 75% full before calling it and heading back.

Again, at the time, I was disappointed at how (seemingly) few berries we hauled back, and again I would be surprised later when we returned home and actually measured them, to discover that there were in fact quite a few berries indeed!

Before leaving the farm entirely, we meandered a fair bit around the grounds.  We were looking for some 'gooseberries' which were purportedly somewhere nearby, but proved to be fairly elusive.  In fact, we found some extremely deadly nightshade berries before we found the gooseberries (and actually, alarmingly close-by to the edible berries)!

And we ate some lunch there.  Some delightful corn on the cob, and some berry fruit punch were the highlights.

In fact, we each snagged a few ears of that delightful corn before leaving.

In total, I dropped $43 on what ended up being 12 cups of blueberries, 10 cups of raspberries, 1 cup of gooseberries, and 4 ears of corn.  Not a bad haul at all!

So, like I said, at the time of picking and while in full on 'berry-foraging' mode, it was not easy to judge how much we got.  It was when we took them home and washed them that it really hit home just how many berries we picked.

12 cups of fresh blueberries!

10 cups of fresh raspberries!!

1 cup of gooseberries.

And four delicious ears of corn!

A very successful trip out, and an immensely rewarding feeling to have literally reaped our own food!

Of course, we can only eat so much at a time, so this is where the fine art of preserving is going to come in handy!

So, look forward to some subsequent posts on my JAM making forays!