Wednesday, July 2, 2008


It’s that time of year - the berries are ripening fast, and good homesteaders are assembling the jars and canning pots to preserve the harvest. I was excited last January, when I saw the bushes growing out of the lawn, and envisioned mega-crops of raspberries, boysenberries and strawberries. I had conveniently forgotten both that I tend not to eat fresh fruit (I prefer coffee and potato chips) and that my last several “brushes” with canning and making jam had ending in the kind of sticky chaos usually reserved for pre-school lunchtimes. I suppose it’s like childbirth pains (not that I’d know) - we forget the worst of it and put a golden glow around the rest.

I started as I usually do (as befits my Attention Deficit makeup): I grabbed some berries, threw them into the Cuisinart and then into a pot and started to cook. While they were heating, I rummaged around for the Joy Of Cooking book in order to find out what was next. (note to experienced canners: stop here unless you want to give yourself a headache.) It reminded me that I needed almost equal parts sugar, depending on how sweet the berries were. Apparently one doesn’t usually blend strawberries and raspberries, but I didn’t have enough of each, so what the heck… I hadn’t measured them, either, so I did a visual approximation, and poured white sugar into the hot pulp. As the mess - uh, mix - started to simmer then boil, I realized I needed those canning jars that were in the garage, and probably the canning pot as well… with a quick glance at the stove, I raced out to get them - of course they were buried under my last project and it took me a moment to unearth them. The canning pot lid was nowhere to be found, so I hauled the rest of it back into the house, where the jam was boiling like red soapsuds. It smelled great (except for the faint hint of burnt sugar) and I gave it a vigorous stir and checked the recipe book again.

The quantities called for seemed much larger than what I had - in fact, putting a couple gallons of water on to boil up two half-pint jars seemed hardly worth the trouble. But I did put the canning jars in the water, turned on the burner (it was about half the diameter of the pot, which made me a bit worried about how long it would take to boil), and raced out to the garden to see if any more berries had ripened overnight. Fortunately quite a lot had, and I fumbled with the bird net, trying to reach the ripe ones (the bird net does not seem to have stopped the birds, but it sure has me flummoxed). With another pint in the container, I raced inside. The smell of burnt sugar was stronger now, but when I’d washed and tossed the new berries in, crushing them in the pot to save time, the bubbling mixture subsided a bit. The canning water was still tepid around the empty jars - in order to raise the level of the water without pouring in another gallon, I had added about five quart jars that I knew I wouldn’t need - finally, my high school geometry class paid off!

I remembered that I wanted to do mini-jars for gifts, so again I raced to the garage- I’d bought new ones of these, so they didn’t need washing (I hope). By then, the mix had thickened - Joy of Cooking has this test: if the mix falls off the spoon in one drop rather than two split drops, it’s gonna gel. That hadn’t worked in the past, but hope sproings enternal, as they say. So I spooned the mix into the baby jars- damn, that stuff was goopy! Probably as much fell to the counter, and I was really tempted to re-capture it using a piece of bread (that was months of watering, growing, and a fair amount of fertilizer - wasted on the counter!) but I restrained myself - only a couple finger-fuls hastily lapped up. I screwed the lids on the jars, remembered that they stick when they’re goopy, unscrewed them, wiped off the threads (isn’t that what they call the long lumps of glass around the rim?) and re-sealed them. I dumped them into the large canner pot, where the water was finally a bit too hot to touch (and how was I gonna get them out of those many gallons of boiling water?? I’d burn that bridge when I came to it). Then I hemmed and hawed -- the larger glass jar had not had its pre-requisite boiling before filling. Reasoning that this jar was for myself alone, I decided to take the risk - the jam mixture was already congealing on the sides of the cooking pot. So I spooned the rest of the muck into the larger jar - of course there wasn’t enough to fill it (how do cooks get these dang things to work out evenly?? I suppose that’s what the specific quanitities mentioned in the recipe are for?)

Once again, it seemed very sad to have boiled all this water, and dragged out all the jars, strainers, etc. for such a small batch… so I grabbed the oranges sitting in the bowl and decided to follow it with marmalade. The recipe said the oranges had to sit for 15 hours after they first boiled, but I decided I could skip that part. They were scrubbed, quartered, thrown into the food processor, and the lumpy orange goop poured into another pot. Here we go again… What with all the taste-testing and spoon licking (not to mention the counter), I now had enough sugar in me to spin out a whole classroom of kindergarteners. While the jam was getting up to sterilizing temps, I stirred the marmalade down, then filled a mini jar and an actual quart jar (but I live alone - when will I need a quart of marmalade??) then sealed and plunked them into the canning pot. While waiting, I re-read the recipe… and realized there was no mention of canning/boiling after sealing the jars! Apparently, that’s just for vegetables… all that water, boiled for nothing. Sheesh… With much difficulty and a couple of burns, I fished the jam and marmalade out of the pot and let them cool on the counter for a bit, then tossed a couple in the freezer and some in the fridge.

I really hope my family is happy with their gifts of homemade jam. It’s not that I mind all the chopping, stirring and boiling -- but having to wash three sinkfuls of jammy pots, pans, ladles, bowls and spoons is what I call a major pain in the canning jar!

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