Most of us who like to cook have items that we never buy ready-made: on the top of that list, for me, is jam.
My mother made batches of jam each summer, usually strawberry and peach, that would last until the next fruit season. She also preserved dill pickles; canned pears, peaches and cherries in syrup for winter desserts; canned chili sauce (which wasn’t spicy-hot in the least); and sometimes pickled baby corn, preserved mustard beans and, with the arrival of a deep freezer, froze many summer fruits and vegetables for winter use. As she got older and it was just she and my father in the house, she cut back on most of her preserving, but continued making jam.
Over the years, I’ve settled into making two kinds of jams: Peach, using added pectin and sort-of following the directions from Certo (more on that, later), and plum jam, following the recipe from Laurie Colwin’s More Home Cooking. Plums have a higher natural pectin level and this recipe actually has you cook down the plums for a very long time, adding only lemon or lime juice and no additional pectin. The jam is thick but not a solid mass when cooled, which I prefer anyway. We don’t eat much jam, ourselves, but jars of homemade jam make great gifts.
It’s always tempting to jump on peach jam-making the very first week baskets of the fruit arrive at the market mid-summer but, at least in Ontario, Canada, those early peaches from the Niagara region are often smaller and not “freestone.” They are delicious to eat, but difficult to prep to use in baking or for jam.
A couple weeks later, the larger, freestone peaches arrive. They are easier to peel and pit; my mother swore by a variety called Redhaven. She would take the peaches out of their basket and spread them, not touching, on a table in the basement laundry room until they were at the brink of being over-ripe: better to cut out a couple bruise spots and have the full flavour than make jam from under-ripe peaches, was her motto. I do the same, although because I live in an urban apartment, the ripening peaches take up a corner of the kitchen counter and unfortunately sometimes draw the interest of pesky fruit flies, even under a mesh food tent.
The Certo recipe is simple enough: Skin, de-pit, and cut up four cups of peaches, then stir in 7.5 cups sugar (there’s a stern warning to not cut back on the sugar amount as it is germane to the gelling process). I use a small roasting pan and (another mother trick) mash the cut-up peaches with a potato masher. Add 1/3 cup of lemon juice and heat the peach mix to boiling.
This year, there seemed to be some changes to the Certo recipe, certainly things I don’t remember from the past: for one, a suggestion to add a half teaspoon of butter into the peaches as a way to reduce the amount of foam that comes up when the fruit is boiled. I tried the butter and I didn’t see any difference in the foam quantity, so won’t do that again. As well, the instructions said to use two packs of the liquid Certo for peach, whereas most other varieties of fruit take one. I really don’t like stiff jam, so used 1.5 packs and got the consistency I prefer.
The Certo instructions also seemed to have made the whole sterilizing process far more complicated, not only washing the jars in hot-hot water but then going through the “immerse the filled jars in boiling water bath” rigamarole after. I do what my mother always did and, between the two of us, we’ve made jam for decades without spoilage. She would put the oven on around 250 degrees (above boiling temperature), replace any lids that had seen better days, thoroughly wash the glass jam jars and screwtops in hot, soapy water, rinse them in hot water, and put all onto cookie trays that go into the oven oven, where the jars dry and stay, hot and cleaned, until you’re ready to ladle jam into them.
Dealing with the hot jars, and screwing on those hot lids, takes some fortitude: good-quality rubber gloves make it possible.
With peach jam, on occasion I’ve experimented with additions. For a few years, I sprinkled the peaches with cinnamon before boiling. This year, inspired by the “boozy marmalade” made by Kim and Kevin Gormley of Stratford, Ontario’s Old Rectory B&B, I tipped in a couple jiggers of Dalwhinnie Scotch whisky: it has added a lovely layer of flavour to the jam.
Next up is plum jam. I like Laurie Colwin’s recipe because it uses flesh and skin from the plums, making the fruit prep relatively easy. You can add lemon or lime; I prefer lime. Versions of this recipe online are “adapted” and remove the best of her quirky directions and language, so here’s the real deal, from page 153 of my much-thumbed More Home Cooking.
Laurie Colwin Plum Jam
- Buy 4 pounds of prune plums and wash them well. It is preferable to use plums that have never been prayed if you can find them. This will fill six 8-ounce jars with some left over to put into a clean mayonnaise jar for instant consumption.
- Cut plums into thin slices and weigh them. Without the stones, 4 pounds of plums gives about 3 pounds of fruit. If you don’t have a scale, the rule seems to be 1 cup of fruit to a scant 3/4 cup of sugar.
- Put the plums in a heavy, enameled cast-iron pot along with about a up of filtered water. Gradually the sugar – I would use 2 pounds and forget about the exact mathematical ratios (and eventually I will see if I can make it even less sweet – and being to boil.
- Sit down with a good book and a wooden spoon and let the plums boil gently. Stir them from time to time, rather more frequently than not. The juice of half a lime or lemon should be squeezed in at one point.
- While the jam is booking, boil the jars and lids, write out your labels, and when the plums are the color of Passover wine and are thick and jam-like, take them off the fire and spoon the jam into the jars. Cover and seal.
All photos: Kelley Teahen