August is one of my favorite months of the year. Twenty-four years ago my youngest child was born on the 1st of August. It is the month when you notice the first hint of cool breezes as the high summer heat begins to dissipate ever so slightly. The back to school ads are in the newspapers and the grocers and farmers’ markets are full of the summer’s bounty of produce. It is the beginning of that “settling in” feeling, the preparation for the next season; leaving behind the leisure of summer for a more structured agenda in the fall. This is the time of year when my Mother would start the process of preserving. The house would be full of the fragrance of fresh dill, vinegar and garlic. She would scrub what seemed like bushels of pinky-finger sized cucumbers, leave them in big earthenware crocks to ferment, then arrange them ever so carefully in screw top jars. Into each jar would go sprigs of dill, garlic cloves and pickling spices. The brine would be poured in and the lids screwed tightly shut. Then they would go down to the basement cold cupboard for storage.
That was the cupboard we called the “wee hoosie” (in the dialect of my Scottish grandparents, “the little house”). It was on the north west wall of the basement, with a door that latched shut and a ceiling light bulb with a pull chain. The walls were lined with shelves and there was a deep bin for root vegetables. It was on those shelves that Mom lined up the jars of pickles, tomato relish, jams, and jellies. At the holidays she stored special treats like shortbread and mince tarts in old fashioned biscuit tins. Fruitcakes would ripen in their whiskey and brandy soaked cheesecloth shrouds; it was a special little place.
Over the years I have dabbled in the art of preserving. When Andy and I first lived in Toronto we went out with friends to pick strawberries one weekend. We came back with the trunk of the car full of flats of ripe berries. In our little apartment galley kitchen we managed to make some really good strawberry jam. One batch was spiked with Grand Marnier, another with Drambuie. I remember my brother in law saying it was the best strawberry jam he had ever eaten. Over the years we always planted gardens and harvested vegetables and some fruit. I particularly enjoyed my apple tree and red and black currents in our last Winnipeg garden. Together these fruits made beautiful jewel colored jellies. There was one year that a surplus of green tomatoes got turned into mincemeat. And we picked those Prairie beauties, saskatoons, to make into pies with apples and peaches.
So this weekend I got back in the kitchen with some ripe fruit and a new recipe book. I also acquired a beautiful copper jam pan ( a confiture, as it is called by the manufacturer). The book, “The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook” was written by Rachel Saunders, a young woman passionate about the art of preserving fresh fruit. I was inspired by her beautiful recipes and descriptions and her concise instructions. The illustrations make it easy to understand how the finished product should look and ensure that the texture of your jam will be perfect with every batch. The beauty of preserving is knowing that the rewards of your efforts will be the tastes of August in your kitchen all winter long.
Santa Rosa Plum & Strawberry Jam with Rosemary
( from “The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook” by Rachel Saunders)
1 1/4 pounds pitted and halved Santa Rosa plums
1 1/4 pounds pitted Santa Rosa plums, thickly sliced
3/4 pound plus 3/4 pound hulled strawberries, thickly sliced
14 ounces plus 14 ounces white cane sugar
2 to 5 ounces strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 to 3 (10-inch) sprigs rosemary
Have ready 2 medium glass or hard plastic storage containers with tight-fitting lids
In the first container, combine the halved plums with 3/4 pound of the strawberries and 14 ounces of sugar. Cover and let macerate in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
In the second container, combine the sliced plums with the remaining 3/4 pound of berries and 14 ounces of sugar. Cover and let macerate in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
Day 2 or 3
Place a saucer with five metal teaspoons in a flat place in your freezer for testing the jam later.
Remove the fruit from the refrigerator. Put the halved plums and their sugar through the fine holes of a food mill and add them to the second container with the sliced plums. Scrape any solids that will not go through the food mill back into the jam mixture, breaking up the chunks as you go. Transfer the mixture to an 11 or 12 quart copper preserving pan or a wide nonreactive kettle.
Stir in 2 ounces of the lemon juice. Taste and slowly add more lemon juice if necessary. You should be able to taste the lemon juice, but it should not be overpowering. Keep adding lemon juice only just until you are able to detect its presence in the mixture. (I added about 4 ounces of lemon juice to my batch of jam).
Bring the jam mixture to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and, using a large stainless steel spoon, skim the foam from the top of the mixture and discard. Return the jam to high heat and continue to cook, monitoring the heat closely, until the jam thickens, about 30 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan often with your spatula, and decrease the heat gradually as more and more moisture cooks out of the jam. For the final 10 minutes of cooking, stir it very frequently to prevent scorching.
To test the jam for doneness, carefully transfer a small representative half-spoonful of jam to one of your frozen spoons. Replace the spoon in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes, then remove and carefully feel the underside of the spoon. It should be neither warm nor cold; if still warm, return it to the freezer for a moment. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly the jam runs; if it runs very slowly, and if it has thickened to a gloppy consistency, it is done. If it runs very quickly or appears watery, cook it for another few minutes, stirring, and test again as needed.
Turn off the heat but do no stir. Using a stainless steel spoon, skim all the remaining foam from the surface of the jam. Place the rosemary into the mixture and let steep for a few minutes off the heat. Stir and carefully taste the jam and either remove the sprigs or leave them in another minute or two, keeping in mind that their flavor will be slightly milder once the jam has cooled. Using tongs, discard the rosemary. Pour the jam into sterilized jars and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
* Ms. Saunders suggests sterilizing clean jars and lids by placing them on a baking sheet and leaving them in a 250F oven for 30 minutes. Once the jars have been filled, they can be replaced in the oven for 15 minutes to ensure the contents are completely sterilized. Remove them to a cooling rack and leave them, undisturbed, to cool for 24 hours. You will hear a popping sound as the jar lids seal and the surface of each lid will appear slightly concave. Any jars that do not seal should be stored in the refrigerator. This recipe will yield about six 8 ounce jars which can be stored in a cool dark place for 1 year.