For the longest time, I’ve been envious of the craftsy: the knitters, the sewers, the soap-makers, the canners.
I am a serviceable home baker, but I am not craftsy. A few years ago, though, I made jars of maple-roasted nuts. Later, I tackled the humble art of granola-making. These were foodstuffs I could produce and package as holiday gifts, and I did so. I liked the idea of giving homemade edibles as presents, the feeling that the personal touch might make the treats taste even better.
But roasted nuts and homemade granola don’t have very long shelf lives. One day, I happened across a copy of Rachel Saunders’ The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, a gorgeous book that made me want, initially, to move to northern California (so I could enjoy the region’s endless cornucopia of produce), and, secondly, to make jam.
I’ve given out jars of jam as holiday gifts for years. Bought in bulk in the fall and handed out to everyone at our annual Christmas Day brunch, certain jams are special enough to purchase as gifts, such as Tiptree’s Little Scarlet. Plus, jam is generally a safe gift for teachers or school secretaries, as pretty much everyone likes it. (And if not, jam is easy enough to pass forward.) But until now, I’d never felt the urge to make it myself.
I have a good friend, Marci, who lives in San Francisco, where she is a farmers’-market friend to Rachel Saunders, the Blue Chair lady. When Marci visited me in Massachusetts this summer, we went to my local farmers’ market, where we purchased many, many apricots from my own farmers’-market buddy, Sarah Davenport of Apex Orchards.
Marci’s husband had given her a gorgeous wide copper jamming pan for her birthday. Her birthday fell during their East Coast trip, and so he had had the birdbath-shaped pan shipped east. Our task: inaugurate the pan.
I was nervous. The number of moving parts, what with the pan and the jars and the lids and the apricots and the sugar and the lemon, was daunting. The jars had to be sterile, and the lids needed to seal. The first batch was a blur: steeping, stirring, and sealing. I tried to follow along, making mental notes. But Marci’s canning method was less exact science and more intuitive art.
Eternal jam questions wafted up with the steam in my kitchen: What’s the difference between jam and preserves? Should we use pectin for a thicker jell? (We chose not to use it.) How long does it take for the roiling concoction to jell? Does the freezer jell test — putting a bit of hot jam on a plate in the freezer, or dabbing it on a freezer-chilled spoon — really work? How do you decide if it’s jelled enough?
We ladled the apricot jam into sterilized jars, canned them in a water bath, and set them out on the countertop to cool. I listened hard for the lids to make that telltale sealing click; even if I’d heard them pop, I couldn’t resist thumping the lids make sure they were sealed.
Finally, of course, we sampled what we’d made. The chunks of fruit were just the right size and density; the stickiness and sweetness levels were just so.
At that point, all I desired was for the next Tuesday farmers’ market to arrive, so that Sarah might bring me more apricots. By then, however, Marci had gone home. I was even more nervous about tackling jam without Marci by my side — but I was nervous in that eager, first-day-of-school-jitters kind of way. There was no question in my mind that I was going to do this thing.
Before attempting that second batch, I bought more jars and a shiny jar funnel. I pulled out my old spaghetti pot — not luminous copper but serviceable stainless — and made sure my cell phone was charged, because I knew I was going to need to text Marci for advice: How much sugar should I use? (We hadn’t measured the first time around, just eyeballed it.) When do I squeeze the lemon juice on top? How long is the water supposed to boil?
She calmly responded to each inane worry with affirming encouragement, and I managed to figure out the bits she couldn’t help with, like keeping track of which spoon I’d used to clear the froth from the fruit-and-sugar mixture. With time, the jam jelled, and the jars sealed. And the resulting spread tasted like pure, sweet apricots.
By now I was hooked. I started in with peaches, learning to skin them. I tried a batch with pectin. I made jam with another friend, who wanted to try her hand at jamming. I spoke to my gifted mother-in-law — who routinely gives jars of homemade jam as gifts, embellished with beautiful, hand-calligraphed labels — as I stirred.
We chatted about the merits of jamming at nighttime (cooler weather, which is important in the summer) versus jamming in the daytime (you can see what you’re doing more easily). We agreed that petite jars were perhaps a little too precious, and that constant stirring, strangely, soothed the nerves.
After a while, I realized that the satisfaction of jam-making wasn’t really about anticipating gift-giving or even eating the jam itself; it came from the wonderful way in which time faded when my primary commitment for 20 minutes was to do nothing but stir. I loved watching the fruit get juicy and then begin to break down and to thicken. It was a slow process, but I loved the slowing down for its own sake.
I loved jamming so much, in fact, that these days my pantry shelves are crowded with jars and jars of jam. Sure, I now have plenty of homemade gifts with long shelf lives. But I have to be honest: the biggest gift may have been to myself.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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