Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 8:16 PM
Homemade blackberry jam seemed to Northern California food writer Nicole Spiridakis the perfect parting favor for guests of her upcoming wedding. Picking berries and filling 103 jars with their summery essence took time but wasn't hard, she says.
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I don't remember my first meeting with the man who will become my husband — he probably doesn't, either. Not because we barely noticed each other at a party or couldn't find a moment at some bar. I don't remember meeting him because I wasn't even a year old, and he was only 8.
Our dads met through work years ago and immediately became fast friends (our families did, too). I may not remember the moment I met my fiance, but what I do remember from our youth is his mom's zucchini bread flecked with walnuts, her baked chicken lasagna with cream sauce and her jams made from the wild-grown fruits of West Marin County, Calif., where he grew up.
I remember playing hide-and-seek in their house with a view of Tomales Bay, dogs always underfoot. And I remember our family get-togethers that stretched comfortably throughout the years, though we lived about an hour's drive apart, full of rambles in the woods and picnics on the beach, now culminating in the grandest family get-together yet: a wedding.
I'm not really a wedding person — though heaven knows I've attended more than my share. When we got engaged I was thrilled — of course, and always. But all too soon the gnashing of teeth began over the guest list, the color of the invitations, what kind of music to play, what sort of vibe the whole affair would have (think English country pub, near the sea). I lamented the expenditure of that precious mental energy and longed for a return to "normal" life — one where my biggest decision was whether I should make brown rice or quinoa to serve with my roasted vegetables.
However, I was certain of two things right from the start. One, that I would bake my own wedding cake. And two, that I would make and can blackberry jam to give away to our guests.
Don't ask me why I thought this — or baking my wedding cake — would be a good idea. I simply knew that I had to do it. So, I did.
Blackberries are emblematic of the Northern California where we grew up and so were the natural choice for an edible thank-you. They grow wild along the coast and in the fields, practically falling into your hands at their peak in late summer (the bushes thrive in a cool, mild climate — i.e. this part of the country). This year, because of late spring rain, the blackberries ripened late, too, ushering in that elusive phenomenon known in the Bay Area as "Indian summer" (or to some "true summer").
Canning is a way to hold on to a season's harvest bounty. Once I recover from this year's great blackberry project, I plan to return next year to canning applesauce and tomato sauce, delve into making plum chutney and create a not-too-sweet strawberry jam. Right now is time for late-season tomatoes, pickles, pears, even the last stone fruit in many parts of the country. With squash back at the farmers markets (or the garden), I can make a simple roasted butternut squash puree with maple syrup and can that, too.
We picked our blackberries in late summer until we couldn't stand to look at another one. We picked blackberries along the foggy coast, on a hot day along the Inverness Ridge and along a trail in my hometown of Sebastopol. We enlisted anyone who had a free hour — and thick skin. We picked with kids and we picked with adults and we picked just us two, a sweet reminder of the purpose of all of this.
Blackberry picking can seem daunting, and avoiding all the thorny vines while hunting for fully ripe fruit while standing on tiptoe can get tiring. At the same time, it's meditative. Little niggling stresses faded as I filled my bowls; the scratches I earned in the process I wore proudly as battle scars.
Back in the kitchen, I turned the 20 or so pounds of blackberries we'd accumulated into jam — masses of it. I knew how much effort would go into making 100 jars of jam, as I'm pretty well-versed in the canning process, but it was truly a major production. Yet this is exactly the kind of work I like. I may not care — much — about the font on my save-the-date cards, but I certainly do care about my jam.
Canning is time-consuming although it's not overly arduous, even when undertaken in a kitchen as small as mine. But you must be prepared to sustain a few hot-water-splash burns and a broken seal here and there. You'll become well acquainted with pectin (usually used to "set" jam, though you may experiment in doing without) and will appreciate the judicious addition of fresh lemon juice.
After hours of cooking down the berries, filling 103 five-ounce jars with hot jam, sealing and clamping down the lids tightly and then processing each one in a water bath, my sense of accomplishment was astonishing (even if I cursed my existence once or twice). I stacked up those jars carefully in a cool, dark place, and I coo to them every so often in proprietary pride.
Yet I'm very ready to let them go.
At many moments during the picking and canning process, I thought about where those blackberries were destined — some would be layered into the cake I have still to bake, alternating with ribbons of homemade lemon curd.
But most will go to our guests, all close friends and family, many of whom are traveling a great distance to be with us on our wedding day. As I cooked, I imagined them returning home and unpacking their jam to spread on good whole-wheat toast, stir into yogurt, drizzle over vanilla (or lemon?) ice cream. I hope each bite reminds them of California, and of how much they mean to us.
Of course, you needn't use a wedding as an excuse to preserve food for winter or for otherwise. And you needn't use blackberries.
As Indian summer waxes in Northern California and "that day" fast approaches, my old friend turned soon-to-be-husband and I have tucked away a jar of blackberry jam to eat after the berry stains have faded and the rush of the wedding has subsided.
Sometime, in February perhaps, we'll open it up. It will taste slightly bittersweet, as blackberries do when you don't add too much sugar (I tend to err on the side of less is more). We'll dip spoons straight in and remember this summer — and all the summers before when we scrambled over rocks and chased tadpoles in the pond as children. We'll congratulate each other on surviving this last mad dash and toast to our future. As long as we have jam, I think we'll do just fine.
Jam Preserving Tips
-- Test your recipe before canning to make sure you actually like it and also to ensure you know what you're doing. For example, I like to reduce the amount of sugar called for, but I will test it out first to make sure it won't throw off the flavor or affect how long the jam takes to set.
-- Jam is best made in small batches so it takes less time to set. I usually double the recipes below with great results.
-- To pectin or not to pectin? Pectin is a fruit-derived jelling agent that helps set jams and jellies more quickly. I've made jam without, or have used slices of apple which contain natural pectin to help jell the jam. But if you are new to canning, or don't want to wait longer for your jam to set, pectin is the way to go. Make sure to adjust the amount of sugar accordingly, as powdered pectin is a bit bitter.
-- Sterilize jars and lids in a large pot of boiling water (or in the oven at 200 degrees) shortly before you fill them. The key here is to pour very hot jam into very hot jars. Test the seal on a Ball jar by pressing on the lid — if it springs back, it's not sealed and should be put in the fridge. For Weck jars, remove the metal clamps and gently try to lift the lid. If it comes off easily, the seal has failed.
-- Canned jam should be stored in a cool, dark place. It should be consumed within one year of canning. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]
This article is filed in: Food, Recipes, Arts & Living
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