apricot jam

Two weeks, ten pounds of sugar, three dozen jars, and who can say how many pounds of fruit later, and I think I have to ‘fess up:  I discovered “putting up,” and I am hooked.

This is funny, because I was the kid who never wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – straight up peanut butter for me.  This is also funny because I’ve always said I could never can anything because I was intimidated by day-long efforts for a few jars of product, scared about the prospect of exploding jars, and terrified by the chance that I might poison my friends and family if everything didn’t go exactly as it should.

But a recipe in the latest Canal House Cooking for tomato jam was too unusual not to try, and made the process of actually preserving the goods seem straight-forward and oh-so-doable.  Thanks to that confidence booster and a handy and cheap buy-this-with-that offer from Amazon.com, and I had everything I needed to make my first batch of jam.  It was a huge success (though I’m having a hard time convincing anyone other than myself that tomato jam is the perfect thing to have with a salty cheese or with some kind of porky thing.  Really, it is!) It was much easier than I thought, and the perky little “pop” that those mason jars make as they cool and seal is incredibly satisfying – kind of like a gold star for a food geek.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop.  The local greengrocer had gooseberries.  I thought of my long-ago lazy days in England and jam-slathered toast for breakfast, and bought three pounds of them.  Sour cherries, Husband’s favorite, but something that I cannot eat uncooked (though I don’t know why anyone would eat an uncooked sour cherry, really.  Yow.) And they had apricots, a bit too soft to eat but perfect to cook down into jam.

And so I hunted down a recipe, relying on the always-reliable advice and good taste regarding all things sweet of David Lebovitz to give me my second lesson in jam making.  And his recipe referenced the artisan Christine Ferber and her amazing techniques, and from those sources, I learned that it’s all about proportions – 3/4 cups of sugar for every cup of cooked-down fruit, more or less.  And I learned that if you’re willing to eat it up fast, or give some half-pints away to people who will, you don’t really have to heat-seal the jars.

But I am heat sealing, or “putting up” (a term that tickles me, really) because I want to keep eating this when the summer is gone, and because I’ll be needing a lot of it, as I’m mixing it into Greek Yogurt, spreading it on toast, and – again – pairing it with salty and tangy cheeses. I might even give a jar or two away.

(Scroll down past the recipe for a canning pep-talk/tips.)

Apricot Jam with Kirsch
(inspired by recipes and techniques of David Lebovitz, and of Christine Ferber)

3 pounds fresh apricots
5 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup water
6 cups (1kg) sugar
juice of one small lemon
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)

Halve and pit the apricots, cracking open the pits of a few and reserving the kernels to put in each jam jar, if you wish.*

Place the apricots, sugar and water in a very large stockpot.  Cook, stirring frequently, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. As the mixture thickens and reduces, stir frequently to make sure the jam isn’t burning on the bottom.  As the jam begins to look thicker and isn’t foaming as much, check the temperature – at 220-degrees F, your jam will be set.

Off the heat, stir in the lemon juice and kirsch (if using) and ladle the jam into hot, clean jars. Using good canning techniques, cover and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.  If you’re not “putting up,” then store the jam in the refrigerator for several months.

* It’s traditional among French jam makers to include an apricot kernel in each jar, as it lends a slight bitter almond flavor that complements the sweet and tangy fruit nicely.  That same bitter almond flavor, though, indicates the presence of cyanide compounds.  Accidental poisoning from food is the kind of rare that is hardly worth mentioning, but the USDA would tell you to not add the kernel, and I have to tell you that you do this at your own risk.

** If you don’t have a candy thermometer, use the freezer test: when you begin cooking, put a plate in the freezer.  When the jam looks thick and like melted jelly, take it off the heat and put a spoonful of jam on the chilled plate. Return to the freezer for a few minutes, then push it gently across the plate.  If it wrinkles, it’s set. If not, cook and re-test until it achieves this consistency.

A Canning Pep-Talk
As I said, I was really intimidated by canning.  But this isn’t hard-core, I-need-to-feed-my-family-from-this-summer’s-harvest canning.  This is recreational canning, and has a few built-in safety features, including sugar, acidity, and a product so yummy that you likely won’t be storing it long.

Because I’ve fallen for the process, let me share some basics that I’ve learned over the past few weeks.  I encourage you to check out the blog Food in Jars for a great series of Canning 101 information, as it’s been a great resource for me.  Similarly, Ball’s canning Bible is a wealth of information, although it is almost too much information for someone who just wants to make jam without added pectin.  And there’s always the USDA. But here are my tips:

1) Tools matter: get a jar lifter and a funnel, at the very least – you’ll save your hands and your jams.  The water bath canner I got has an incredibly useful rack that lifts and protects the jars, and the whole rig will double as a fabulous lobster pot.

2) The 3:4 sugar to fruit ratio I mentioned above is a good starting point.  You might be tempted to reduce the sugar, but that will affect the set of the jam unless you use commercial pectin or (advanced trick) make your own from unripe apples or gooseberries (hah!)

3) Speaking of set, there are several ways to check the “set,” but I have been relying on the good old candy thermometer – at 220-degrees F, most fruits will have set up if you’ve used the right amount of sugar and lemon juice.  Cherries are tougher, as they’re very low pectin.  This hasn’t bothered me much, as even loose jam is good in yogurt and over cakes and ice cream.

4) Most fruits are relatively acidic, and you’re boiling them to lava-like temperatures (I have burns to prove it.  Really, wear long sleeves!) and you’re adding so much sugar and lemon juice that you can seal most jellies and jams in a hot water bath for about ten minutes and have no worries about any baddies ruining your batch. So, you’re not likely to poison your friends and family.

5) As for the water bath, I have taken to putting the jars in the pot to sterilize, and when it comes to a boil, I start boiling the jam.  That way, the jars are hot and ready to be filled, and the water doesn’t take forever to re-boil once you load the filled jars back in.

6) I’m finding that letting the fruit sit in sugar for a good long while improves the texture of any pieces that end up in the jam.  So, if you’ve already prepped your fruit (storing it along with the sugar and lemon juice in the fridge overnight), you can realistically put up a batch of 6 or 8 jars in less than an hour the next day.

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