Sooo.. It may be time to address the elephant in the room. The one covered in jam. One of my weaknesses is jam. (Correction: my only weakness? Alas, no, cake!) Any friendly, regular readers of these blog posts may recall the occasional tribute to jam – deliberating over it, buying it, eating it, fawning over it… oh boy, do I love jam. I like to mix things up, never the same flavour twice in a row because I like to expand my palate trying as many sugary fruity jellies as possible. With such a range available in supermarkets and quaint gift shops, the prospect of making my own jam was the cooking equivalent of climbing a mountain – pointless and far too challenging. Why leave the safety of the flat to be perfectly honest. And then I started my new job.
This cafe in Manchester is a dream job for creative chefs. Every ingredient is locally sourced, waste fruit and vegetables are pickled or fermented, and everything (except the fancy sausages) is made from scratch. No microwaves here, folks! The chutney, bread (made by the bakery team just down the road), kimchi and ketchup are homemade, proving how simple cooking can be and how downright tasty the results are. Soon enough, I was instructed to make jam. We keep tubs of jam in the kitchen for service but also sell it by the jar in the most mouth-watering flavours – fig and ginger, peach and rosemary, rhubarb and rose – enough to turn any jam-lover’s head… ahem… Now, I had never made jam before (see above, the unnecessary mountain) so somewhat anxious I stood over the pan of bubbling syrupy peaches, stirring feverishly and thinking about pectin. Not the romantic, merry jam-making image in most people’s minds. Yet, by the time I had researched a little, practiced with various other fruits and thought about pectin again, I realised how utterly simple it can be. Therefore, as it is mid-summer, the berries are ripening and the jam pan is calling, I constructed a list of tips should anyone wish to climb that mountain:
- Traditionally, jam is made with equal parts fruit and sugar. Some find this produces a quite sweet jam so the quantities are interchangeable, however too little sugar will not set or preserve the fruit. Best idea is to experiment with small batches to find your ideal consistency and flavour.
- Thinking about pectin, unfortunately, is essential! Pectin is the carbohydrate setting agent in many fruits, usually slightly unripe-to-just ripe fruits. When boiled at a high temperature it will set the sugar-coated fruit into a jelly. Too much pectin will create a thick fruit leather which you could bounce a ball off, and too little will result in a sloppy compote. Never use over-ripe fruit for jam as the pectin won’t gel.
- Some fruit have more pectin than others – apples, gooseberries, plums and citrus fruit all have high quantities whereas the lowly peach, strawberry and cherry have very little. There are a few tricks to ensure your strawberry or peach jam sets, however:
- Chuck a halved apple, core and all, into the cooking fruit.
- Add a handful of peach or apricot kernels to your stone fruit jam (don’t go crazy though, apricot kernels can cause cyanide poisoning…).
- Zest and juice a couple of lemons.
- Or simply buy preserving sugar with added pectin.
- Sterilise your jam jars. There are a few methods but I tend to put my jars and lids in a pan of cold water, slowly bring it to the boil to simmer for 10 minutes then remove to steam dry. Once you’ve poured in your hot jam screw on the lid and rest upside down for a few minutes to seal the vacuum.
- You don’t need any fancy equipment! Hurrah! Just grab a pan and a couple of jars. A jam thermometer looks good but isn’t necessary. You can tell if the jam is ready once the bubbles are thick and violent like lava. Always have a saucer in the freezer at the ready. Dollop a blob of jam on the saucer, chill for a few minutes then gently poke with your finger – if a skin has formed it will wrinkle slightly. If you run your finger through it and the two sides don’t flow together it is cooked.
Learning to make jam is just as much a curse as it is a blessing. Now I have more jars of jam than I can feasibly sample on my mere two pieces of toast in the morning, and I’m already planning the next fruity flavour combination – those punnets of raspberries will somehow sneak their way into my shopping basket before I know it.
Your jam-making virginity ends today: here is a recipe to try, classic strawberry tarted up with some spangly star anise. Soon we all may have a jam weakness, and what could be better than some made from scratch.
Strawberry and star anise jam
Makes 2 small jars
Feel free to double or quadruple this recipe.
860g strawberries – roughly three punnets of strawberries, hulled
500g caster sugar
2 star anise
Zest and juice of a lemon
- Slice the tops off the strawberries. Tip them all into a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cover with cold water and soak for 10 seconds before draining.
- Sprinkle over the sugar, add the star anise and lemon zest and juice. Toss it all together to coat then leave to sit for a few hours. The sugar has a hardening effect and will draw out the strawberries’ watery juices.
- Meanwhile sterilise your jam jars and lids as detailed above. Place a saucer in the freezer.
- Set the pan over medium heat to dissolve the sugar. Once no grains of sugar remain increase the heat to high and bring to the boil. This jam is very quick so don’t wander off or start cooking dinner at the same time. Strawberry jam produces a lot of pale pink foam at the beginning so skim this away with a spoon to keep the finished product clear and sparkly.
- Using a spatula stir the jam frequently as the fruit can easily catch and burn. Keep stirring and scraping the base of the pan but don’t reduce the heat otherwise it will darken. The bubbles will gradually become volcanic and spit. Take out the saucer and spoon on a blob of jam. Chill for a couple of minutes then give it a poke to see if it wrinkles. If so turn off the heat and leave it to settle for five minutes so the fruit evenly disperses throughout the jam. If you want, remove the star anise.
- Spoon the jam into the sterilised jars and tightly seal with a lid. Turn upside down for a few minutes to seal the vacuum. Leave to cool.