…start getting creative. Especially if life is giving you all the plums.
One day’s harvest. And by harvest, I mean rescuing the fallen plums. I’ve done my fair share of squeezing the ones still on the branches and they’re just not ready until they’re rolling around on the sheet we put beneath the tree.
If I put “plum” into Foodgawker’s search box, it gives me 869 results. I think that maybe, just maybe, that might be enough recipes to use up the plums that are rapidly filling our yard. It’s the fruit-version of zucchini and, at this point, it’s eat or be eaten.
So, two weekends ago, I gathered a thousand baskets of plums and decided it was time to make jam. Or jelly. Or preserves. Honestly, I didn’t know what to call what we were making because I always get the three terms confused. One has seeds, one doesn’t, and the third.. has more letters in its name?
For quick reference, from this post on Cooking Light:
- Jam is made from crushed or chopped fruit cooked with sugar, and often pectin and lemon juice. Jam can be a puree of fruit or have a soft pulp, but it does not contain chunks of fruit.
- Jelly is a clear, bright product. It is generally made by cooking fruit juice and sugar with pectin as a jelling agent and lemon juice as an acid to maintain a consistent texture. Jelly is firm and will hold its shape (it “shakes”). Generally, jelly contains no pieces of fruit, although specialty jellies, like pepper jelly, may include pieces of jalapeno or other pepper.
- Preserves are fruit cooked with sugar to the point where large chunks of fruit or whole fruit, such as berries, are suspended in a syrup base. The texture of preserves is not smooth like jelly or jam.
So, I think, based on that list, I stumbled my way into making jam.
Jam making, like home birthing a baby, has two very important first steps: boil some water and get some towels. If you’re a mess like me, you’re going to need a lot of both.
Before we can do anything, we have to peel and pit the plums. This is not a clean activity. In fact, it’s akin to the hallway scene in The Shining. (No, not the one with the twin girls. The other one.) A short plea to the Internet Gods told me that a boiling pot of water would help with peeling the plums, much in the way it helps with tomatoes. Or even potatoes, I’m told.
Get the water really boiling, then ease these babies in (I say ease, because if you drop them you will get nineteenth-degree burns–trust me). Let them hang out in there for a minute or two. You’ll notice the skins start to bubble and split on the ones that are less ripe, and full-on peel back on the others. Both of these are okay, since all you’re looking for is a little help defrocking these monsters.
Side note: Boiling a large pot of water is the most time consuming activity on the planet. I may be one with the hyperbole today, or maybe I’ve just had to boil a lot of pots of water lately, but geez.
The good news is, during the one-to-two minutes you’re standing there, watching plum skins, you can get your ice bath ready. I used the sink instead of a bowl, but whatever floats your boat! Dump a tray or two of ice cubes in there, cover with cold water, and begin the second round of plum water-torture. If I were you, I’d start from the bottom of the pot because those guys have had a little more time than the ones on the top. Also? For some reason that neither my mother or I actually know, when she did this on her own she said she had four plums float, while the rest sank to the bottom. Applying egg-logic to the plums, she decided the floaters were poison and should be destroyed immediately. Fair enough. You may come to your own conclusion on that one.
I’m sorry, this picture of cold plums is grossing me out. It’s probably grossing you out, too. Let’s keep going.
So, from here you’ll have to Tom Sawyer your way into getting someone else to
paint your fence peel and pit your plums, unless you actually like sitting in red juice, up to your elbows, and developing prune fingers. Luckily for me, my mother adores both of those things, and though I put up an act of helping, I’m pretty sure I only got through three plums of my own. She’s just so fast! And so good at it! In fact, she may be the best plum-peeler I’ve ever seen! (Thanks for the idea, Tom.)
Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a girl get a chance to peel a billion plums every day?
Now that all the dirty work is done, it’s time to actually start cooking your plums. You’re going to need lemon juice, pectin, and an entire bag of sugar. I’m not even kidding. Now, I’m not going to give you specifics as a recipe, because it all depends on how many cups of fruit you have. The first time we did this, we had about five. The batch I did last night had eight cups and therefore called for a lot of sugar, pectin and lemon juice. Oh, and jars. You’re going to need jars.
Oh, and most importantly: START BOILING YOUR WATER NOW. Because, remember, it takes ages and you want to be sterilizing jars and having it ready to boil them again, once they’re filled.
I’m not sure how far Fresh & Easy spreads across the States, but I found jars, pectin and a little kit at my store all in one place. It cost me about $20 for the supplies, but the good news is the pectin is the only thing that will need replacing. You can use those jars forever, provided the folks you gift them to aren’t so dazzled by your jam skills they claim the jar as their own, so they may begin preserving fruit, too. Which would be okay, too, for maybe they fill that jar with their own treats and thus begin a lifetime of jar-passing. Think of all you could put in those jars!
Anyway. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a Fresh & Easy, this kit is available on Amazon, too. I thought it was a little silly, even as I was purchasing it, but as soon as I started using those tongs I was in love. Oh, and the magnetic lid grabber. And the funnel. I suppose the only thing I don’t care one way or another about is the air-bubble-spatula thing. That’s probably because I haven’t actually used it yet. Ahem.
Jars and pectin are available on Amazon, as well.
As you can see, I’m multitasking. Boiling jars to keep the creepy crawlies out and cooking my jam.
Basically, you’re going to follow the instructions on whatever container of pectin you get. Between the pectin wrapper and this lady, I managed to semi-successfully make jam (we’ll discuss the semi part in a moment, here).
1. Get a giant saucepan and pour your fruit in. Here you’re going to want to add the lemon juice and the pectin at whatever measurements you’re getting from the pectin label. If you’re not doing plum jam, but any other fruit, I saw there are specifics for those as well. For example, apples are full of pectin, they don’t need you to add more to them.
2. You’re going to cook it for a while. Now, I still don’t have quite a handle on how long I’m cooking anything. According to ChefInYou, I cooked it until the fruit got really mash-y and then added 1/2 a cup of water. That’s 1/2 a cup of water for about five cups of plums in her recipe. Once it’s started to get a weird film on it, and you skim that off, it’s time to add the sugar. And then you need to cook it forever. I wish I had a time for you, but it’s all very sensitive to just how much fruit you started with!
See, the first time I did this, I thought I was finished cooking everything, put it all in jars, sealed them, and stashed them in the ‘fridge. Later on, when I picked up a jar and tilted it to the side, the jam moved like water. That.. was not right.
This is an example of WRONG WRONG WRONG.
The good news is, even if you’ve done all of this (because it’s very hard to tell when you’re at the canning stage whether or not it’s 100% finished. It’s still molten and will move around in there until it sets up), you can still open your jars, pour them back into the saucepan, sterilize your jars again, and cook the jam longer. I know because I’ve now done it.. twice. Once on each batch, that is.
When I realized my jam was syrup, I turned to the Internet again and found this hint on a message board: Get a small plate, put it in the ‘fridge until it’s nice and cold and then test your jam on the plate’s surface. If it sets within a few seconds on the plate, you’re good to go. Also, this is a great opportunity to taste your jam without setting your tongue on fire. The second time I made jam I used this trick, and while the jam wasn’t nearly as runny as the first time, I think it could have used a teeeeensy little bit longer on the stove. I think this step will become easier with practice. And considering the state of the tree, this summer will be The Summer of Jam.
This is what it looks like the next morning, when you realize your jam is not actually jam yet. Sigh, time to pop all the lids and heat it again. Bright side? It’s sort of fun to pop those filled jars in the boiling water again. I feel like a prairie woman every time.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re assuming your jam won’t set. Of course it will set! You do everything perfectly, every time! (It’s a good mantra for yourself, even if it isn’t necessarily true.) When your jam is sticking to the plate and both looking and tasting delicious, it’s time to throw it in the jars. Now, since you’ve been boiling your jars this entire time, they’re mega-sterile. But, if something happened and you forgot to start that part, plop however many jars, lids and.. outside lid-part things.. into the boiling water for about ten minutes. Use your special tongs to fish them out! You can let them air dry on the counter until you’re ready, since they’ll stay warm a while. But, making sure your jars haven’t cooled, use your funnel and start spooning your hot jam into your jars. Having the jars warm when you put hot liquid in them prevents cracking.
Pop the lids on, twist the outer-lid on, and then.. for reasons I don’t understand, turn them upside down for about five minutes to “set.” Honestly, I don’t get this part, but the Internet told me to do it and who am I to not listen? At least by turning them upside-down, I know which ones haven’t taken their final bath and which ones are finished.
Now that all your jars are full, it’s time to immerse them back into that boiling water. You want about an inch of space from the jar to the top of the water. Leave them in there about eight minutes. Leaving the jam jars in there for too long results in runny, gross stuff. You don’t want that.
Here we are setting some and boiling some.
Take them out, set them on the counter, and stare at them in wonder as they self-seal and that little lid-button pushes up to prove that it’s all finished.
I did not take this photograph in a fun house.
Because I’ve been burned before, I leave my pot of water on the stove, covered, overnight just in case my jam has not magically turned into jam. This way, I can save a little water and start boiling right away if re-cooking is in my plans that day. It won’t be in yours, I promise. But.. if it is, it’s not the end of the world. All that hard work can be saved. I suppose that’s why I find jam making sort of soothing. It’s nice to know that, unlike a cake, if it doesn’t work out in the end I can just spend a little more time on it. Cakes burn, jam just patiently waits for me to get it right.
Thanks, jam. You really get me.