November 5, 2009

Jam! Well, Butter really, but kinda close....

Having totally missed the chance to make strawberry AND grape jam this year (what was I doing in July, August and September?? Oh yeah, that HOUSE thing) I realized that the whole growing season was about to pass me by without one single jar of jam in my cupboard which, if I'm honest, is really what propelled us up Mount Fuji on Tuesday for our apple picking adventure.

Apple Butter is the easiest jam you can make. It's also the one I've been making the longest. Before I was married or had real dishes, my dad and I used to make apple butter and blackberry jam every fall while we were both living in Eugene (we were also both in the same department in college,except he was a doctoral student who taught some of my friends and I, well, I was "oh your Clyde's Daughter. But since I got to store my junk in his office it all turned out OK) SO even though we aren't really big Apple Butter eaters, it has a special place in my heart. Plus Will's 98 year old grandpa eats the stuff by the spoonful. And he'd be pretty disappointed if I didn't have a jar or two I could send him every winter. So into the pot went the apples.

If you've never made jam, this is a great place to start. And if you REALLY want to make it easy on yourself, get a food mill. I hear what your thinking, what on earth would I do with a food mill when I was done? But it's a really useful little tool, great for things like mashed potatoes (so much better than mashed mashed potatoes!) and lasts forever. Mine was my grandmothers in fact, and it's still cranking along. If you don't have or want to get a fool mill though, start with quartered apples that have been peeled and cored and follow the steps as normal, mashing with a potato masher instead of running it through the mill.

So first, you want to wash and quarter your apples. If you have a food mill, you don't need to bother with coring or peeling and personally, I think cooking the apples with the peel on makes the whole thing taste much better. Fill up your biggest pot and add about a cup of apple cider, apple juice or in a pinch, water. I have a ginormous preserving pot (also inherited form my grandmother) that I cook all my jams in.

Put the lid on and cook away until the apples are falling apart to the touch. If you want, you can pop this in the fridge till the next day at this point. I like to at least let it cool down a bit so it's easier to handle.

Once it's cool enough, run the apples through the food mill. Here I've switched to a smaller pot because the apples have cooked way down. If I wanted to make a larger amount of butter I'd make a second pot of cooked apples at this point, but for us, this is a good amount. Plus, I like to use the big pot in a later step for something else. (which means that it's nice to have two big pots, but if you don't, don't worry, you'll just have to wash up between steps, you'll see what I mean later on)

Once you've run all the apples through the mill you can either a) press the skins through come cheese cloth to get all goop out, b) toss the skins or c) feed the skins to your greedy chickens who will practically knock you over to get to the apple goodness.

Now, put the pot of what is basically applesauce back on the stove and cook it on low until it has reduced down to a REALLY thick consistency. Once it's almost as thick as you want it, it's time to add sweeteners and spices. It doesn't really help for me to give you measurements since it totally depends on the sweetness of the apples, the sweetness you want the finished butter to be and the flavor you are going for. The reason apple butter is so easy is that you don't need pectin since apples are naturally full of pectin (pectin is what makes jelly gel) and since you don't need pectin, you also don't need a specific amount of sugar to get your jelly to set. I like a combination of honey and sugar (for this batch I used 1/4 cup honey and 1 cup of sugar, the apples were pretty tart!) and a mix of cinnamon and pumpkin pie spices (about 1 1/2 tsp of each for me, but as I said, you'll have to taste it to judge for yourself) Stir the sweeteners and spices in and let it cook for another half an hour or so.

On to the jars. The key to making safe jam is to have everything clean and hot. There are several methods for sterilizing jars. You can pop them into boiling water, you can run them through your dishwasher (don't use soap though!) or you can put them in the oven for 20 minutes or so. I've done all three and usually end up with the boiling method because I need a big pot of boiling water anyway. Sterilize the jars and rings and pour some hot but not boiling water into a bowl with the lids (to soften the seal)

While the jars are hot fill them almost to the top with jam, wipe down the rims and add the lids and rings, tightening firmly but not crazy tight. Put the jars into that pot of boiling water, making sure the lids are covered, and let it boil away for about 10 minutes.

Carefully take the jars out (see that tool, that is a useful thing to have!) and set them on a towel to cool off. You will know that the jars are sealed when they "pop" and the lids no longer depress. If they don't you can either put them back in the boiling water for a few more minutes or just plan on using those jars first and keep them in the fridge.

Now, a few hints about jam making that I've learned over the years. If you are going to make jam even once, it's worth it to get a wide mouthed funnel and jar tongs, it just makes things so much easier. If, at the end of filling your jars you don't have enough to fill the last one, just screw the lid on and keep that one in the fridge for immediate eating. When you go buy jars, think about what you are making the jam for. If it's for your family, get larger jars so you have less to store. If you are giving gifts, get smaller jars so you have more to give. You can always mix and match, other than the wide mouth variety, all jars have the same lids and rings. And don't forget to label the jars before you forget what's in them and open up one thinking it's going to be apple only to find out it's sauerkraut!

Finally, it sounds like a lot of steps but it really is easy. Don't be intimidated by the idea of jam making, get out there and try it!