In May I told you about my friend Eleanor, a jam-and-baking goddess who promised that, come summertime, she would teach me to preserve my plum tree’s delectable fruit. She actually went one better, and brought me to “the source” – and so it was that early on a sunny Saturday morning I found myself in Watsonville, clutching a paper bag filled with twenty pounds of plums, standing in Aunt Ann’s bright and welcoming kitchen.
Eleanor and Ann had been up with the sun, and had already made a batch of triple berry conserve. It bubbled on the stove while jam jars sterilized in the dishwasher. Aunt Ann sized me up, gave me a warm smile, and started me off easy; I set the plums down carefully, washed some lids, and then dutifully looked up the jelling point of pectin-less plum preserves on my phone.
Ann and her husband Bob have made a beautiful home in the midst of a small orchard of apples and figs and plums; their house sits across the road from a field where cows and the occasional goat meander along. Their trees are filled with countless bird feeders, and I lost track of the number of orioles and hummers and band-tailed pigeons I saw. The barn at the back of their property is neat and organized, packed with tidy shelves of children’s books (Ann taught kindergarten, Bob high school), old but not broken furniture, games for their annual July Fourth party. On one wall is a freezer filled – FILLED – with blueberries Ann and Bob pick themselves, salmon their neighbor catches, and strawberries from a family of farmworkers Ann knows. We carried cartons of berries back to the house, and got to work.
At the risk of sounding old fashioned – there is something wonderful that happens when women work together in the kitchen. An easiness that seeps into the air. As plums were pitted and berries were sorted the conversation coursed and roamed, through easy stories of pets and children, around issues of community health and education, and eventually over the rougher terrain of family history and secrets.
We spent the entire day preserving, making plum-berry butter and jam and plain plum preserves – all straight out of Aunt Ann’s 1975 edition of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving. At the last minute we also made experimental preserve - Blueberry Plum Basil Jam from an online recipe! Aunt Ann went next door to get basil from her neighbor’s vast garden, Eleanor cut the plums, and I washed blueberries … when it all came together we had a rich, glossy, almost-black preserve that glistened seductively.
At the end of the day Aunt Ann’s kitchen was warm, and steamy, and filled with neat rows of sparkling glass jars … and it smelled like summer. Not my summers growing up, and not the summer days I spend now with my guys – it smelled like summer as I imagine it when I read my favorite novels. It smelled like jasmine and fireflies, good clean sweat, and fading light on dusty roads.
So she sat on the porch and watched the moon rise. Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.
~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Thank you, Ann and Eleanor, for an amazing day of learning from the best! I can’t wait to
eat all the preserves that we made give them away as hostess gifts, just like Ann suggested.
How to Preserve Like A Pro
I have made lots of jam, but I have never preserved it before. Keeping it in the fridge or freezer is perfect if you are making just a small batch and have no plans to give any away. But if you really want to preserve a season’s worth of fruit, you need to do it “right” – to make sure that it stays safe and delicious for months to come. Here is what I learned from Eleanor and Aunt Ann.
1. Use the right recipe
It is important to make sure that the ratio of ingredients is one that will jell correctly. Whether or not you are using sugar or pectin, how much fruit and in what ratios, how long to cook the fruit, how much head space to leave in the jar, and how long to leave the jars in their boiling water bath are all things best not left to chance. Aunt Ann has been doing this for longer than I have been alive and she still uses recipes; if you don’t have a copy of Ball’s canning guide, this website is a terrific resource. Aunt Ann says, if you have ‘extra’ fruit don’t double or triple recipes. Just look for a recipe that has a larger starting amount of fruit.
2. Use the right equipment
Canning equipment is not fancy and it need not be expensive, but it is nice to have a few particular things. In addition to a couple of large pots (the bigger the better) and several sizes of jars with lids and rings, the following are useful: an angled wooden spoon is nice for stirring; a lid boiler keeps the lids separated in a sauce pan on the stove; a lid lifter (stick with magnet) allows you to get the lids from boiling water and without touching them; a jar lifter allows you to get the jars in and out of boiling water easily; a plain white flat weave dishcloth is best for wiping the jar rims before you put lids on; a jar funnel is critical for getting your preserve neatly in the jar with the right amount of headspace. (Ball has a canning utensil set that pretty much gets you started, assuming you have pots, spoons and jars). A kitchen scale like the one many of us use for baking is also great for weighing fruit (make sure you can zero it out).
3. Use the right method
Having a set system makes it easy to follow the steps. Here is what we did, after selecting our recipes. 1. JARS: sterilize jars in lots of sizes in the dishwasher. Transfer an assortment of sizes to a pan of hot water in a 175 F oven. That way, you’ll have lots of options as you are making your preserves – we always ended up needing one or two of the tiniest size jars at the end – it was great to be able to can those last few tablespoons, knowing they would make darling little gifts or be taken on a camping trip. 2. FRUIT: weigh fruit. Wash/clean/sort it. Don’t use damaged or buggy fruit – but fruit that is very very ripe is okay. 3. SUGAR: Measure the sugar into a separate bowl, not right into the pan. You’ll be amazed how often you forget how many cups you have already measured. 4. COOKING: follow the recipe carefully as far as bringing the fruit to a boil, boiling/stirring time, time to macerate or time to sit. 5. PECTIN(less): there are recipes that use it and recipes that don’t. We made some of each – make sure if you are making pectin-less jam that you use a thermometer (it needs to get to 220F) and that you do a “plate test” – put a plate in your freezer. Once your jam reaches 220F, drop a bit on the plate, let it sit a moment, and see if it holds a line when you draw your finger through it. If it does, it will set up. 6. JARING: make sure you use a funnel that shows you how much headspace you are leaving in the jars. Wipe the rim of the jar carefully with your white cloth until the white cloth is clean. Place the lid on the jar with the lid lifter (keep the lids in simmering water on the stove). Once all the jars are filled and in your ‘canning’ pan, you can use the lid-pan-water to cover the pans if needed. 7. PRESERVING: the amount of time that the jars need to ‘cook’ will vary quite considerably depending on what you are making, but with fruit it should be at least fifteen minutes in boiling water. Refer to your recipe and follow it carefully. If it is a longer than fifteen minutes, check the pan regularly and add additional hot water as needed to keep the jars well covered.
4. Don’t move those jars!
You will be sorely tempted to take those pretty jars, arrange them for photos, caress them, and love them up. Leave them be! They have to sit for at least twenty four hours to make sure that they seal properly.
5. Stay positive
If a jar doesn’t seal, you are in luck! You can eat it right away, on a nice piece of toast, over ice cream, or straight out of the jar. Just be sure to use a spoon.
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Brian Ferry posted the most amazing set of summer photos this week. I have been a fan of his work for a while, but these are really something special. He inspired me to post a few moments from my own summer – not for the art of the photos, but for the preservation of memory, of time and place and light and love. For summer’s light is fleeting, we must slow down and watch it fade …