About a week ago, I sat at my computer reviewing my ever-growing expenses and felt my left eye twitch. The twitching, I’m told, is caused by stress, and since a complete overhaul of one’s budget isn’t exactly the most peaceful exercise, I turned to the interwebs for distraction.
I ended up here. Melissa Clark, high priestess of The New York Times Dining section and fellow Brooklynite, was making and canning jam. And she was making it look so easy! I make fruit sauces and refrigerator jams all the time, but true canning would allow me to preserve the best tastes of summer to enjoy all year long. Until I saw Clark’s demonstration I had been more than a little intimidated by the process: boiling and sterilizing jars, ensuring each jar has enough “headspace” and is sealed airtight, creating enough space in the kitchen to carry out the process from start to finish—it’s a lot of stuff. But Clark inspired me.
Hello, Weekend Project.
I bookmarked the video and made a trip to Whisk, a cooking supply store here in New York, for canning supplies. (They also have a well-stocked online store.) Even though you don’t need any special equipment for canning, a few tools make the process go much easier: a jar lifter, a wide-mouth funnel, a lid wand, and a set of tongs to lift the rings.
I’m getting ahead of myself. For the amateur home canner, the best jars to start with are 4-ounce or 8-ounce glass canning jars with metal lids and rings, like these.
As for jam ingredients, I lucked out at the farmers market—it was the last week for peaches, so I stocked my canvas bag full of them. I couldn’t find any of the lemon verbena Clark’s recipe called for, so I decided on some flavorful substitutions: the addition of almond extract (just a few drops) and Wild Turkey American Honey (a couple of generous tablespoons).
I returned home and re-read Clark’s peach jam recipe another ten times, and then watched the jamming & canning video again. And again. Once I was sure I had all the steps down, it was time to prepare the fruit for Phase I: Maceration. This step doesn’t require anything fancy—I combined the peaches, sugar, lemon zest and juice, almond extract and liquor together in a pot, bought it to a simmer, and then transferred the mixture to a big bowl.
It was like looking at sunset: pinks and yellows and oranges swirling together, shining brilliantly. Sigh. I covered the bowl, transferred it to the fridge and then headed to bed, a little too impressed with myself and very excited for the morning to come.
Sunday! The weather was perfect for a brisk walk to the waterfront, so I took one and returned home energized and readyfor Operation: Jam! All my equipment was assembled, jars ready for in-pot sterilization, and I had watched Clark’s video for what must have been the twentieth time in twenty-four hours. I separated the fruit solids from the syrup that developed overnight, and poured the rose-hued syrup into my 12-inch skillet and turned on the heat.
The fruit rested peacefully in a colander on the counter, slowly dripping its clinging juice into the bowl below. Bubbles appeared in the syrup as I stirred along. I was impatiently looking for foam, the kind of foam I remember from chemistry experiments gone wild in high school, the high billowing foam that Clark’s syrup produced in the video.
After a few more minutes, I still didn’t see any foam, so I raised the heat and turned my attention to the large stockpot full of boiling water on the adjacent burner. Time to sterilize the jars. I carefully took hold of each jar with the lifter and lowered them into the pot. But they wouldn’t stand up straight like they do in the video (reason: too much liquid in the pot). Drops of boiling water splattered and stung my hands as I quickly and awkwardly maneuvered the jars.
And then I smelled it: burning caramel. I looked over and saw the syrup foaming and blackening rapidly. I left the jars to tumble in the water, covered the pot and went back to the skillet to save my syrup. I shut the heat and grabbed a spoon to stir, but it was too late. It was goop. Burned and quickly hardening goop.
Sometimes you have a moment where everything. Just. Stops. You realize you were moving too fast, maybe taking too much on. Maybe you overestimated how good you really are. Or the expectations you had were so high that the level of disappointment you’re now experiencing will destroy your day.
But I wasn’t ready to give up. I mean, it was tempting. But the kitchen was a mess, and I had a project to finish. And it wasn’t going to be finished until there was jam canned in shelf-stable jars. Besides, if I stopped now I’d have go back to the depressing prospect of my unbalanced budget.
I took a breath. Even though the syrup was ruined, I still had the macerated peaches – soft and full of flavor. I had another two pounds of peaches for snacking in the fruit basket & a package of over-ripened strawberries in the fridge. It was time to get back to business and make this work.
Peach & Strawberry Jam
Adapted from Melissa Clark
The Original Recipe
- 3 pounds peaches (or combination of peaches and nectarines),
- peeled and sliced
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- 1.5 tbsp American Honey Liquor
- 4 drops almond extract
Combine all ingredients in a stockpot or large skillet. Bring to a simmer and stir as sugar dissolves. Remote from heat. Transfer mixture to a bowl and let sit overnight. In the morning, spoon the solids into a colander set over a large bowl, set that aside, and pour all the remaining syrup into a pot. Put the syrup into a wide skillet as Clark instructs, set it over medium high heat and look for the foam to form.
I’m going to pause here since this is where I screwed up—Be patient: I turned my attention away for a couple minutes and… Well, you know the rest. So! Once my syrup was burned and therefore useless, here’s what I ultimately did to make that beautiful jam you see in the picture:
The Recovery Plan:
- 1 pound strawberries
- 2 pounds peaches (or combination of peaches and nectarines)
- 2 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp. American Honey Liquor
- 1/4 tsp. almond extract
- Macerated peaches from previous recipe
Wash, hull and quarter the strawberries. Peel and cut the peaches into 1” chunks. Combine all ingredients through the almond extract in a stockpot (you heard me – forget the skillet). Set the pot over medium high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil 2 minutes, stirring, until sugar dissolves, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
Simmer 25- 30 minutes, then remove from heat. The fruit will be soft but still intact, and the mixture will be a little thicker but still viscous. Using a large spoon, transfer the fruit solids to a colander set over a large bowl. Return the syrup to a boil, and allow to boil for 3 to 5 minutes until you see foam begin to form around the edges. Reduce heat so that syrup is at a full simmer. Cook for another 15 – 20 minutes, and continue to stir mixture as it thickens. Be sure to reduce heat if foam rises too high or mixture starts boiling again.
Once your syrup passes the “wrinkle test” in Clark’s video, or registers 220 degrees on a candy thermometer, return the fruit to the pot, stir into the syrup and remove from heat. Cover the pot.
Now, you can focus on the canning. Go forth, home cook, and make that jam.