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Archive for the ‘Preserves’ Category

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We had many opened-and-recorked bottles of red wine in the house, because Tom was preparing an article about Chianti Classico for publication in QRW. He’d received a lot of sample bottles, of which we’d tasted only a few ounces from each. Much as we both love Chianti, there’s a limit to how many consecutive dinners we want to drink it with. And though recorked, it wouldn’t keep the way never-opened bottles do.

tasting lineup 2

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And those are only the tip of the iceberg.

So, after I’d filled the vinegar making crock up to the brim, I began musing about ways to cook with some of that wine. In stews, sauces, marinades . . . . But there’s also a limit to how many dishes of that sort one wants to eat in close succession. Aha! What about some wine jelly? That would be an interesting experiment: I’d never made jelly before. I’m a jam person. But it looked easy enough, I had the equipment, and I had one envelope of pectin left from the strawberry, peach, and pineapple jams I’d made in the summer and fall.

So off I went, following a recipe from the Internet that used a whole bottle of wine to make four cups of jelly. I liked it because, instead of briefly boiling all the wine with sugar, as most recipes do, it called for taking some of the wine and separately boiling it way down, to intensify the flavor, before adding it to the standard wine-sugar mix. So I did that while the rest of the wine was simmering with sugar and the jelly jars were sterilizing in a big pot of water.

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The cooking didn’t take long, and I quickly ladled the mixture of sugared wine, pectin, lemon juice, a speck of butter (for anti-foaming), and the reduced wine into one-cup jelly jars

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and set them into my steam processor, so they’d be preserved for long-term storage in the pantry.

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After 10 minutes under the steam dome I took the jars out and left them to cool on a rack and sit undisturbed for 24 hours. The recipe assured me that, though the jelly would still be fluid at first, it would gel properly after that much time.

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Well, it didn’t.

The next day the syrup in each jar was just as thin as when it came off the stove. So my jelly failed. I don’t feel entitled to blame the recipe, though. I confess that the envelope of pectin I used had been in my freezer for months. When I’d put it in there I had no idea whether pectin could survive defrosting, but I thought I’d take a chance with it. Now I rather strongly suspect that it can’t. We live and learn.

Anyway, the wine wasn’t entirely wasted. After tasting the syrup, I poached pears in it.

poaching pears

For that, it was just fine.

 

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An especially nice, easy dessert came my way this week.

On her return from a trip to Alsace, my friend Michele brought me a jar of raspberry jam made by the famous artisanal pastry chef Christine Ferber. This was an extraordinary fruit essence – smooth, rich, bursting with pure berry flavor. It glorified our morning toast and English muffins. But the label carried a strict notice to consume the jam within a week of opening the jar, and we just don’t eat that many breakfast breads.

Ferber raspberry jamSo after the jam had spent a bit more time than that in the refrigerator I decided I’d better think of something significant to do with the rest of it. Of course: a jam tart! My initial thought was a French-style jalousie tart with puff pastry, à la Julia Child. But I didn’t have any puff pastry dough in the freezer and making a batch would be a lot of work for what would be a very small tart. When I expressed my reluctance to Beloved Spouse, he quickly replied, “Why don’t you use your simple jam tart recipe from our first cookbook?”

Golly, I’d forgotten all about that recipe! So I pulled out my copy of La Tavola Italiana again (after making the caponata recipe from it just last week) and there was the dish. The Italian name is crostata, and LTI’s version uses orange marmalade, but of course it works with any kind of jam or preserve. The dough is pasta frolla, a tender, sweet Italian type that makes a very tasty crust.

Pasta frolla is not as easy to work as typical American or French short-crust pastry: It likes to break apart the moment you try to lift it off the rolling surface. But you can learn how to handle it so that you control it, not it you. The first thing is to roll it out between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap. But then, when you’re ready to place it in the tart pan, it will try to glue itself onto the paper and refuse to come off at all.

So, after each major thinning of the dough with the rolling pin, I gently peel off the top paper, dust the dough with flour, set the paper back on, turn the whole thing over, and repeat the peeling and flouring before rolling the dough to the next stage of thinness. That usually relaxes it enough to let me transfer it intact to the pan.

pasta frolla

This day, I had only enough jam to fill a small, seven-inch tart, which left me plenty of extra dough to make a lattice top. Confession: I have neither the patience nor the skill to braid a lattice properly, weaving the strips over and under each other at the intersections. Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve made a mess of it. So I just lay on the strips however is convenient and brush them with egg glaze before baking the tart for about 40 minutes at 375°. It comes out looking good enough for me.

jam tart

The Christine Ferber jam made a splendid little tart, its intense raspberry flavor beautifully set off by the lightly sweet, crunchy crust. Beloved Spouse thinks it one of the tastiest jam tarts he’s ever had. So Michele, if you’re reading this, thank you again!

 

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Toward the end of every summer, Tom and I buy a 25-pound box of San Marzano plum tomatoes at our Greenmarket and spend most of a day processing them to store for use through the winter. We’re lucky enough to have a local grower of these, the most prized sauce tomatoes in Italy: Cherry Lane Farms from southern New Jersey.

tomato box 2

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This year, we made about half of the box’s tomatoes into a simple sauce that can either be used as is or elaborated in just about any way we like.

First we washed and halved them, then cooked them with a little bit of water, just long enough to soften.

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We put them through the coarse blade of a food mill and cooked that puree into a sauce. The sauce pot had been heated with olive oil seasoned with garlic cloves and peperoncini before the tomatoes went in.

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It took quite a while to thicken. We ended up with about a gallon of a light, fresh-tasting sauce. We filled seven pint jars with the finished sauce and processed them in our steam canner for 35 minutes. (The extra sauce we just stuck in the refrigerator for current use.)

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Then we turned to the other half of the tomatoes.

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These we simply peeled. I crammed as many as I could, whole, into six quart jars. The rest we slurried in the food processor, adding some of that puree to the jars, along with enough hot water to fill.

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Once closed, those jars were processed in the steam canner for 45 minutes. Then both batches of jars had to sit undisturbed on the kitchen counter for 24 hours.

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At the end of that time we tested the lids. All had sealed properly, so off to the pantry they went, joining the bread-and-butter pickles, corn relish, strawberry jam, and peach jam that we’d put up earlier this year. It gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction just to look at them all, and to anticipate how welcome they will be in the depths of the winter to come!

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My husband is a world-class sandwich maker. Like Dagwood Bumstead in the old Sunday funny papers, Tom assembles exquisitely complex, delicious sandwiches from things he finds in the refrigerator. He claims sandwich making is the most important branch of architecture.

Though Tom’s constructions aren’t quite the skyscrapers that Dagwood’s were, the demands of art require us to keep a lot of ingredients available for inspiration to work on. The foundations are most often either White Bread Plus, the wonderful sandwich bread I make from a recipe in Joy of Cooking, or a good baguette. The fillings can be fish, flesh, or fowl; any number of cheeses; lettuce, arugula, watercress, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños. And the crowning glory of the sandwich: the condiments.

That means mustards and mayonnaises, often homemade, Tom’s own doctored ketchup (Heinz, dosed with various zingy additions), Indian chutneys, Mexican hot sauces, Japanese pickled ginger, Greek pickled peppers, French cornichons; and – you knew I’d get around to the topic eventually! – my own bread and butter pickles, made from fresh Kirby cucumbers.

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We’ve never cared for store-bought bread-and-butter pickles. All the brands we tried were much too sweet for our taste. When I started making my own, we didn’t care for the results of the recipes that I tried, either – also too sweet. I didn’t want a really sour pickle – I could buy good ones of those – but I also didn’t want something that tasted as if it should be topping a dish of ice cream.

The recipe I finally evolved is more work than most, but it produces exactly the kind of pickles we like. I make them every summer, and when I’ve processed the jars in my steam canner, they sit happily in the pantry for use throughout the year.

I start a day in advance by blanching small, firm Kirby cukes in boiling water. I slice them on the 2-mm blade of the food processor, along with some onions and a little bell pepper. I salt the mixture, weight it, and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day I begin by sterilizing mason jars and lids in boiling water. I drain the cukes, rinse them, and thoroughly drain them again.

Then I prepare vinegar, sugar, and spices for the pickling mixture. For each pound of cukes I use ⅓ cup of dark brown sugar and ½ cup of my own red wine vinegar, plus mustard seed, celery seed, and ground allspice. (Many other recipes I’ve seen call for as much as twice to three times the amount of sugar. Ugh!) I bring the mixture to the boiling point, stir in the sliced cucumbers, and bring it just to the boil again.

I put one little dried hot pepper in the bottom of each jar, ladle in pickles and their liquid, close the jars and set them up in my steam canner, and process 15 minutes. When they come out of their steambath, each jar gives a satisfying little klonk, which means it has formed the vacuum necessary to preserve its contents without refrigeration.

I get a lot of pleasure out of making these pickles. The only really hard thing about this whole procedure is that we need to wait six weeks before they’re ready to eat. That’s particularly bad right now, because we finished the last jar of last year’s pickles a while back, and my culinary master architect is deeply distressed to be without this key ingredient for his extravagant sandwiches. We may have to cheat a little and open one jar early.

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Scones have come a long way from their origin as humble oatcakes baked at the hearth on an iron griddle. A clue to their long ancestry is the buttermilk and baking soda still used as their leavening – dating from the days before modern baking powder. Oatmeal scones are still the most traditional version of these small quick breads, but fancier (and much sweeter) varieties have proliferated on bakery shelves.

Tom and I don’t care for breakfast cereals, so my pantry doesn’t provide oatmeal for a spur-of-the-moment decision to make scones for breakfast. I do have a favorite scone recipe, however, and I’ve found a way to get them to the table even more quickly of a morning.

My recipe comes from Baking with Julia, a handsome volume based on Child’s Master Chef television series, with recipes from many well-known bakers. Its buttermilk scone recipe is attributed to Marion Cunningham. I’m being particular about the source because this exact recipe, word for word, can be found in quite a few places on the Internet, with no credit given to the book. I was astonished to see such blatant plagiarism! You can read an honest posting of the recipe here.

I vary the recipe from time to time, using honey for sugar, yogurt for buttermilk; kneading in some raisins, chopped apricots, or blueberries; and always cutting back on the melted butter and sugar topping, which is too much sweetness for me. This week for the first time I decided to try two new things: making the dough partially the day before, and shaping it into the recipe’s option for rolled scones with a jam filling, rather than plain triangular ones. I had some excellent Maine wild blueberry jam that I thought would be very nice in them.

But I’d never seen a rolled scone before, and I wasn’t sure I was reading the shaping instructions correctly. So, also the day before, I’d googled “rolled scones” for images (which is how I happened upon the plagiarizations of the recipe). What I saw were round buns, each with a pinwheel pattern made by several spirals of jam within the dough. OK, we can try that.

The advance steps went fine. I put together the dry ingredients, cut in the cold butter, and put the whole bowl in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, I stirred in the buttermilk and kneaded the dough briefly. Then it was time for the rolling.

Here’s where things went iffy. The recipe said to roll each half of the dough into a strip 12 inches long and ½ inch thick. Parenthetically, it concedes that the strip won’t be very wide. I’ll say it wasn’t – mine barely reached 4 inches. Then it said to spread on 2 tablespoons of jam, leaving a narrow border bare on one of the long sides, roll it up like a jelly roll, and slice it. Well, since my jam was more like a preserve, containing many tiny whole wild blueberries, it couldn’t be just painted smoothly onto the dough. It made a lumpy line of filling.

It was a struggle to wrap the dough around those berries far enough to enclose the filling at all, with no hope of rolling it up far enough to make a spiral pattern. It sliced more cleanly than I’d feared it might, but the slices came out lopsidedly circular, with a single puddle of jam in the center.

I suspected those jam puddles would ooze out all over the pan the moment it hit the oven. But they didn’t. The scones weren’t exactly neat looking when baked, and they were quite small: Each half of the recipe, which would have made 6 triangular scones, made 12 rolled ones. But they tasted perfectly good. No problem: just eat two instead of one. Two are already gone from this next picture – Tom and I couldn’t wait to sample them.

I must admit that, interesting as the rolled scones were for an experiment, the effect on the palate was really no different than if you’d just spread jam on a baked plain scone, which are a lot quicker and easier to make. I know this because, fearing that I might mess up the rolled ones, I used only one half of the recipe for them. Here are the six plain scones I made from the other half, modestly awaiting their own acquaintance with the wild blueberry jam.

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If you live in Manhattan, you have to be a little crazy to go to the trouble of making your own strawberry jam. I do it every year.

It’s not about cost – though jars of premium jam can cost anywhere from $5 to $15 in stores hereabouts. It just pleases me to make my own. It may be pure subjectivity, but I think my homemade jam tastes better – fresher, more like the original fruit – than any of the commercial products. Plus, I like occasionally to imagine myself a frugal, omni-talented pioneer housewife. So early every June, I start my atavistic jam project by buying a batch of the best-looking, best-smelling berries my Greenmarket is offering. Here’s where I bought two quarts this year:

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For making jam, the trouble with strawberries is that they’re very low in natural pectin, which is what makes fruit jell. If you don’t use commercial pectin, you wind up either with something the consistency of fruit sauce or – if you keep resolutely cooking it down – with a leathery gumminess. If you do use commercial pectin, the recipes call for more than 3 parts of sugar to 2 parts of fruit, which produces an intensely sweet jam that barely tastes of strawberry.

I solved that problem for myself four years ago, by donning my pioneer-woman-meets-mad-scientist identity and spending most of a day doing a variety of strawberry jam experiments. I discovered that you can make jam of a good consistency using only equal parts of sugar and fruit, and only one-third of the amount of pectin the recipes call for. I love the bright, fresh fruit flavor that gives me.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I may enjoy it, jam making is a lot of work. So, heads up: The rest of this post is going to be a sort of illustrated “How I spent my summer vacation making strawberry jam.”  If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to click away now.

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First I put one-cup Ball jars, with their metal lids and rims, into a big pot of water and sterilized them by boiling for 10 minutes.

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While that was happening, I washed and hulled the berries, examining each one and cutting out any spoiled bits. Then I crushed them.

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I put them in a large, heavy pot, stirred in the sugar, and brought it to a boil. Kept boiling briskly and stirring steadily until the juice registered 221 degrees F. on a candy thermometer. This is very tedious: The mixture gets up to 200 degrees quite rapidly; then it takes much longer to rise to 220; and that last little degree can take up to 15 more hot, steamy minutes. I don’t know why.

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When it finally got there this time, I stirred in the pectin (4 tablespoons for 4 cups of berries and 4 cups of sugar), boiled for one more minute, turned off the heat and, as soon as the bubbling stopped, skimmed off all the pale pink froth.

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I took my jars out of the pot of water they’d been sitting in, briefly drained them, filled them with the molten jam, and set the lids on, not too tight. The jars are hot, the lids are hot, the jam is hot. Easy to burn your fingers. I get Tom (poor sap) to help me with this step.

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Now comes the clever part. I don’t want to have my freezer filled with jam jars all year long, so they have to be treated so they’ll keep well at room temperature. This used to mean totally submerging the newly filled jars in boiling water, processing them for some time (hoping they don’t explode), and lifting them out to drain (hoping not to scald yourself or flood the kitchen). I was never brave enough to try this.

Then, one year, Tom bought me a steam processor (not entirely a sap: he loves strawberry jam). It changed my life, making preserving ever so much easier. You put a few cups (not gallons) of water in the broad base of the pan, bring it to a boil, set the filled jars on its rack.

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Set the dome on top of the base, keep the heat high, and as soon as an 8-inch column of steam comes out of the vent holes on the side of the dome, count 15 minutes. You can just barely see the steam coming out, on the right of this photo:

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As you take out the jars and they cool, you can hear each lid going “clonk” as it creates the vacuum that seals the jam against decay.

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After 24 hours you tighten the lids, write the date on them, and – feeling like an intrepid and totally fulfilled pioneer woman putting up essential food for her family – tuck them in the pantry for a year’s worth of delicious eating.

And in July or August, you do it all again with peaches, except that they have pectin of their own and don’t need the commercial stuff. Then you also make some pineapple jam with the pectin you didn’t use for the strawberry jam. It’s crazy, maybe – but there’s something intensely satisfying about a pantry shelf lined with your own homemade goodies. (If I’ve really gone overboard, jam makes nice little hostess gifts.)

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This week I felt like going back to my oldest cookbooks to see what they could still teach me.  My very oldest was my mother’s – America’s Cook Book, published in 1937. She received it as a wedding present in 1938 from my father’s grandparents. After about 50 years of hard use, it was in poor condition, so I had it rebound for her in plain buckram. The picture below is of the book’s flyleaf, with an inscription in verse in my great-grandfather’s hand.

Compiled by the Home Institute of the old New York Herald Tribune, the book is an encyclopedic cultural artifact. Its 1,000 pages cover every category of foodstuffs, plus sections on meal planning, cookery methods, kitchen equipment, menu making, table setting, herb gardens, buying foods, calorie and vitamin information, wine and spirits – even a glossary of foreign culinary terms (mostly French).

Paging through it this time, I was struck by a recipe for Pecan Orange Muffins. I make muffins fairly often, and I pretty much know how to do it. The usual procedure is to sift together the dry ingredients, combine the wet ones, dump the former into the latter, and mix quickly until the batter is not quite smooth. If you overmix, bad things happen to the texture of the baked muffins. But this recipe’s technique flew in the face of all that.

It had me creaming sugar and shortening, beating in egg yolks, adding the dry ingredients alternately with milk and orange juice, stirring in chopped nuts, and finally folding in stiffly beaten egg whites. That sounds more like making a cake, and indeed my muffins came out of the oven looking like cupcakes – risen well enough, but pretty flat on top. They were also quite small: Each one weighed less than two ounces, whereas the ones that stores sell nowadays are giants by comparison. But when I cut into one of mine, it had exactly the right muffiny texture and a lovely flavor.

However, I must say the preparation was highly labor-intensive. It took me three measuring cups, four small bowls, two large bowls, a hand mixmaster, an orange juicer, an orange-peel grater, and any number of stirring and measuring spoons. Filled half the dishwasher with it all, by the time I was through. I imagine that the 1937 lady of the house was supposed to have a kitchen slavey, who’d be out of bed by 5 a.m. in order to have fresh hot muffins on the breakfast table when the family came downstairs, and then would wash dishes while the family ate. So, good as these muffins are, I don’t think I’ll be adding the recipe to my repertoire.

Continuing my old-cookbooks resolve, I next pulled down Joy of Cooking – the oldest of my own cookbooks. I acquired my 1964 edition when I went off to graduate school. I used it nearly to death in the ensuing years and had to have it rebound too. The bookbinder saved a bit of the original cover for me, as the photo below shows.

I still use Joy for many things, considering Irma Rombauer a sort of kindly culinary godmother. This day I was thinking about jam. I wanted something interesting to put on toast in the morning (after the muffins were gone). We’d used up all the strawberry and pineapple jams I’d made last June. In my neighborhood, no stores carry pectin in the wintertime, so that limited the fruits I could work with. Aha: Apple Butter! Apples have plenty of their own pectin and are always available.

I’d never made this old-fashioned substance, but it turns out to be easy and quick. Cook cut-up apples (I chose Fujis) in water and vinegar until soft. Strain them and mix in sugar, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Cook again, stirring, “until the mixture sheets from a spoon.” It does, too – very handily!

On first tasting my apple butter, I wondered if I’d used a bit too much clove, but I’ll wait and see if the flavor mellows over time. Oh, by the way, the best toast in the world can be made from Irma’s recipe for White Bread Plus, the nec plus ultra of sandwich breads.

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