The Year of Jam

Pear-Cardamom Butter

As I get older and the past starts to meld together into one amorphous blob, I find it helps to associate each year with the most important thing that happened. So when I think back to, say, 1999, and remember that that was the year I graduated from college, and remember that 2004 was the year I got married, not only are those dates placed in context again but I can place a whole host of less important events just by association. The funny thing is, though, that I can’t always predict what the most important event of a year will be until well after it’s over. For example, it should have been a foregone conclusion that 2008 would be remembered as the year we said goodbye to Scotland and moved to Seattle, but lately I’m beginning to have my doubts. Instead, there seems a pretty good chance that it will actually become known as the year I made jam out of everything that crossed my path.

It started in April with the mandarin jam. You remember that, right? I tasted a wonderful citrus jam in Calabria and despite only having the vaguest clue what I was doing, I simmered and skimmed and ladled until I had enough glistening orange jars on my shelf to make an Italian grandmother envious. Fast forward to late July when Manuel and I were down in Portland visiting my dad, and we decided to go berry-picking one morning. Whether it was the hot sun beating down on us or the temptation of all the heavily-laden vines responsible for clouding our judgment I can’t say, but we ended up at the weigh scale with thirty-two pounds of berries, far more than any of us had intended to pick. ‘Oh don’t worry,’ I told everyone, my nonchalance surprising even me, ‘I’ll just make jam out of whatever we can’t eat.’ And indeed, the next thing I knew I had spent eight hours in the kitchen and there were sixteen pints of jam cooling on the countertop: raspberry, boysenberry, raspberry-boysenberry, boysenberry-lime, and raspberry-nectarine. “Well, I don’t think we’ll be buying any jam for the next couple of years,” my stepmother laughed nervously.

Any sane person would have probably called it a day, but gripped by some kind of pioneer waste-not-want-not fever, I found myself unable to pass a fruit display without my mind starting to run rampant over the preserving possibilities. Before I knew it I had rounded up everyone again for a visit to the U-pick peach orchards, and after picking as many Red Havens as we could carry, once again I disappeared into the kitchen before anyone could stop me. The result, needless to say, was enough jars of peach jam to see multiple households through at least one long, peachless winter.

Next up, of course, were apples, and by now I was on a roll. The first crop of galas had scarcely hit the farmer’s market when I found myself hunched over the stove again, churning out four pints of smooth, spicy apple butter. I actually was intending to make twice as much, but I had to cut the fun short when I suffered a freak jamming accident, which happened when a walnut-sized missile of boiling apple butter met the back of my hand, leaving a large and extremely painful second-degree burn (mind you I was standing four feet away at the sink at the time!). “Does this mean you’re finally going to stop making jam?” Manuel asked balefully, his eyes traveling from the overflowing pantry to my red, swollen hand. Smiling as brightly as I could through the pain, I offered him a deal: if he didn’t like what I made next, I wouldn’t preserve another thing for the rest of the year.

Luckily, though, I’d saved the best for last. I can’t say for sure whether it was thanks to the accumulated expertise of half a year of intensive jam making or just a little dumb luck, but as soon as that burn healed I whipped out a pot of pear-cardamom butter that blows every other jam I’ve made out of the water. It is SO good, I haven’t yet brought myself to give a single jar away. Even Manuel agrees; he’s plowed through two and a half jars already, spreading it on cream cheese-covered bread topped with a pinch of maldon salt. I think its simplicity is its key; with nothing but pears, lemon juice and a touch of cardamom, each of the flavors has the chance to shine, and really, if you ever needed proof that pears and cardamom have the same kind of natural affinity as, say, apples and cinnamon or tomatoes and basil, here you have it. The stuff is absolutely incredible on toast and yogurt, and if you think you’ve ever met a better match for a piece of sharp white cheddar after dinner, think again. Wars have been fought over things less delicious.

Oh dear, I think I need to make another batch.

Pear-Cardamom Butter

I’ve called for Bartletts here, since that’s what I used, but I imagine you could use just about any juicy, flavorful variety of pear. Just wait until they’re fragrant and barely yielding to the touch to get the best flavor and texture. And if you have a way to grind your own cardamom now is the time to do so; pre-ground loses its fragrance so fast it’s not even funny. If all you have is pre-ground, you may need to up the amount; taste the butter when it’s almost done and see what you think, adding a bit more if the flavor needs a boost. p.s. For an intro to fruit butters, have a look at this post.

Yield: 5-6 (8oz/250ml) jars

6 pounds (2.75kg) ripe but still firm Bartlett pears (about 10-12 pears)
3 cups (600g) sugar
6 tablespoons (90ml) lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Heat the oven to 225F/105C and place your jars (not the lids) inside. Wash the lids with very hot water and let them dry on a clean towel.

Peel and core the pears, and cut them into large chunks. Put them in a large nonreactive bowl with the sugar and let macerate for at least 2 hours. They should expel a lot of juice.

Pour the pears and their liquid into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in the lemon juice and cardamom. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. With a slotted spoon, skim away any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for about 20-25 minutes, or until the pears are completely soft and starting to fall apart. Remove from the heat and with a hand blender (or in a normal blender with the lid clamped down tightly), blend the mixture (in batches, if necessary) until smooth.

Return the pot to the heat and allow the mixture to simmer gently, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the butter reduces to a thick sauce, about 2 hours. It will never really ‘set’ like normal jam; to judge its consistency chill a saucer in the freezer and drop a teaspoon of hot butter on it. When it’s as thick and spreadable as you like, take it off the heat.

Pour into your hot jars, seal tightly and process according to your preferred canning method. For tips, see here.

All Spiced Up

Years ago, I told you about my spice bowl. You remember, that big glass bowl I stored my collection of spices in for the better part of seven years; the bowl that I was too embarrassed to show to any of my friends, and which filled my kitchen with a thick cloud of nose-tickling spice dust whenever I opened the cupboard it lived in? Yeah, that one. The one that was – despite the inconvenience of never being able to find what I was looking for, and of poorly-closed bags of cinnamon and sesame seeds slowly leaking their contents into the bottom of the bowl, and of frequently opting to buy a new bag of something rather than go through the effort of seeing if I already had it – the best system for storing and organizing spices I could find.

The problem was – and still is, as far as I can tell – that people who design spice racks aren’t actually people who cook. If they were, they would certainly know that a measly sixteen or twenty bottles aren’t going to cut it. I mean, I have single recipes that call for that many spices! My bare-bones minimum, the number I couldn’t even think of living without, is probably somewhere around thirty, and once you start adding the esoteric ones – the berbere, sumac and kalonji seeds, for example – well, you can see the problem. I suppose I could have bought three or four spice racks and stacked them side by side, but not only did I not have the space to do that, I didn’t want to financially support those clueless spice rack designers by buying their products in the first place.

When we moved back to the US, though, I was determined to find a better solution. I was sick and tired of that stupid bowl, but I was afraid that if I didn’t find a dedicated storage device the problem would just migrate to a drawer or shelf somewhere. My first thought was one of those trendy magnetic racks – you know, a set of clear-top magnetized tins that stick to a sheet of metal on your wall, which in theory can expand to accommodate as many tins as you need – but after nearly fainting dead on the floor of a well-known Seattle kitchenware shop when I looked at the price of one, I decided I was going to have to keep looking.

The solution I finally stumbled upon took some lateral thinking, a lot of scouring the internet, and few days of crossing fingers that everything I found would actually fit together, but in the end it is the most utterly perfect spice rack imaginable. And did I mention it only cost a fraction of what a comparable magnetic rack would have? The rack itself is an old printer’s tray from ebay, you know, one of those that used to hold type blocks for the press. The trays come in all shapes and sizes, but the one I was lucky enough to find has fifty-five – count ’em, fifty! five! – uniform rectangular compartments, each of which is just about perfectly proportioned to hold one of these four-ounce square tins. The fit is not exact, of course, and the tins stick out nearly an inch beyond the edge of their compartments, but a little foam tape here and there has filled the major gaps and seems to do a good job of keeping everything snug and tight – snug enough, even, for me to hang the whole thing on the wall, an arm’s length away from the stove, where every night I’m rediscovering the joy of adding pinches and smidgens without needing a half-hour’s advance planning.

In fact, it’s working out so well that I’m tempted to open a spice-rack design business myself and start producing them to order. Hmm, do you think there’d be any takers?

p.s. Surely I’m not the only one to hit my head against the wall for so long about spice storage – what do you guys do?