Cooking Class: Spread your strawberries

Use the last of this year’s crop to make lots of great jam.

By FAYE LEVY
April 6, 2011 08:15
Strawberry Jam

Strawberry jam_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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During my recent visit to the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, I sampled a variety of sparkling fruit preserves. As I tasted such enticing confitures as Colorado Mountain Jam’s Merlot and Syrah wine jellies and Crofter’s Organic pomegranate, Sicilian blood orange and yumberry-raspberry, my husband asked an exhibitor which flavor is his most popular. “Strawberry,” he said. At another booth, the answer was the same. This brought back memories of my first cooking attempts at making jams.

Strawberry was the first jam I ever made. We had bought beautiful, fragrant berries at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv in big bagfuls far too much for two people to eat in a reasonable time. And these ripe berries would obviously not wait for long.

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As soon as we got home, I carefully put the berries in a single layer on a tray in the refrigerator so they wouldn’t crush each other. Then I contemplated the best way to use the extra ones. I decided to make jam, not jelly, which needs to be strained; I thought it would be a shame to strain out those beautiful berries.

At the time I had no cooking experience and had never seen anyone make jam. Since I knew that English cooks have a good reputation for making jam, I consulted my British cookbooks. Marguerite Patten’s procedure seemed clear. You cook fruit with approximately an equal weight of sugar until the mixture thickens.

The only step that seemed tricky was recognizing the jelling point, at which the jam is thick enough; the easiest way was to check the temperature, but I didn’t have a candy thermometer. The directions were to spoon a little of the jam onto a plate and see if it sets.

I didn’t follow the recipe to a T. I didn’t have special jam jars. My fruit was very ripe, close to overripe, even though the instructions called for fruit that was just ripe. Yet making jam proved simpler than it sounded and it turned out fine.

I was thrilled. This gave me a sense of accomplishment similar to baking my first cake. I then made peach preserves and orange marmalade.

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Years later I learned an easier way to make jam from Chef Chambrette at cooking school in Paris. He made uncooked strawberry jam using only fruit and sugar, unlike American no-cook jam, which is thickened with powdered or liquid pectin.

The chef used the same proportions of fruit and sugar as for conventional jam. Instead of boiling them, he put the ingredients in a mixer and used the flat beater to mix them slowly for about 10 minutes. He said the sugar “cooks” the fruit and then it keeps longer, though you have to refrigerate it as soon as it’s ready. Some American formulas are called freezer jam because they are kept in the freezer.

No-cook jam is fresher tasting than cooked jam but not as thick and keeps only about a week. It is good spooned on toast, crepes or ice cream.

In her book Perfect Preserves, my friend Nora Carey described the role of sugar: “When a high concentration of cane sugar, or similar ingredient, is combined with fresh food, the natural moisture of the food is saturated by the sweetener and the development and growth of harmful microorganisms are inhibited... Sugar is essential not only for preserving the fruit but, in such cases as jams and jellies, setting the product.”

Carey noted that half to equal weights of sugar to fruit is sufficient, and that less sugar can be used for preserves that don’t need to set. She recommended processing these briefly in a boiling water bath to prevent spoilage.

In some cases brown sugar, molasses, honey or maple syrup can be substituted for white cane sugar, the sweetener most often used in preserves. Some cooks use artificial sweeteners. Since they do not help the jam to thicken, such recipes often have additional pectin or gelatin.

The sugar issue came up when I asked Gerhard Latka, president of Crofter’s Organic, why his company’s preserves are labeled fruit spreads instead of jams or jellies.

He explained that the US Food and Drug Administration requires a specific minimum proportion of sugar in products labeled jam, jelly or preserves. Because his company makes its preserves with less sugar, they label them fruit spreads, for which the sugar content is not regulated.

In the past, Latka added, the high sugar level was necessary because many households did not have refrigerators, and jam was kept in the cupboard, like honey, even after being opened. When manufacturers produce lower-sugar jams to get more fruit taste and fewer calories, they often add preservatives, but these are forbidden by the organic code. Pasteurizing enables his company’s organic preserves to keep for 15 months before they are opened. Once opened, they must be refrigerated and will keep for 45 to 60 days. Latka emphasized that only clean spoons and knives should be used in jars of preserves and it is best to keep the jars in the coldest spot of the refrigerator, not in the door, where the temperature is higher.

Most experts advise refrigerating all types of fruit preserves after they are opened.

Conventional jams and jellies with the standard amount of sugar keep about a year in the refrigerator, longer than spreads made with less sugar.

Creative cooks like to come up with new flavors of preserves. Carey makes thymeflavored fresh fig jam sweetened with the juice of red grapes. Israeli-born chef Oded Schwartz, author of Preserving, makes wild strawberry confiture from berries marinated with vodka and sugar. He also makes his mother’s recipe for povidle, the Eastern European plum jam often used to fill pastries and cakes, and notes that strictly speaking it’s not a jam but a soft “fruit cheese.” To prepare povidle, he cooks pitted purple plums with half their weight in sugar for 11⁄2 to 2 hours until dark and thick; for this easy-to-make spread, there is no need to test for the jelling point.

In addition to enhancing everyday foods – as a spread for buttered toast or scones or a topping for oatmeal, cottage cheese or yogurt – preserves are a classic dessert staple used as a filling for pancakes, pastries and cakes. Brushing heated jam, jelly or preserves on fruit tarts, pound cakes and fruit cakes creates a light, shiny glaze. I like to warm jams with liqueur to turn them into easy sauces for ice cream and cake.

Preserves also work well as alternatives to sugar in sweet-and-sour sauces, fruit purees and dressings for fruit salads, adding a fruity flavor as well as sweetness.

TRADITIONAL STRAWBERRY JAM
Makes about 700 gr.

This recipe is adapted from Perfect Cooking by Marguerite Patten. When making strawberry jam, there is no need to add water. Patten emphasized that slow simmering extracts the maximum amount of pectin from the fruit, which helps to thicken the jam.

She noted that strawberries are considered low in natural pectin and therefore need lemon juice to help the jam set.

✔ 450 gr. strawberries (about 4 cups)
✔ 400 gr. sugar (about 13⁄4 cups) (see Notes below)
✔ juice of 1 lemon Thoroughly clean jars for the jam.

Rinse the berries and remove caps. Cut in thick slices. Put in a heavy saucepan.

Mash the berries in the pan to extract the juice. Bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly until the fruit is soft, about 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the berries.

Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir over low heat until the sugar thoroughly dissolves. Bring to a boil. Boil rapidly, taking care that the jam does not burn or boil over. Stir occasionally, but not too often, as continual stirring lowers the temperature, and the quicker the jam sets the better the color and flavor.

To test for the setting point, remove pan from heat. If you have a sugar thermometer, the jam should reach 104ºC. To test on a plate, Patten writes to put a little of the jam on a saucer and cool it; it should wrinkle when pushed with a finger (or see Notes below). If the mixture is not set, continue cooking it a little longer.

Remove any scum from the top. Fill the jars to within 6 mm. of the top.

Label neatly and store in a cool, dry place. Refrigerate after opening.

Notes:

1. Nora Carey, author of Perfect Preserves, recommends this test for the jelling point if you don’t have a thermometer: Place a tablespoon of the preserve on a cold plate and chill it for a few minutes. The jelling point has been reached if the mixture is firm enough to remain divided when a finger is pushed through the center.

2. If you prefer to use less sugar, keep the jam in the refrigerator.

DOUBLE STRAWBERRY SAUCE
Makes 4 servings

Made of fresh strawberries sweetened with strawberry jam, this tasty, ruby-red sauce is perfect with simple, unfrosted cakes or with fruit salad, or spooned over yogurt or ice cream, preferably vanilla or strawberry. You can make the sauce with homemade or purchased preserves.

✔ 1⁄3 cup strawberry preserves, jam or jelly
✔ 11⁄3 cups quartered small strawberries or sliced large ones
✔ 1 Tbsp. fruit brandy or liqueur, fruit juice or water, or more if needed Heat jelly in a small saucepan over low heat just until melted, stirring occasionally.

Do not boil. Remove from heat and stir in berries. If there are pieces of fruit in the preserves, leave them in the sauce.

If serving sauce at room temperature, stir in 1 tablespoon brandy or juice. If serving sauce warm, reheat it, without boiling, just before serving, and then stir in the brandy or juice. If sauce is too thick, gradually stir in more of the liquid.

Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and of Classic Cooking Techniques.

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