Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rhubarb Jam

I cook and bake all the time, and so I eat what I make without thinking too much about the fact that I made it. I am very good at giving credit where it's due - so if I like what I made I assume it's great because my ingredients were great and the recipe was great.

But there's something about preserving that gets me all fired up and proud. In the middle of winter, when I look in my pantry and see all the jars of jam that I made I feel...capable. Which is a funny thing, I realize, because I know I can (probably) buy jam for less than it costs me to make it, and I can (probably) buy jam that's better than mine. But I don't want to know.

The Italian prune plum tree in our backyard has had a couple of phenomenal years since we moved in, and a couple that were disasters. But as long as I get enough plums from it to make five different desserts on five different days, and one good-sized batch of jam, I'm happy. When the fresh fruit is but a memory, and I reach into a jar for a dollop of jam, I remember the day I bought or picked the fruit, and I remember (vividly) what the weather was like the day I made the jam. Seattle summer days can be magnificent, and I'd rather spend those outside, preferably with one foot in a lake. If my timing is such that I am jamming, I feel more like a pioneer than a multi-tasking woman of the 21st century. We're not air-conditioned, and I spend the jamming hours feeling sorry for myself, sweat pouring down my face. Plum jam days are often like that.

Strawberry jam days are a toss up. Sometimes they're warm and wonderful, but they can be cold and rainy, and then I can't think of anything I'd rather do than make two or three or four different batches of strawberry jam at the same time. I get in the zone, and I feel like I can save the world, one jar of jam at a time.

Rhubarb jam days are never physically uncomfortable - it's more a matter of motivation. With time, most people's memories of time-consuming tasks fade in such a way that they underestimate the time and difficulty involved. I'm the opposite way. I think about my preserving pot tucked away on a shelf in our garage, and the jam pots on various shelves in various places including the utility room and the laundry, and whether I still have a case or two of jars and lids or if I'm just short of lids (again), and I think that maybe this year I'll just buy my jam. And then one Spring day I'll go to the market and see piles and piles of rhubarb in varying shades of green, pink, and red, and next thing you know I've no choice in the matter because no one could eat as much rhubarb as I've brought home. That first jamming session of the season always surprises me. I set aside a day, and a couple of hours later I have a neat row of jars cooling for the pantry.

A couple of years ago I bought Christine Ferber's book on making jams and preserves, and now I always use her technique of putting all the jam ingredients together and leaving them overnight in the fridge. The following day, she strains the fruit, and first cooks the syrup to jam, then adds the fruit and cooks it again. One summer I made all my jams from her book, and while they were delicious, I missed the sloppy, compote-style jams where the fruit is so soft it can be squashed onto your toast. Now I often use her recipes, but I cook everything together. The last few weeks I've made rhubarb jam from Amy Pennington's recipe in her lovely book, Urban Pantry. The first time I did it exactly her way; the next few times I melded her recipe with Christine Ferber's. I put all the ingredients together, put them in the fridge, and then lost any and all motivation to make jam. When I found it again, 3 days later, the rhubarb was falling apart, and the bowl was full of fabulous rhubarb-y syrup. The resulting jam is creamy, smooth, and tart. I slather it generously on Challah toast or my South African Seed Bread. I made a batch with rose, and another with vanilla, and the only thing that will cure me at this point will be the appearance of Billy Allstot's great big buckets of use-them-today strawberries.

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