We had high expectations for our Shuksan strawberries from the start.
Tastemaker Jon Rowley and six-degrees-of-Traca Savadago had led our group to the gleaming, paint-red berries as the representative of a certain kind of umami. For Jon, these berries fit a particular sense of the word. They were a food that “has become all that can be, when it is at its peak of quality and fulfillment.” We sliced them with whipped cream for dessert that night, we made two batches of strawberry ice cream, we ate them out of hand…
but Jon had warned us that the berries wouldn’t last past nightfall. The rest were destined for jam.
First I turned to Marisa McClellan’s post on Strawberry-Vanilla jam. I’d had a song in my head ever since reading what she wrote about her day of berry-jamming, the subversively merry Michelle Shocked tune that goes “We were making jam. Strawberry jam! Well, if you want the best jam, you’ve got to make your own.”
I’d planned on making Marisa’s exact recipe, but decided at the last minute I was more comfortable measuring in weights rather than cups. I wound up with Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton’s book Preserved, which called for 6 3/4 pounds of strawberries, 5 1/2 pounds of white sugar, and the juice of two lemons (not quite as precise as we wanted when it came to the lemon, but there you have it.) We chopped the larger berries into chunks, left the large ones whole, and gently boiled them for an hour or so, as the recipe told us, until the volume had reduced by 10 percent.
Then we added the sugar and prepared to boil the mixture until the temperature rose to 220 degrees F, where it was to set. And we waited. And we waited. The hour crept toward midnight, the jam bubbled away, and the thermometer hovered stubbornly around 215 degrees.
I testily started asking around on Twitter, a surprisingly instant font of advice. Our problem, it seemed pretty clear, was that for all our supposed precision, we hadn’t realized it would be a problem to double the jam recipe. If we had thought to research it before we started, we would have learned you’re not supposed to do that.
But we boiled on regardless, as it didn’t seem like a safety issue, and we finally hit the magic temperature. We tested the jam to see if it had set — we found a clear explanation of how to gauge that in Molly Wizenberg’s berry jam recipe here — and finally proceeded with our sterilized jars and boiling water bath. (The book doesn’t call for water bath processing, but, remember, we’re paranoid.)
At night’s end, we were disappointed in the jam’s taste. Those fragile, glowingly juicy berries had disappeared, subsumed into what seemed like an overly sugared, overly cooked-tasting, hot-tub’s worth of jam.
We finished up and went to bed, figuring we would do better next time.
But as strawberry season passed its height and we cracked open our jars for morning toast and jam, something surprising happened.
A few days removed from our memory of the fields, the seasonal abundance, the ripe hit of the just-picked berries in our mouths, the jam tasted darn good. It was sweet, yes, but not as much as most processed store-bought stuff. Taken out of the context of those perfect berries, as just a random jar of jam, it appeared to be that “best jam” that we had wanted.
I was so pleased, I started giving it away to friends, to colleagues, even a jar to (gasp) Thierry Rautureau, the four-star chef who told me once that he cans enough fruit to last him all winter, but saves a single jar from the previous year until the new crops are ready, just to….what? Just to know there’s always one jar there.
Just as our jam wasn’t as disappointing as I thought at first taste, I sure hope it’s as good as I think it is now.
But that doesn’t matter so much. I’m digging up my Ball Blue Book to review basic instructions (as I should have done before hitting the stove this year.) I’ve got canning on the brain. Next week, we want to go picking for raspberries.
And a different verse of that Michelle Shocked song is the one that now just won’t leave my head. It goes like this:
“We have a little revolution sweeping the land.
Now once more everybody’s making homemade jam.
So call your friends up on the telephone…
Invite ‘em on over, you make some jam of your own.”
Won’t you join us on our Canvolution weekend?