LOS ANGELES — Jessica Koslow is rummaging around in her room-sized walk-in refrigerator at Sqirl, looking for fruit. There are several cases of tiny, intensely flavored Santa Rosa plums from farmer James Burch. Wait, no. How about some of these dry-farmed Blenheim apricots from Mike Cirone of See Canyon? She hoists a case onto her shoulder and hurries to her kitchen. It's time to make jam.
While home preserving has the reputation of being unforgiving and demanding, watching a master like Koslow, you realize how easy it really is, especially when you start with the kind of fruit that is flooding the markets right now.
A former pastry chef, Koslow turned her jam-making hobby into a business, then she turned the jam business into a store, turned the store into a coffee shop, turned the coffee shop into a restaurant and now is expanding into the space next door, a gourmet market and wine shop that she will share with her old friend and mentor Lou Amdur.
For now, though, the kitchen at Sqirl is tiny, dominated by a single six-burner stove and a beautifully seasoned hardwood counter. The sign outside says "Toast and Jam," and it's hard to believe there's room for the staff to make much more than that. (Of course they do. There's a range of breakfast and lunch items.)
Fortunately, it doesn't take much space to make great jam. A scale, a small plastic food bucket, a much-used copper preserving pan, and Koslow has pretty much everything we need.
Because the apricots are freestone fruits, we don't even need knives — dig into the seam with your thumb and the fruit splits right open; and don't forget to work over the bucket to collect the juice.
Koslow works by weight. It is far more accurate, and using percentages lets you scale the recipe up and down, depending on how much fruit you have.
For apricots, she uses 60 percent of the weight of the fruit in sugar and 2 percent lemon juice — so every pound of apricots takes about nine ounces of sugar and 1/3 ounce of lemon juice (a little less than 1 tablespoon). Other fruits take different ratios, depending on the amount of pectin, sugar and acidity they contain. Ratios can run as low as 30 percent sugar for Gravenstein apples, or as high as 70 percent for Santa Rosa plums.
Everything gets mixed together in the preserving pan until all of the sugar is moistened by the apricot juices, then put over a high flame.
Koslow pulls a half-dozen or so of the apricot pits from the bucket, lines them up on a towel and cracks them with a big rubber mallet. She picks out the meats, toasts them briefly in the oven, then ties them in a cheesecloth turkey roasting bag and puts that in with the cooking fruit to add a slight floral bitterness.
At first there is just a mad bubbling. It's important to stir constantly, or the sugar will scorch. A long-handled silicone spatula is perfect for this, and a pair of heat-proof gloves doesn't hurt as the mixture spits and spurts (Koslow's come up past her wrists for even more protection).
Gradually, the fruit softens and the sugar melts into a syrup. The syrup darkens and thickens as the apricots collapse. The mixture feels heavier when you stir.
After about 10 minutes, when you lift the spatula you will see that what once was liquid that flowed off in several points has now become stickier and "sheets" just under the blade.
Just to be certain, Koslow takes the pan off the burner and lets it sit for a minute. Sure enough, the jam starts to jell at the edges almost immediately. Done.
It's that simple. We've captured the very best of early summer in a jar.
A practical guide for making preserves
Have you caught the jam-making bug? You're in luck. Local cooking teacher and blogger Kevin West has just written "Saving the Season," a terrific guide to home canning and preserving that is pretty close to a must-read for beginning and more advanced jammers.
The recipes range from the basic, such as a strawberry jam annotated with detailed notes to help the beginner along, to the fairly exotic, such as pickled purslane.
Happily for home cooks, West is a small-batch kind of guy. He rarely calls for more than 3 pounds of any fruit or vegetable, so if an experiment goes awry (as preserving experiments will, especially in the early stages), the damage isn't too severe. Not that that's so much of a concern. West's instructions are clear and precise, and his explanations of what is going on are thorough.
Making jam: How to tell when it's jelled; how to store it
For the most part, making jam couldn't be easier: Mix fruit and sugar, and cook. The only hard part is knowing when it's done. Because hot jam doesn't show that it's jelled as readily as it will after it's cooled, this can be a little tricky. There are three main tests to tell if your jam has jelled.
Temperature: The fail-safe jell temperature is 8 degrees above the boiling temperature of water, or about 220 degrees for most of Southern California. But many jams are done slightly below that, at 216 to 217 degrees.
Cold saucer: Stick a saucer in the freezer when you start cooking. When you think the jam is done, spoon just a drop of the liquid onto the saucer and put it back in the freezer for a minute. If the jam sits up pertly and a wrinkly skin forms over the top, it's done.
Sheeting: When the liquid runs off the stirring spatula or spoon in sheets rather than in several individual points, the jam is set.
If all else fails, remove the pan from the heat and let it stand for a few minutes. If it starts to set around the edges, it is done. If not, return it to the heat for further cooking.
The other tricky part about making jam is canning it for long storage. One of the best guides is the Department of Agriculture's "Complete Guide to Home Canning," which can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications-usda.html. Another is from Ball, the canning jar company, at its website, www.freshpreserving.com.
Jams made in small quantities can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several months without canning.---
Blackberry And Lemon Verbena Jam
Time: 30 minutes. Makes about 21/2 cups jam
2 pounds blackberries
1 1/4 pounds sugar (a scant 3 cups)
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon verbena leaves
Pulse the blackberries in a food processor or mash them up with your hands. You could even leave a few semi-mashed so the jam has a variety of textures. Add the sugar and lemon juice, and stir with a spatula to marry the ingredients. Pour into a large, heavy-bottomed pan.
Place the verbena leaves in a cheesecloth bag and tie the bag to the side of the pot, with the bag submerged in the fruit. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until set, 20 to 25 minutes (for doneness indicators, see accompanying article). Berry jams produce quite a bit of foam, so they should be skimmed during cooking. The foam is not harmful, but it will muddy the jam.
Blackberry jam can easily overset or underset, so be sure to remove the pan from the heat as soon as the jam tests done. Remove the verbena bag, then can the jam quickly, as the top of the jam will start setting into a skin.
EACH TABLESPOON: Calories: 65; Protein: 0; Carbohydrates: 16 grams; Fiber: 1 gram; Fat: 0; Cholesterol: 0; Sugar: 15 grams; Sodium: 0