Jam-making was treated with utmost seriousness in my family. My grandmother grew up at least partly in an era without refrigeration, so preserving the summer’s bounty to consume in the winter was a matter not just of pleasure but also of necessity.
She continued this habit for most of her life, until she no longer had a kitchen and her trusty pressure cooker was packed into an attic or perhaps sold at a garage sale. After her last summer of canning, I hoarded jars of her raspberry jam like precious bars of gold. I held onto a single jar of ripe peaches preserved in honey for years after her death, unwilling to let go of that last, sweet connection with her, until at last safety dictated that I throw it out. How I wish I had enjoyed those peaches right away, spooned over ice cream or cottage cheese, or simply ladled into a bowl so that I could slurp up the last drops of honeyed syrup after scarfing down the peaches, spoonful after spoonful.
But back to jam. When my mother and grandmother were crowded into the steamy kitchen with piles of Mason jars and flats of berries, sweat patches forming on their shirts as they hovered over the pressure cooker, I stayed well out of the way. It seemed like one of those mysteries of adulthood, like where babies come from or why we had to eat vegetables for dinner instead of ice cream. Pressure-cooking never lost this air of danger in my mind and so I have, to date, never used a pressure cooker to can a single bean or berry.
However, when I discovered freezer jam in my mid-30s, I realized I’d found my passion. Just boil up some fruit, add sugar and pectin, spoon the hot mixture into sterilized jars and stick it in the freezer for six months to a year, or, if you’re me, six to eight years. But really, please stick to food safety guidelines and don’t eat it if you can’t remember what it is or if it is older than your oldest child.
Anyhow, even though I love making jam, that’s not to say I’m particularly good at it or that I always succeed. Case in point: the batch of blackberry jam that I made this week. Or, more accurately, made twice.
All summer, Dad has been painstakingly collecting berries from the native blackberry vines (aka Rubus ursinus) that grow on his Battle Ground acreage as well as the larger, plumper berries from the invasive Himalayan blackberries (they might as well be good for something). He brought me 8 quarts of berries. Since I have no room in my freezer, I had to make jam immediately.
Dad also bequeathed to me something of Grandma’s jam-making past: a metal crank-sieve that sits atop a pot, allowing you to dump berries in and mash them down until all the juicy parts of the berries are forced through, leaving behind wine-red seeds. Then you rinse it all out and start again with more berries.
I began cranking blackberries through the seed extractor and into the pot, while another pot of zucchini-and-squash pasta sauce simmered on the stove, ready to be put into jars and foisted on anyone who comes into my house. The simmering sauce made a soothing music as I cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked, even getting up on a stool and throwing my weight into extra-forceful cranks. After what seemed like days of cranking, I had a pot full of thickish, dark purple liquid.
Next, I added 4 heaping cups of sugar, because that made it sweet enough for me; I like tart jam. I heated the juice and sugar until boiling, and then let it go for just a little while to make sure I killed any bugs and obliterated any latent mold spores clinging to the berries. I watched it carefully, as jam does tend to froth up while boiling, threatening to explode over the top of the pot. (Someone once recommended adding a pat of butter to keep the frothing down. I tried this, and it didn’t make the slightest difference, although I’m generally all for putting butter in things. Turns out it only works if you add the butter before boiling.)
When I was satisfied that the unsavory microorganisms were mostly dead, I added my secret ingredient: Jell-O. Yup, that’s right, just plain old Jell-O, in whatever flavor best matches your fruit. In this case, I added two 3-ounce boxes of raspberry, because that’s what I could find at the store, though in the past I have also used Royal brand blackberry gelatin. I also added, for good measure, a 1.75-ounce box of fruit pectin.
I ladled the hot jam into clean jars and set them on the counter to cool before putting them in the fridge. I expected them to set in about four hours.
They didn’t. I had made, at best, many, many jars of blackberry syrup, and at worst, a sort of sweet blackberry broth.
At this point, I actually did some research, because that’s my style: make mistakes first, then figure out later why things went disastrously wrong. I learned that the proper ratio for freezer jam is 3:1, berries to sugar. I did some quick math in my head: 1 quart equals 4 cups, so I had used 32 cups of berries to make this jam, meaning that I ought to have used 8 cups of sugar. Whoops. It’s also worth mentioning that standard fruit pectin won’t gel without enough sugar, though low-sugar varieties of pectin are available.
The beauty of freezer jam is that you can always go back to the burner and start over. I returned to the store and got more Jell-O and pectin, emptied the jars back into the pot, boiled everything again and added a 6-ounce box of raspberry gelatin and another 1.75-ounce box of pectin. I ladled it back into the jars and put them back into the fridge to set up.
This morning when I opened my fridge: Jam!
It’s still so thrilling to see the magical transformation of soupy fruit into something that I can spread on my toast or dollop onto oatmeal or slather onto pancakes. It’s a gift to my future self, preserving this ripe August flavor to cheer me on some bleak February morning, a reminder of the sweetness of summers past and still to come.