Make jam, and blend tradition with creativity

MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 15, 2012

Two summers ago, I made a special trip home to Youngstown, Ohio to watch my mom make the only thing that seems to shake my midwinter blues every year: sour cherry jam. When blackened snow flecked with trash lines the curbs and the gray dawns grow tedious, one spoonful of that magnificent jam brings summer back. Put it on toast with a little butter and it tastes like cherry pie.

It's easy enough to buy gourmet jams in Philadelphia, but that's not in my nature. I come from the old school. My mother learned to cook from her grandmothers. She makes bread by hand and "puts up" vegetables, sauces, and jams all summer long, just as her ancestors did. She picks every berry, bean and tomato that goes into her glass Mason jars, which line shelves in her kitchen and her closets.

Many people are intimidated by jam, but it's actually not terribly difficult. It is time-consuming and hot, but once the technique is mastered, it's hard to go back to store-bought jams. You can alter sweetness or texture and try out new flavor combinations. I have not found a lemon curd that tasted as fresh and delicious as one I made last winter from Meyer lemons. And I've never had a cherry jam that matched my mom's.

I'm a relatively ambitious cook (in college I used to make challah or Swedish rye bread for potluck dinners), but I didn't try jam until four years ago. After I'd finished my first two batches, I started experimenting with twists on traditional jams. On a whim I splashed a little almond extract into peach jam, and it quickly became a favorite among my friends. Last year I added vanilla bean to strawberry jam with stunning results. I knew it was good when my mom asked for the recipe.

From there I started hunting for unusual pairings, especially with fresh herbs. I love the taste of thyme with strawberry shortcake and fresh whipped cream. So I tried a jam with dry Marsala wine and thyme. The wine gives the jam a crispness like champagne, and the thyme adds a fresh, green flavor that brings depth, making a simple strawberry jam taste more than just sweet.

I also made a recipe that sounded risky: strawberry jam with balsamic vinegar and pink peppercorns. Balsamic vinegar tastes delicious on a salad of Mesclun greens with sliced strawberries and goat cheese, but in jam? And with pepper?

I bought a $10 bottle of vinegar (I refuse to go bottom-dollar on something I'm spending four hours to make) and I found pink peppercorns at Whole Foods. The results surprised me. The vinegar amplifies the strawberry's flavor and cuts the overall sweetness. The vinegar makes the strawberry pop in your mouth, so the jam tastes fuller. It's bolder than that thyme jam, which has a more delicate flavor.

The peppercorns add a citrusy zing when you bite into them, and they are strong. The peppercorns float, so stir the jam before serving it. Depending on your taste for pepper, you might prefer to use this jam as an ingredient in a marinade or dressing. If you're unsure about whether to add the peppercorns, taste the pepper first. It gives the jam a bite that I like, but I think jam would still be lovely if you left it out.

One of my favorite jam recipes is Rosemary Rhubarb jam, courtesy of fellow Philadelphian Marisa McClellan, who hosts canning workshops and posts fantastic recipes on her blog Food in Jars. She also just released a cookbook.

This jam is divine: It's not overly sweet and it has a soft, spreadable texture. The rosemary brings an uplifting, refreshing note, like a bubbly cocktail on a hot day. My only warning about this jam: make sure the rhubarb you use is sufficiently red, or instead of lovely pink, your jam will turn out green. It still tastes good, but I found it a little too Doctor Seuss to offer as gifts for friends.

My mom has stuck to her recipes for decades, but last year she decided to try a few experiments herself. She added cinnamon to blueberry jam and strawberry-rhubarb jam. This year she wants to make a tomato-basil jam and a carrot cake jam, which includes carrots, pineapples and coconut.

But when the tiny window for picking sour cherries opens up in a few weeks, I doubt my mother will alter the one batch she gets to make each year. Why mess with perfection?

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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