Discovering Jam: A cherry in my kitchen

12 08 2009
yellow cherries
Image by bengi gencer via Flickr

It began with four free bushels of yellow cherries, and ended up as 29 pints of yellow cherry jam.

I was living in a college apartment, sharing our house with seven roommates: Shira, Deirdre, Curt, Zelda and thee friends who moved around from room to room. Curt, Deirdre and I had paying jobs, everyone else had parents’ money. Everyone kicked in three bucks a week, and I cooked: mostly soups, chilis and casseroles designed to get us all through our crazy schedules. On Sunday nights, I made a double batch of bread for the week’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When the peaches, tomatoes and apples came in, I canned the pantry full to save money we then used for the phone and heat bills.

Enter the cherries–a gift from a friend who lived next to a golf course bordered with cherry trees. In our share-the-wealth 70s ethics, cherries that fell on his side of the tree line were his, and for a share of what I made, he gave me all the free cherries I could cook. He’d bring me a couple pints a week while they were in season, and I’d make us each a pie or cobbler. But 1976 was ‘the cherry year.’ One Sunday morning he left four bushels of free-fall cherries on my porch with a note that he’d be back that night for pie.

A deep dish pie or cobbler takes three cups of fresh cherries—that wouldn’t even make a dent in four bushels of ripe fruit about to go to critical mass. We only had a tiny apartment refrigerator freezer. I had a 1970 copy of The Ball Blue Book, so I started sifting through recipes. The only thing that used lots of cherries was jam. I hadn’t made jam since my teens when I’d made freezer strawberry jam with my mom. But sugar was cheap, and I had four cases of empty pint jars set aside for applesauce and canned tomatoes. I blew half of that week’s grocery money on sugar, paraffin and pectin, and came home to make cherry jam.

Homemade jam is supposed to be made in small batches—I didn’t know that. My roommates and I formed an assembly line that would have shaken a Smuckers plant. Deirdre and Curt pitted cherries in the dining room. Steps away in our tiny galley kitchen, I sterilized jars and made jam in my 18 quart enamel canners. Zelda set up a jar-filling station in the bathroom, where she melted paraffin on a homemade candle-burner, topped the jars and then set them to cool on a make-shift shelf in front of the bathroom window. When our cherry benefactor showed up at midnight for cherry pie, we were taste-testing homemade bread and cherry jam sandwiches.

He took a half-dozen jars, and I sold another dozen jars at the food co-op. That made enough cash to replace the jars I’d used. As other fruit came in, I made smaller batches of blueberry and peach jam. What we couldn’t eat or sell, we gave as gifts, and for a few years, I made special jams just for Christmas presents.

And that’s how I started making jam.

Yellow Cherry Jam

  • Wash, stem, pit, and crush yellow cherries: 2 1/2 cups whole stemmed cherries will equal approximately 1 pound of crushed fruit.
  • Bring the crushed cherries and juice slowly up to a boil in an enamel or other non-reactive saucepan.
  • When the cherry mixture boils, to each 4 cups (approximately 2 pounds) of crushed cherries, stir in 3 cups of sugar, ¼ cup fresh lemon juice and ½ teaspoon almond extract. Stir until sugar dissolves, cooking rapidly over medium-high heat until jam boils again and reaches the jellying point (222 degrees F. on candy thermometer at sea level; 10 degrees above the boiling point of water in your part of the world.)
  • Ladle into sterilized jars, seal with canning lids and process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Cool jars and label. Makes approximately 5 cups of jam.

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