Now that summer is here and those delicious summer fruits are in season, it’s time to stock up on homemade jam for the tea party pantry! San Jose’s history as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” is no longer visible in the orchards that once covered the Santa Clara Valley, but plenty of local people still have fruit trees in their front and back yards, full of ripe fruit this time of year. Wild plums and berries can also be found along the banks of rivers, creeks and streams in the Santa Cruz mountains and local foothills, if you know where to look. For those that don’t have edible landscaping at home, and even for those that do, the local farmers’ markets are a wonderful source of fresh, ripe fruit for tea-table jams and preserves. What better treat to serve your tea guests, give as gifts, or enjoy by yourself than homemade jam? It’s not as hard as it seems. Plus, once you’ve washed the fruit, you can freeze it in freezer bags, and make jam or pie with it later in the year (or when the weather has cooled down a bit).
First, get about a pound of ripe, or even over-ripe (but not rotten or moldy) fruit. Look for fruit that is so soft and fragrant that it is almost jam already! You’ll also need a fresh lemon or two, a pound of sugar, some pint or half-pint canning jars and lids with rings, and a canning funnel (that will fit the tops of your jars). Assemble your equipment, also including a large (at least 3 quart) saucepan and a pasta pot or stock pot, a long wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, a saucer or other stoneware or porcelain plate, and some oven gloves or thick towels, plus a knife and cutting board. A special canning jar lifter and lid magnet wand are also great additions to your jam gear; they can be found anywhere canning supplies are sold. Always practice safety when making jam or preserves; it should go without saying that you shouldn’t taste or touch boiling-hot jam, and keep your face away from the pot while the jam is boiling, because it splatters!
Take the fruit home, wash it thoroughly, cut off any bruised parts, and cut it into chunks, removing any seeds or pits (except for raspberries and other small berries). If you wish, remove the skins by dropping the fruit in boiling water for a minute, then removing the fruit to some ice water until the skins loosen and peel off. Alternatively, you can make the jam first, and then remove the skins by rubbing the jam through a strainer; you can even leave the skins in the jam if you don’t mind them.
Measure the fruit and put it in your large saucepan; use no more than 6 cups of fruit in a batch, otherwise the jam won’t thicken as well (put any extra fruit in the fridge or freezer for a second batch of jam). Measure out the same amount of sugar as fruit, and put half of it in the pot with the fruit. Stir to combine. Reserve the rest of the sugar, plus some extra, for adjusting the thickness and sweetness of the jam. Let sit for at least 10 minutes to draw out the juices. Wash the lemon or lemons, cut in half or quarters, and squeeze the juice into a cup, removing any seeds that drop into the juice. Set aside.
Meanwhile, wash your jars, lids and rings in hot, soapy water, (or run through the dishwasher) and fill the jars with hot tap water. Fill your largest pot (a pasta pot works well) with water and put the jars, lids and rings in. Make sure the water reaches the rims of the jars and that the jars are full of water, and put the pot on the stove to boil, then adjust the heat to keep the water at a simmer. Put the saucer in the freezer to chill; you’ll be using it to test the done-ness of the jam later.
If you don’t have a canning jar lifter, prepare a set of kitchen tongs by wrapping a rubber band around each blade near the tip; this will add more “grip” and make it easier to remove the wet jars, lids and rings from the hot water, and transfer the filled jars back to the boiling water bath. Also, prepare a clean counter space, enough room for all the jars to sit while they’re being filled, and have some clean, wet paper towels nearby for wiping the jars as needed.
Next, turn on the heat under the fruit to medium or medium-high, and bring the fruit and sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the fruit is boiling, adjust the heat to keep it at a gentle boil until the mixture starts to thicken, and the fruit softens and can be mashed with the spoon or spatula (about 20 minutes). Observe the texture of the fruit; if it’s still watery after the first 20 minutes, add ½ cup of sugar and stir to combine. Boil gently and stir for another few minutes; if it’s still watery, add another ½ cup of sugar, and stir. Repeat until the sugar stops dissolving (you can feel it as you stir with the spoon or spatula – it will feel gritty against the side or bottom of the pan), or until the juice is mostly gone, then add the juice of one lemon. Cook a few more minutes to absorb the lemon juice, stirring constantly; the jam will thicken and set as it cools, so don’t let it get too dry! To test the jam’s final texture, take the cold saucer out of the freezer and put about a teaspoon of hot jam on the cold saucer; if it thickens so that you can drag your fingertip through it and it leaves a clear space on the saucer, taste the cooled jam to see if it needs more lemon juice or a pinch of salt, and take the pan of jam off the heat once you’ve stirred it in. If the jam is still too runny, add the rest of the lemon juice (which will help it thicken and set when cooled), return the saucer to the freezer, and let the jam cook a minute or two longer, stirring. Remove from the heat when done. NOTE: some fruit, like raspberries, have a lot of juice, or not much natural pectin, in them and will not thicken very much while cooking. That’s o.k.! Once it has cooked for 20 to 30 minutes, you’ve tested it on the cold saucer, and you’ve tasted it and you like the level of sweetness, go ahead and pour it into the prepared jars. Homemade jam is often softer and runnier than commercial jam.
With the jam pan off the heat, prepare to fill the jars. Soak the canning funnel and the blades of the tongs in the simmering water with the jars until heated through, about 5 minutes. Then, use the tongs to remove the jars from the pot one at a time, empty the hot water out of them and into the sink, and set them on a clean towel on the counter. Retrieve the funnel from the water and place it in the mouth of one of the jars; leave the lids in the hot water for now.
Using the oven gloves, bring the pan of jam and the spoon or spatula to the prepared, empty jars, and carefully fill the jars to ¼ inch or so below the top edge, using the funnel to keep from making a mess. If you need to wash and boil a few more jars in order to use up all the jam, set the pan of jam back on a low heat just to keep it warm enough to pour, until you have finished processing the first jars of jam. Use the wet paper towels to wipe any jam off the outside and top edge of the jars, and use the tongs to retrieve the lids and rings from the hot water. Carefully put them on the jars, but don’t tighten them all the way down yet. Use the tongs and oven gloves to place the filled jars back into the hot water bath and bring the water to a boil again. Boil the jars for 10 minutes, until the lids lay flat on the jar and don’t “pop” when pressed in the center, then remove the jars from the water and turn them upside down on the clean towel-covered counter to cool. Carefully tighten the rings down as much as you can to seal the hot jars, and repeat with as many other jars as needed to use up all the jam.
Let the jars of jam cool completely (overnight is good), then label each jar with the kind of jam and the date. Food safety tips: make sure the lid doesn’t “pop” when you press it in the center with your finger; if it does, store in the refrigerator and use immediately. Store the sealed jars in a cool, dark place (like your tea party pantry) until opened; then store in the refrigerator. Inspect each jar of jam when you open it, and discard it if the jar is leaking, the jam looks or smells moldy or rancid, or if it looks in any way suspect. The lemon juice should help keep light-colored jams like peach and apricot from browning too much, but some darkening of the color is normal. Give as gifts or enjoy with scones and tea!
Copyright 2015, Elizabeth Urbach.
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For more information:
“What should I keep in the pantry for tea parties?”
“Tea-table recipe: rose-petal jam desserts”
“Apricot Oolong Compote: an easy tea recipe”
“Tea and food pairings for black teas”
“Review: Original English Tea Scones from Sconehenge Bakery”
“Making Jam Without Added Pectin” National Center for Home Food Preservation
“How to make apricot, peach, plum or nectarine jam. Easily!”
“A Beginner’s Guide to Making Jam or Jelly” by Diana Wind
“Jams, Jellies and Preserves” U.C. Davis Food Safety