Reine Claude Plum Jam, or Learning to Cook by Feel

The idea of making jam used to terrify me. You see, I’m not the most precise tool in the drawer. I tend to use recipes for inspiration rather than strict direction. And while I do own (and use) a scale and measuring spoons, I’m just as likely to resort to feel when measuring ingredients. If a recipe calls for two cloves of garlic, I’ll usually add four. And one tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice is basically the juice of half a lemon, right? In my kitchen, herbs are measured in handfuls and piles as often as in increments of cups. Splashes, glugs and pinches are used as frequently as increments of teaspoons. With one caveat: I am never going to measure out one-eighth of a teaspoon of anything.

Because of this, I don’t bake a lot, and when I do, I stick to simple, forgiving things like cakes and the occasional tart. Candymaking is totally out of the question. Anything that requires specialty cooking gear—silicone molds, candy thermometers, edible gold—just makes me feel exhausted and frustrated thinking about it. This is why jam-making, with its requisite canning bath, canning tongs, multi-piece jars, copper jam pans, powdered pectin and the like, always seemed so off-putting.

Also, canning brings with it the risk of death. Cut corners on the directions for a chocolate soufflé, and maybe you’ll end up with a disappointing, fallen mess that still tastes delicious. Skip a few important steps while you’re sealing jars of marmalade, and you could wind up giving botulism to your friends and family when all you meant them to have was a nice DIY Christmas gift.

But over the years, I couldn’t get the idea of making jam totally out of my head. I would read recipes in magazines and cookbooks over and over again, trying to get comfortable with the level of precision I’d need to execute. I’d watch video tutorials and spend hours in cookware stores handling all of the jam-making stuff, trying to visualize how I would make this stuff work in my own kitchen. I even bought the gorgeous Blue Chair Jam Cookbook and read it (almost) entirely cover to cover. Rachel Saunders’ thorough and exacting directions did not do anything to soothe my panic, though her warm, confident tone gave me a little nudge in the “I can do this” direction.

Which brings me to Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate and Zucchini, one of my favorite food bloggers. Her voice and philosophy have guided me along my homecooking journey for years now, so it’s not surprising that a note in one of her recipes for jam was the thing I needed to get me making jam for the first time. Clotilde is French, and she noted that she follows the traditional French practice of sealing jam jars by inverting them until they cool, rather than using the water-bath methods endorsed by food safety experts in America.

This solution was perfect for me for two reasons. One, I’m an obnoxious Francophile, so if you tell me that the French do something a particular way, I will immediately try that way. Two, this simple method totally got me around the fussiness of boiling jars of jam in a giant stockpot I don’t have room to store. If generations of French people are making jam like this without keeling over during their petit-déjeuner, I was probably going to be okay, too. So after a few more days of extensive research into French jam-making methods, I felt confident that this would work.

And I’m so glad I got around this obstacle, because that’s how I discovered the magic of jam making. While canning is about precision and instrumentation, cooking jam is entirely about feel. Oddly, the first time I made jam (a simple strawberry one), I was enthralled by the physical changes taking place in my Dutch oven. Scientific precision had scared me away from making jam for so long, but in the end, the observable science of what was happening on the stove had me captivated. When you watch whole pieces of fruit turn into something else entirely right in your pan, you’ll develop a new appreciation for what cooking actually is. Or, at least, I did.

When making jam, you start out with chunks of fruit and a certain quantity of sugar in a pan. You turn on the heat and watch the sugar start to dissolve and the fruit begin to soften, and you think that everything’s great. Then everything in the pan turns really soupy, with distinct pieces of fruit bobbing about in a clearish liquid, and you are certain this is never going to work. This period lasts much longer than you think it will, no matter how many times you’ve made jam before.

Then, gradually, the fruit begins to break down and the juices get thicker, darker and more, well, jam-like. You think you might be done, and you are so excited. But you are definitely not done, and there’s more cooking and stirring and adjusting the heat to avoid scorching. You keep wondering when the jam is done, and how you will know, and maybe you try one of a zillion “tests” to determine if your jam is done, but you are never totally sure. You can’t just dip your finger in there and check (it’s hot!). You have to trust your eyes and your nose and your general feel for the jam and make a decision at some point that it is, in fact, done.

Any jam recipe that specifies quantities of time for the various stages of cooking is screwing with you. There is no timing the cooking of jam—it’s going to take as long as it takes. In a way, cooking jam is extraordinarily meditative. You can’t walk away from a bubbling pot of fruit and sugar and go check Twitter or watch Netflix, unless you like coming back to a literal hot mess in your kitchen. Jam requires constant monitoring and tending, and while you do this, your sense of time fades into the background. When you seal the last of your jars, you won’t know what time of day it is, but you will know that you have finished. (And you’ll have jam!)

Small-Batch Reine Claude Plum Jam

Yield: One 500-ml jar, more or less

NOTES

I like my jam on the less-sweet side, so I use a ratio of 2 parts fruit: 1 part sugar, or even 3 parts fruit: 1 part sugar. The amount of sugar is up to you, but keep in mind that less sugar means a shorter shelf life for the jam.

When making jam, weighing your ingredients is infinitely more helpful than measuring them by volume. Even I never eyeball quantities when it comes to jam.

You may have noticed an errant purple plum in the photos up there. I had one I needed to use up, so I tossed it in.

Ingredients:

  • 850 grams ripe Reine Claude (or Greengage) plums
  • 425 grams sugar
  • Juice of one medium lemon

Directions:

1) Rinse and pit the plums.

2) Combine the plum halves, sugar and citrus juice in a non-reactive saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir frequently while the mixture bubbles away to prevent scorching, and use the back of a silicone or wooden spoon to gently encourage the fruit to break up.

3) Keep an eye on the heat throughout the cooking process. You want constant, but gentle, bubbling. Stir frequently until the liquid is syrupy and has thickened considerably. To check for doneness, carefully remove the pan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes or so. If the surface of the jam looks “set” after that time, it’s probably done. You can also do the plate test. (I usually do a combo of both.) If not, return your jam to the heat and keep cooking and stirring until done.

4) Using a canning funnel, ladle the jam into a clean glass jar, allow to cool, cover and refrigerate for up to three weeks. If you want to preserve your jam for longer than that, fill the jar until you have ¼-inch headspace, tightly seal the lid and invert the jar onto your countertop. Allow it to cool completely and store in a pantry (right-side up). Important! This is a non-standard method of preserving jam; find information on how to properly sterilize and seal jars according to USDA standards here.

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