When my 23-year-old baby-sitter invited me to a jelly party, I was both flattered and flustered. I had never heard of such a social event, but the possibilities inherent in the words "jelly party" raised some interesting imagery. Absent among the visions that came to mind, however, was the actual event: a kitchen packed with recent college grads all industriously cooking strawberry preserves and firing up the canning kettle. Huh? Back in my university days, anything daring to call itself a jelly party would involve, at the minimum, grain alcohol, prophylactics and a late-night visit from the local authorities. But I digress.
The home arts and do-it-yourself movement are all kinds of trendy these days, hence the phenomenon of hip young'uns throwing themselves the food equivalent of a quilting bee — all hands on deck to help process and preserve a giant batch of whatever local food is most seasonally delectable at the moment. Right now, raspberries and blueberries are ripening all over Central Florida (the last blackberries are still around, too), and their incomparable just-picked flavor and juiciness puts to shame those pale grocery-store impostors available the other 11 months of the year. (Visit www.pickyourown.org/FLharvestcalendar.htm for a convenient list of local produce in season.)
Fortunately you can savor local-berry flavor year round by making jam, which is ridiculously easy. Jam is a low-exertion project in that it's simply mashed fruit cooked with some sugar and pectin until thickened, then poured into jars. (You don't even have to do the canning thing, if you would rather not get into that whole boiling of the jars, etc.; small batches keep in the fridge or freezer until used.) Jelly, on the other hand, involves much skimming and straining to remove all the solids for a completely transparent product, so unless you're one of those obscure kitchen gadget freaks itching to justify the purchase of a jelly bag, jam is the way to go.
You are, however, going to have to get yourself some pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance in fruit, and in the right combination with sugar and acid, pectin acts to form a gel. All fruits contain some pectin; apples and grapes have a lot, which is why commercial "all fruit" jams contain one or both in addition to the main flavor fruit. Other fruits, particularly berries, contain little pectin and so require help in the jelling department. A fair amount of some type of sugar is essential to successful jam; sugar must be present to interact with the pectin and acid for everything to jell, and sugar also acts as a preservative in the finished product. (Sugar works in the same way as salting foods for preservation; it draws out moisture and discourages bacterial growth.)
That sugar, however, does not need to be refined white sugar — other forms of glucose, fructose, whatever-you-got-ose all work, with adaptations. The most widely available standard pectins, like Sure-Jell, require a lot of sugar to thicken, but there are also low-sugar pectins that allow you to reduce the amount of sweetener. My favorite is citrus-based Pomona's Pectin, which allows for using natural sweeteners like stevia, agave nectar and honey — or just plain old sugar if you prefer.
When I started making homemade jam a few years back, I was at first appalled by how much sugar is required in standard recipes. The simplest strawberry preserves require two quarts of berries crushed, stirred with six cups of sugar in a pot, brought to a low boil and cooked, stirring frequently, until thick, about 40 minutes. The elegant simplicity of this recipe appeals in theory, but the sugar is nearly double the amount of berries, and the long cooking time really diminishes their taste. Also, the result is just tooth-achingly sweet in a way that obscures the fruit. Lots of experimentation has led me to a nearly foolproof berry jam recipe that uses much less sweetener and the briefest of cooking times to allow the fruit flavor to truly shine. This is less a recipe than a small-batch formula for jam using any kind of berries.
Very berry alterna-jam
31/2 cups locally grown seasonal berries (try raspberries, in season right now)
3/4 cup organic evaporated cane juice (or 2/3 cup granulated honey, or 3/4 cup sugar)
1 box Pomona's Pectin (available from a variety of online sellers)
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