Adventures in Jam Making and Canning

beautiful jars of plum jam, cooling on the counter

Prior to this summer, I had never done any real canning. I’d made small batches of jam, quick pickles and such, but never the whole big cauldron of boiling jars, sealing lids, hoping for no botulism, etc. I don’t know why: maybe fear of improper preserving and an irrational paranoia of spreading some nasty food-borne illness to my family and friends. Craziness, right? Well, this summer I conquered my fear. Afterall, my Nanny Yetman makes The. Most. Incredible. Raspberry Jam. in the whole wide world. Something about those pesticide-free Newfoundland berries. My Mom used to bring back big jars from Newfoundland, which she would package up in a gazillion layers of bubble wrap to send to me in Chicago. My Aunt Noreen in B.C. cans everything: seedless (!) wild blackberry jam, smoked salmon (from the Queen Charlotte’s!), salsa, tomato sauce, all manner of delicious condiments. She could probably write a dissertation on canning. With all this good family canning mojo, I figured surely I could make a few jars of decent jam.

It all started with plums:

a gift from the neighbors: plums
a gift from the neighbors: plums

My next door neighbor Cindy has a huge plum tree in the backyard. A few weeks ago, she brought over a big sack of plums, and then another sack and another sack. Well, you get the picture. Even with two little fruit monsters in the house, we had more plums than we could possibly eat. So, I got into research mode—the internets (Food in Jars is a very helpful site), the library, interviews with brave canners, etc.—and studied up on canning. As it turns out, botulism is extremely rare in high acid foods like fruit jams when you follow good canning practice. And canning fruit jams is pretty easy: sterilize jars in boiling water, make jam (this is the most challenging part), fill hot jars with jam, put them back into the boiling water and boil them for 15 minutes or so (depending on altitude), take them out of the boiling water and listen for the satisfying pop of the lids that tells you: “Don’t worry; you aren’t about to poison your family.” Well, that’s good to know.

I decided to make jam without using commercial pectin, because you have to use a very high proportion of sugar when using pectin. For my first batch of plum jam, I used:

  1. 9 cups of chopped plums
  2. 3 cups of sugar
  3. 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  4. the zest of a lemon
plums, sugar, lemon juice and zest
plums, sugar, lemon juice and zest

I let the plums steep in the sugar while preparing the cans. This helps to bring out the juices. Then it’s just a matter of patiently simmering and stirring until the fruit begins to gel.

plums with a little foamy "scum" on top
plums with a little foamy “scum” on top

When the fruit initially comes to a boil, it starts to release a little foamy “scum” (terrible word, no?). Every single recipe I read said to spoon off this scum, as you would when making chicken stock. I never did find out why, but I dutifully spooned off the foamy stuff. This is what the jam looks like after about 10 minutes of simmering and stirring:

plum jam, after 10 minutes  of simmering
plum jam, after 10 minutes of simmering

At this point, I used an immersion blender in order to make a completely smooth jam. The plum skins get incorporated and give the jam its gorgeous color. After 20 minutes of cooking time, I started testing the jam to see if it had gelled.

plum jam, after 10 minutes  of simmering
plum jam, after 25 minutes of simmering

I used the cold spoon test to check the jam. You put a spoon in the freezer for a few minutes and them dip it into the jam. When the jam has set up, it will coat the spoon and form slow drips that cling to the edge of the spoon:

the cold spoon test: very slowly dripping jam means that it's done
the cold spoon test: very slowly dripping jam means that it’s done

The plum jam took about 25 minutes to reach the gel stage. I ended up with 4 half-pint jars, one of which was consumed almost immediately.

beautiful jars of plum jam, cooling on the counter
beautiful jars of plum jam, cooling on the counter

I went on to make another batch of plum jam in which I used even more plums and less sugar. It didn’t thicken up as much. The consistency was more like a thick sauce: perfect for pouring on yogurt and ice cream. Then my neighbor across the street had a bumper crop of apricots, so I made some apricot jam, which turned out amazingly good. I used the following ratio for the apricot jam:

  • 6 cups of apricots
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice

The apricot jam gelled up faster than the plum jam and I kept the jam chunky (no immersion blender). I ended up with 4 half pint jars.

I have learned the canning is not scary at all. It feels so wholesome and good to preserve summer fruits in all their glory. If I can do it, you can totally do it.

 

Surviving the Family Road Trip

Bag of Plums and Pluots

Last week, we took a little mini-trip down to Carlsbad to experience the craziness that is Legoland. We also made it to the San Diego Zoo because we just had to see the Koalafornia Dreamin’ exhibit of cuteness. We had intended to go to SeaWorld, but after two long park days, the kids just wanted to hang out in the hotel pool. That’s just the way it is: the highlight of the trip is almost always the hotel pool.

Taking a road trip with kids—even a short one—requires an insane amount of planning, especially if you want to attempt to eat healthy as you make your way through desolate Fast Foodville. Over the past few years, I’ve developed some strategies for somewhat healthy eating on the road. Luckily, we don’t have any food allergies are major issues in our family; I just have to find a way to keep two constantly starving kiddos reasonably content.

Sanity-Preserving Road Trip Items and Helpful Tips for Traveling with Kids:

Nalgene Water Bottles
Nalgene Water Bottles

1) Leak-proof Water Bottles

It’s amazing how difficult it is to find truly leak-proof water bottles that kids can easily open and close themselves. Before our Legoland trip, I found these Nalgene water bottles at Target. They are perfect for kids 4 years old and up. They snap shut and have a little metal latch that holds the lids securely closed. Do not enter an amusement park, large zoo, major kid venue without water bottles. There are very few water fountains, if any, at big parks and your kid will inevitably get thirsty while waiting in a 45 minute line to ride some ride that will definitely not be worth the wait. You can refill the water bottles at soda fountains (with water, not soda, of course) and load them up with ice to keep the water nice and cool.

Bag of Plums and Pluots
Bag of Plums and Pluots

2) Fruit, Lots of It

If you eat a lot of fruit, you will feel fruit-deprived while on the road. My kiddos consume an insane amount of fruit, so I packed a gallon bag of plums and pluots. I got them at the farmers market, where I looked for things that needed a few days to ripen (the farmers helped me with this). I also packed a bag of grapes for eating in the car. Because I had juicy fruit, I was sure to keep a roll of paper towels with me in the car. When packing fruit for a road trip, think about what travels well (bananas always seem to get bruised and squished) and what your kids can handle eating without making a total mess. I packed a smaller quart size freezer bag to take fruit with us on day trips.

assorted Clif bars
assorted Clif bars

3) Protein/Energy Bars

During the school year, I always have homemade bars in the fridge or freezer. I would definitely recommend making your own energy bars, unless, of course, you are in a frenzy of trip preparation and just can’t get it together. I don’t think Clif bars are super healthy, but they sure beat what’s for sale as you walk around Amusement Park Giganto (Dippin’ Dots! Cheetos! Churros!).

GoGo Squeez and Trader Joe's Crusher
GoGo Squeez and Trader Joe’s Crushers

4) Fruit Crusher/Applesauce Packs

Are these little applesauce pouches ridiculously expensive and over-packaged? Of course, but sometimes you just need convenience. I like to keep a couple in my purse on long outings. They will also help get you through your trip if you run out of fresh fruit.

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix
Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix

5) Trail Mix

I made the mistake of buying Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix for a road trip to San Francisco a few years ago. Now my kids demand it on every road trip. It is delicious and highly addictive. At least there are more nuts than peanut butter cups in the bag. And, I’m happy to report, we didn’t even finish the bag (our leftover trail mix is in the photo above). You don’t have to travel with such a decadent trail mix, but some sort of nuts/dried fruit mix is de rigueur when traveling with kids. A little handful of trail mix has prevented many a meltdown in our car.

Goldfish
Goldfish

6) Goldfish, Pretzels, Crackers

I don’t have a particular loyalty to Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and I don’t think of Goldfish as a healthy snack, but it is a great car food: small, bite-size, not too much residue on the fingers, and marginally better than chips. The Goldfish package, on the other hand, is a work of genius: small, portable, and that foil lining keeps the little crackers nice and crunchy. I always make sure to travel with a bunch of small binder clips, so I can easily throw a bag of Goldfish or pretzels in my purse.

instant oats and vanilla soy milk
instant oats and vanilla soy milk

7) Healthy Breakfast Food

In the event that your hotel does not serve some sort of free “continental” (what, exactly, qualifies a breakfast as “continental”?) breakfast, or, if the complimentary breakfast is particularly terrible, it is very important to have some sort of healthy option readily available in your room. I always travel with some instant oats and a shelf-stable carton of soy or almond milk. I found this bag of unsweetened instant oats at Target and it was the perfect breakfast food. I could microwave small, kid-sized portions, which I sweetened with a little honey and sugar in the raw (from the coffee/tea service in the lobby). Don’t forget to pack a few bowls and spoons (I’ve made that mistake before), but in a pinch, you can make instant oats in a coffee cup. You can also make cold, overnight oats if your room has a mini-fridge.

plastic IKEA cups
plastic IKEA cups

8) Small plastic cups

The last thing you want to deal with on a car trip is having two or more kids fighting over a single bag of trail mix. Pack a small cup that each kiddo can fill with snacks and keep in their cup holder. Plastic cups are also good to have in hotel bathrooms if you have little ones who don’t like getting their faces wet during hair washes.

LeSportsac, the ultimate mommy bag
LeSportsac, the ultimate mommy bag

9) Chic, yet practical mommy or daddy bag in which to carry all this junk

Every mom dreams of the day she can ditch the enormous diaper bag, only to realize that you may not need to carry diapers and spitty cloths any more, but you still need a bag that can accommodate water bottles, snacks, tissues, wipes, sunscreen, hats, etc. Personally, I love LeSportsac bags, because they are made of really light, indestructible fabric and they come in every imaginable size. The TokiDoki bag in the background is my big satchel for carrying lots of snacks and gear. The cutie blue bag is a smaller purse that can still carry two kid water bottles and a few energy bars.

And one last bit of advice:

10) Avoid kid’s meals at all costs

Kid’s meals are almost universally horrible. They are usually completely devoid of veggies (unless you count fries/chips as veggies), they often come with a sugary drink, they tend to be devoid of all flavor/seasoning, and they are usually a rip-off.

Traveling with kids is both harrowing and fabulous. Everyone will get tired and grumpy. No one will sleep well. There may be vomit. There will be tears. But, in the end, the kids will only remember the awesome parts. Parents will survive and learn from the experience and will do better next time. Just remember this mantra while traveling: there is no control. Say it over and over in your head and inexplicably, you’ll feel better.

Clean Out the Fridge/Freezer Smoothie

clean out the fridge smoothie
clean out the fridge smoothie
clean out the fridge smoothie

This past weekend I made a super delicious smoothie by throwing all kinds of odds and ends into it:

  • a couple of small roasted beets (that’s what gives this smoothie its gorgeous color!)
  • some frozen bananas
  • the last little bit of a bag of frozen blueberries lost underneath a bunch of other frozen fruit
  • an over-ripe nectarine
  • several leaves of lacinato kale
  • fresh squeezed orange juice
  • almond milk

Normally, I don’t put quite so many ingredients into a smoothie, but I had lots of little things that needed to be either used immediately or tossed. I wasn’t sure if the kiddos would go for this smoothie because of the beets, but they both loved it. I think I might have to experiment with more roasted beet smoothies (not sure if I’m ready for raw beets). Yum, yum, super yum!

Summer Adventures in Bread Baking

one hot loaf of bread cooling on the kitchen counter

I have been a terrible [non-existent] blogger of late. A rash of family visits and general summer laziness are to blame. But, that doesn’t mean that the kitchen adventures have been lacking. Far from it. Several weeks ago, I discovered a recipe for the most incredible loaf of bread you will ever have the good fortune to make in your own kitchen. It’s a variation of Jim Lahey’s revolutionary (oh, yes) No-Knead Bread. If you haven’t heard of No-Knead bread, you should know that it’s the easiest thing on earth: a very wet dough with minimal yeast gets mixed by hand (no kneading required, hence the name), cooked in a super hot cast iron pot in a super hot oven, and comes out like the crustiest fancy pants bread from a fine bakery. No lie.

The only difficult part of making No-Knead bread is forming the loaf and getting it into the steaming hot cast iron pan (I’ve used a cheap-o cast iron dutch oven from Target as well as a 6 qt. Le Crueset French oval dutch oven, and they work equally well). At some point in my No-Knead bread journey, I discovered a great trick for forming the dough into a nice loaf (use LOTS of flour) and getting it into the pot (form the loaf on parchment paper and put the loaf and the paper into the hot pot). Here’s what it looks like:

dough formed into a round loaf, dusted with cornmeal and oat bran
dough formed into a round loaf, dusted with cornmeal and oat bran

The recipe I used for this bread called for a nice poppy seed, sesame seed, garlic powder, onion powder, salty topping, which I’m sure is amazing. But, I omitted it, because sometimes the kiddos aren’t crazy about lots of seeds on their bread crusts. And I was worried that the flavor might be a little overpowering: I wanted a savory loaf without too much garlic flavor. Here’s the dough—and parchment paper—being put into the HOT cast iron pot:

the bread dough, parchment paper and all, placed into a HOT cast iron pot
the bread dough, parchment paper and all, placed into a HOT cast iron pot

And, then, 45 minutes later—my sweet Lord in heaven—this emerged from the oven:

the finished loaf: nicely cracked on the top
the finished loaf: nicely cracked on the top

I can’t stop staring at. See what I mean by fancy pants crusty bread? Trust me: it tastes as good as it looks.

one hot loaf of bread cooling on the kitchen counter
one hot loaf of bread cooling on the kitchen counter

Here is a delicious summer lunch with slices of this glorious bread for my culinarily (is that a word) spoiled children:

summer lunch: leftover grilled chicken drumsticks with carrots, cherry tomatoes, plums and nice slice of homemade bread with butter
summer lunch: leftover grilled chicken drumsticks with carrots, cherry tomatoes, plums and a nice slice of homemade bread with butter

Thank you to Joy at Braisen Woman for this fantastic and creative take on Jim Lahey’s bread.