9 o’clock in the evening is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam. A reward, say, for having spent 2 1/2 hours in meditation over a never-ending line of fresh strawberries nestled in quart boxes, their uniquely sweet and floral scent gently floating up, reminding you yet again that your Strawberry Shortcake doll from the 80s never smelled anything like this. 2 1/2 hours standing quietly over a sink, one hand deftly wielding a small knife, the other guiding the unsuspecting strawberries to the sharp point that would soon relieve them of their stems. One by one, quart by quart, the pile of hulled strawberries mounts in the sink. Who was I to resist their lure? Surely I did not really need to make all 8 quarts into jam. A few berries here and there, just for quality purposes, were tested. On the day of meditation I made five jars of jam. And then looked at the other giant pile of strawberries, glowing in their own rich redness, and decided that maybe I could freeze the rest.
Which leads to the night in question. The night during which 9 o’clock seemed a perfectly rational time to make jam. It was really an act of necessity. I do not have a full-sized refrigerator, and the freezer was jammed to the hilt with berries. There was nary a space to stash an ice cube tray to chill my occasional tipple of bourbon. So I emptied the freezer of the strawberries, added some water that would soon become ice cubes, and proceeded to pull out my canning gear. I dumped the strawberries into a 4 qt. stock pot. You would be amazed at how long it takes 12 cups of frozen strawberries to defrost. The canning kettle was slowly heating with a vast quantity of water. I slid the frozen stock pot towards it, hoping the heat would help expedite the thawing process. I began to question whether or not 9 o’clock really was a reasonable time to bust out and make jam. Then I ignored that part of my brain and turned on the burner under the strawberries.
The magical thing about heat is that it thaws. I stood patiently above the pot, stirring the frozen berries around, much like you would poke at the embers of a fire to help stoke it. Blissfully, the berries began to thaw and then collapse. Soon all sense of time slipped away as I merrily mashed the berries and threw in the sugar and pectin. The heavenly summery scent was not obscene enough, so in went a touch of balsamic vinegar, the distinct tang melting into the strawberry scent and intensifying it, sending my brain into a fluid state that stopped looking at the clock slowly ticking on above the oven. A spoon was dipped into the sweet lava and held high above to assess the readiness of the jam, relying on growing instinct to tell me when it is done rather than calculated numbers. Jars were filled, a finger dipped into boiling hot water to clear the rim, hot lids and bands thrown on, and the jars lowered into simmering water to seal in that crimson glory. The short dance went on for a while, in the end making six jars of jam. Brow beaded with sweat, I glanced at the clock. It was after 11. I heard the soft ping of one of the jars sealing as it sat on the cooling rack. Then another, and another. Soft musical notes playing into the quiet night of my kitchen. And I smiled. 9 o’clock really is a perfectly reasonable time to make jam.
note: Do not fear the canning. Everyone freaks out, convinced you will die if you do one thing wrong. Just keep your jars clean and hot, and keep everything you work with clean and hot, and you will be FINE. Also, this recipe is using one very specific type of pectin, so this will NOT translate to other kinds. And this is not the usual Sure-Jell you find in the supermarket. This is very specifically using Pomona’s Universal Pectin, carried in most Whole Foods and likely other natural food stores. It is less chemically based, and allows you to use WAY less sugar than traditional jams while setting just as well. This recipe is probably the seventh iteration of jam I have made using this, starting with their precise instructions and then meandering into my own experimentation. I think I may have finally gotten it right. But try it for yourself. Or try their way for yourself. Worse comes to worse, you have some really tasty strawberry sauce for ice cream. Just try it. I dare you.
12 c. hulled strawberries, preferably fresh
3 c. sugar
5 tsp. pectin powder from Pomona’s Universal Pectin
10 tsp. calcium water from Pomona’s Universal Pectin
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
6 pint jars with absolutely no nicks or cracks on the rim, 6 new lids, and six bands, fully washed
a jar funnel (just a funnel with a wide opening for jars)
A potato masher or something similar
Fill a canning kettle or other large pot that can hold your jars without touching and allow the water to rise an inch above the lids. You may have to do the jars in batches (I always do, my old kettle only holds four at a time.) Put in the first round of jars and bring the whole shebang to a boil. Also, I like to boil a kettle of water. Put your lids and bands into a baking dish and then pour the boiling water over it. Add whatever jar funnel and ladle you are going to use. Just to keep things happy and clean.
While the canning kettle is coming to a boil, place all of the strawberries into a 4 qt. stockpot. In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the sugar and pectin powder. Place the stockpot over medium heat, and begin to slowly cook the strawberries, stirring and mashing them up until they get all goopy. Add in the calcium water you made from the Pomona’s Pectin. Bring this mass to a boil. Add in your sugar mix and stir rapidly for about two minutes. Then let this come to a boil again. Add in the balsamic vinegar and let cook for another minute. This is where things start to get all old school. The way I test for whether or not the jam will set is by sticking a clean spoon about halfway into the jam and lifting it up above the pot. If the goo is slowly sheeting off the spoon but doesn’t actually completely come off the spoon, it’s good. Another way is to spoon a small bit onto a saucer and stick it in the freezer for three minutes. If it turns into jam, it’s good. This will NOT be jam consistency when it’s hot, it needs to cool to set properly. Due to the Pomona’s Pectin, this is also not like traditional strawberry jam that has to cook for a long time. So test early.
I guess technically this is the part where I tell you to jar according to manufacturer’s instructions. I won’t type out the way I do it, but I can say that I have never read the manufacturer’s instructions, I’ve just done as my mom taught me, and I have never once had a jar go bad. Just remember, clean everything, hot water, you’ll be fine. Make sure to fill to 1/4″ of the top. If you haven’t perfectly filled that last jar, don’t worry. Just slap the lid on to let it set overnight, then just put in the fridge and eat it first. The rest of the jars? Once you have them filled, lidded, and bands screwed on, process them in a hot water bath for five minutes. Let cool on cooling racks overnight. Or obsessively check them every hour to see if they’ve set yet. Not that I’ve ever done that.
Now give some of them away, and promise the people who have received them that they will get more later in life if they return the jars and bands back to you. It’s a common courtesy that has gone by the wayside in these days when only the crazies can at 9 o’clock at night.