I’ve had little to write about cooking. I didn’t can last summer because of the move I was planning for the beginning of August. Because all of my early belongings needed to fit in my hatchback car, I didn’t make any elaborate recipes in Seattle. I had only rudimentary kitchen gear. I roasted lots of meats and veggies with some fresh herbs and spices, as the only equipment required for that is a pan.
The jams I made this summer were in small enough quantities, that I didn’t need to water seal them. I wanted to experiment with some different flavors. No one needs six or seven jars of a failed experiment.
I picked blueberries and black raspberries the same morning. I knew I wanted to use honey and lavender with the blueberries. For the black raspberries, I was thinking vanilla and lemon.
But I thought another woody spice would add some depth. Although I love cinnamon, I wanted something that would be less recognizable. I ended up with some peppery dry allspice.
First, the bad news, I didn’t measure anything. I just added ingredients to the pot until it tasted good. But I will tell you the process I followed for both of the jams and what I will do differently next time.
I washed the blueberries and tossed them into pot whole with a little water. I squeezed out a very generous amount of honey, by the looks of it about a half cup to around 6 cups of berries. I made a tea out of the lavender and strained out the blossoms.
After the berries cooked on medium heat for a while the berries started to break down and burst open and take on the consistency of a very runny jam. Then I adjusted all the flavors. I added more honey and sugar, the lavender tea, and the allspice until Jeannine and I thought it delicious.
Jeannine in a flash of inspiration pulled off a portion of the blueberry preserves and added some vanilla spiked bourbon. Both of the varieties of jam cooked until they thickened. Then we put them in jars for storage in the refrigerator.
I followed a similar process for the black raspberry preserves, only we strained out the black raspberry seeds. There I cooked the berries in water for some minutes to leech out as much of the flavor from the pulp and seeds as possible. Then we added the lemon, allspice, and vanilla, bean husk and seeds to taste.
All the lovely flavors! All of them!
I didn’t use pectin. This posed the biggest challenge for the seedless black raspberry jam. All the natural pectin in that fruit is in the pulp and seeds. Without them I was worried that it would never set.
That fear proved unfounded. In fact, the only thing I would do differently on all of the jams is cook them less, so that they would have set a little less tightly. In the case of the blueberry preserves, those were just a little more set than I would like for mixing into yogurt or spreading on waffles (my primary use of jams).
The black raspberry preserves were so set as to approach hard tack candy once refrigerated. In my concerns about the lack of pectin I significantly over cooked it. In both cases, there’s a moment were the liquid shifts from behaving like water to behaving like syrup. I think I should have pulled both of the jams off as soon as this transition happened. It’s that moment when abrupt stirring stops splashing up in tiny droplets.
Side note, we made these popsicles with the black raspberries. They were delicious. I will try making this with peaches soon. Partially because they will be good but also to ensure I use those stupid popsicle molds at least one more time. I hate buying kitchen goods that only do one thing. HATE IT.
There were delicious. I am ruined for popsicles now.
Now that I have executed my experiments, I am ready to make larger batches next year and put some jams on the shelf for winter. I also anticipate canning more black raspberry pie filling next year. That process is a massive pain in the ass, but it’s a lovely thing to have black raspberry pie in December.
This was the plan. We would pick pick 10 quarts of blueberries. Then we would make two jams, 7 quarts of blueberry pie filling, one blueberry pie, and one apple-blueberry short cake. We had no idea that this was an overly ambitious plan. Here’s how it went down.
Do you know how long it takes two people to pick ten quarts of blueberries? We didn’t. I had some concept of the effort involved based on my past strawberry and raspberry picking experiences. We tend to forget negative bits of the past and retain the positive bits. This is how women agree to go through childbirth a second time. I figured it would take us a couple of hours. What I failed to figure was how fatiguing bending over and/or kneeling for 2 hours can be.
We picked at Hidden Valley Farm in Lebanon, OH. They opened at ten, which meant a pretty late start to our day. When we can, we tend to start cooking a little earlier than that. Plus, I know from my farm-raised father, that you really want to get your picking in before the heat of the day, which means being in the field at sunrise. Sweating your balls off really drains your energy, obviously not my father’s words.
After an hour in the car charting every back road in Southwestern Ohio and questioning the wisdom of Google Maps, we turned up at the farm at ten. When I told the old farmer that we were there to pick blueberries, he responded with, “Good. They aren’t going to pick themselves.” My dad’s family is thick with these types of characters. I don’t know if farming cultivates character, or if characters are drawn to farming.
A friendly woman approached and asked if we had picked blueberries before. I said no, but to satisfy my own anxiety at being perceived as a noob, I added that I’ve picked other fruits. She directed us to one of two areas with blueberry shrubs, and explained that we should look for berries that separate from the bush at a gentle twist. It’s still unclear if this woman was a helpful patron or an employee of the farm.
The twenty ounces of iced coffee that I expected to fuel my picking also set my back teeth afloat, so I inquired about a bathroom. I was cheerfully lead to an outhouse. Joy. I believe that this was my first outhouse experience. It could have been worse, but lets just say the lack of light in there was probably for the best. It did smell of a shit you might find in your closet days after the stench has alerted you to your cat’s passive aggressive punishment for vacationing.
I am listening to Andrew W. K. while writing these captions. This combo isn’t working. Pastoral pictures and frat rock, not a good combo. Anyway, this is what a blueberry bush looks like.
The shrubs appeared to be of varying maturity. It looked like they were correct in stating that they were at the beginning of their season. The shrubs had quite a few berries on them that were not yet ripe. Regardless, we did find plenty to pick.
Like strawberries, efficient blueberry picking is based on your eye catching color peeking out between leaves.
I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub before. They are squat little bushes.
They had two fields of bushes. That sentence made my inner twelve-year-old snicker.
Their second field was further from the entrance. We both reasoned that people probably didn’t venture back there as frequently, so the picking would be better. We decided to move to the second field. Logic and reason didn’t disappoint.
Their high-tech bird repellent.
We were wondering how they kept the birds off their berries. Birds find a way to get my cherry tomatoes off of my deck in the middle of downtown. This seemed a far easier meal. We were also wondering why we kept hearing something that sounded a little like gun fire. I had actually assumed someone was getting in target practice within earshot. Turns out those ideas aren’t as unrelated as you might think.
As we approached the second field, there was muffled screaming, “Fire in the hole”! Now, reasonable people would have reconsidered approaching, but we aren’t reasonable. We found an air gun set-up at the edge of the field. It was rigged to a container of propane, and was set-up to go off at intervals. In the spirit of Scooby Doo, bird-eating-berries mystery solved.
Their low-tech bird repellent.
This is what almost eight quarts of blueberries looks like.
With the picking adventure in the bag, we started cooking around one in the afternoon. We started on two varieties of blueberry jam. We made one batch of standard jam, and we made one batch of this spiced blueberry jam. Aside from the fact that we needed to gather some last minute ingredients (thanks Jenn and Carly), making the jams went as planned.
Spiced blueberry jam prior to simmering.
Spiced blueberry jam.
Panna Cotta topped with fresh blueberry jam.
My canning partner Ali, who is almost always the we that I am referring to when cooking, brought over panna cotta. Naturally, we put fresh preserves on it. The standard blueberry jam passed this test with flying colors. The panna cotta was delicious, and really would have been wonderful pared with any fruit topping.
Jams just before sealing.
The spiced jam is interesting. The star anise gives the impression of excessive sweetness, but the cider vinegar counterbalances it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when tasting it on its own. I later spooned a bit of it on the panna cotta and enjoyed it. My partner said that she couldn’t tell the difference between the regular and spiced jams, so it’s safe to say the difference is subtle.
Blanched berries. These got combined with the Clear Jel and sugar mixture, that would also double as cement in a pinch.
This was our first time canning pie filling. It did not exactly go off without a hitch. According to my not-so-exhausted research, Clear Jel is the only product approved for home canning. This product was a real pain to get hold of. Here’s the recipe we used. I’m not going to delve into the challenge that was Clear Jel. I am just going to say the things that I learned. First, when the instructions say don’t overcook, what they mean is don’t heat it up too fast. If you should, perhaps, misinterpret this direction and heat it up too fast, just know that the terrifying inconsistent gelatinous goo that results can me beat out with a wisk if you remove the pot from heat. Second, the sugar Clear Jel combo will form something like cement if you fail to clean your pot almost immediately after use. Third, the instructions are poorly worded. If you choose to work with this product, I can only say, my the odds be ever in your favor.
Pie filling. Let’s not think about how many dollars of blueberries are in that jar.
By the time we finished the jams and navigated the Clear Jel fiasco, we were beat. At six we slumped down at the table, and dolefully looked at each other. The glance that we shared said it all. What were we thinking?
After a few moments of commiserating that our work was not yet done, we started on the pie and the shortcake. I had made the pie crust some days earlier, and it was just a matter of rolling it out and assembling the pie with the filling that we had finished.
I followed this vegan pie crust recipe, and used my own homemade vegan butter. I know what you are thinking, meat eater. You are thinking that this must taste like crap. I am also a meat eater, and frankly I thought the same. The vegan butter was quite good. It was better than any margarine that I’ve had by a long shot. In a blind taste test, I bet I would struggle to identify butter from this vegan butter.
The pie rolled out wonderfully. I was suspicious, as in my experience, the flakiness of a pie crust has an inverse relationship with the ease with which it rolls out. Pie crusts that roll well, are pie crusts that have too much water. But the crust turned out really great. It was the right balance of flaky, crisp, and sturdy. This crust was good enough that I am making it my default recipe.
Pie right out of the oven.
That’s a fine-looking slice of pie.
That brings us to the shortcake. Did you look at the recipe? Stupid metric system. Or perhaps, stupid America for not adopting the metric system like the rest of the world. In addition, this thing looked like a ghastly mess when we put it in the oven. The dough was difficult to work with. We were shocked to find that it came out of the oven looking exactly like the pictures. I’m convinced that elves replaced that hot mess we put in the oven with a fully prepared shortcake.
The shortcake turned out pretty well. It was a bit more tart that I would have liked, but the cake part was pleasant. Personally, I would add a bit of vanilla to the cake, as it had more of a pound cake texture than biscuit texture. In America, pound cake means lightly sweetened biscuit; I don’t know how you Brits do it.
What are my lessons in summary? Vegan pie crust is great. Clear Jel is a filthy whore. Brits don’t know what short cake is. Blueberry jam is delicious. The end.