Congratulations, and welcome to Becky’s guide to cooking delicious, homemade jellies and jams!
Do all of you have your freshly picked fruit? Yes?
How about your aprons – are they on? Yes?
Excellent. Let’s get started.
- DON’T. JUST DON’T. Seriously. Set down the spoon.
- Go to the grocery store, you idiot. They have plenty of jam and jelly there. Just pick one out, buy it, go home and enjoy it. If you’re feeling really fancy, grab one that says “organic” or “homemade”.
I’ve always wanted to be a good cook. I loved the idea of it. I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye, too.
“Come in, come in. Please, sit down at my beautiful dining room table. Would you like some chilled something-something- soup as an appetizer? How about some wine? It’s, uh, red. And French-sounding. That means it’s good. For dinner we have blah-blah beef, served with a delicious au jus…”
The problem I had with this daydream up above is that I am, absolutely, one of the worst cooks I’ve ever met. I mean, look at my imaginary scenario up above. I can’t even keep my crap together long enough to imagine real dishes. If I can’t even pay attention long enough to imagine real food, why did I ever think I would be able to follow a complicated recipe in real life?
You know, let’s not focus on my embarrassing past. Let’s just skip over my painful, formative years of cooking.
We’ll ignore the sugar cookies I baked that smelled and tasted EXACTLY like fish.
We’ll forget about the stew that crawled out of the pot and tried to escape out the front door.
We’re not EVEN going to bring up the time I tried to serve everyone sugar and oregano toast for breakfast (hey, man, I’m not the one who made the little spice boxes look identical.)
Let’s just fast forward to now.
I’m 32 years old. I’ve come to peace with the fact I’m not ever going to be a fantastic cook. I keep my husband and kids alive, but that’s about as far as it goes, and it’s enough for me. I mean, I have improved quite a bit over the past couple of years, but that’s only because I was forced to by my eldest son’s allergies. If you’re going to feed a kid that’s allergic to gluten, dairy, and all food dyes, you’re going to have to learn how to do a little bit of cooking.
Even so, I still kind of suck at cooking. It’s hard, it’s boring, there are too many dishes to do afterwards, and by the time I’m done it never tastes as good as I was imagining.
This why it completely shocked me when I became obsessed with the idea of making my own jam/jelly.
I blame Oregon, the state I live in. During the month of August, everywhere you look there are blackberries….And I do mean EVERYWHERE you look. If left to its own devices, this state would become one giant, impenetrable blackberry bush.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot resist the lure of free things. Say what? That bush over there is growing ripe, delicious, berries? And they’re totally free? All I have to do is mangle my hands and arms on its thorns, and I can have as many as I want? Sold!
The only problem with picking lots and lots of free fruit (aside from the thorns and scratches and copious bleeding) is that you have to do something with it… and thus, the idea of making my own jam was born.
It seemed easy enough at the beginning. I bought some glass mason jars, a couple of canning supplies, some pectin, a large pot, and got started.
The first few steps were simple: Crush berries – check. Add pectin and then sugar – check. Boil – check.
And that’s where it got complicated.
How long was I supposed to cook it for?
According to the recipe, I was to “Cook to the gelling point”.
What the hell is a gelling point? I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the gelling point is when it, you know, gels…. But how can you tell?
The recipe didn’t say.
Besides, I had other things to worry about. According to what was happening on my stove, they appeared to forget about one of the cooking steps:
- When boiling, the jam will fluff up to about 27 times its original volume and resemble some kind of evil nightmare. Make sure you begin the whole process with an enormous pot, lest the evil lava reach out, grab you, and suck you inside the cooking pot.
Since the recipe was of little help at that point, I fired up the laptop. After a few minutes of frantic Googling (and perhaps a little complaining on Facebook), I finally found the answer to my gelling point question.
If I didn’t own a candy thermometer (I didn’t), then I could place a teaspoon of jam into a saucer in the fridge for a minute or two, and see if it set.
There was only one problem with that scenario: what was I supposed to do with the 7.4 cubic tons of lava that was splashing on my stove while I waited for the jam in the fridge to cool down?
The recipe didn’t say, so I decided to frantically stir it, hoping for the best.
That’s when I came up with another addition to the recipe directions:
- If you drop the spoon into the pot, resist the temptation to reach in and try to grab it. BOILING SUGAR IS VERY HOT. Don’t be stupid.
Luckily for me, the jam set in the fridge on the first try, so I turned the heat off and prepared to ladle it into the waiting mason jars.
That step went easily enough. Unfortunately for me, the next step wasn’t nearly so simple.
What was the next step?
Well. THANK YOU VERY MUCH, MR. RECIPE. THAT HELPS TONS.
As far as I can see, the problem with recipes is that they are written for people who already know how to cook. If I’d already made jam half a dozen times, and only needed to be reminded of the order of things, “Process” would be a perfectly reasonable description of the next step.
Unfortunately, as a newbie, extremely frustrated jam-maker, it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. Who decided that was enough description? Heck, if I followed their example, even I could probably write a cookbook.
Recipe for Beef Wellington
- Get beef
- Get the stuff for the Wellington part of it
- Turn on the oven until it’s hot enough
- Mix everything together, and put it on the meat
- Put in oven.
- Take it out when it is delicious and perfectly done
See? It’s simple. All I need to do is add a couple more recipes, self-publish, and I’ll be the next Julia Child.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bunch of free fruit on the side of the road that needs picking.