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Saving Sweet Temptations

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Homemade jam and jelly make fresh delicious biscuits into an awesome treat.
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Sunlight turns herbal jams and jellies into colorful panes.
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Using a funnel may be the answer to keeping jar rims clean.
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Basil Apple Jelly
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A towel keeps jars from cracking against each other during a rolling boil.
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Lemon Lime Basil Jelly
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Jam from fresh peaches can’t be beat.

Basil Apple Jelly
Lemon Lime Basil Jelly
Fresh Apricot Jam or Preserves
Peach Jam or Preserves
Strawberry Preserves

Recipes developed by Barbara Meyer

When it’s fair time, country cooks and their urban counterparts are drawn to show-off their jelly and jam making skills at the county fair.

Cooks read competition rules as if lives depend upon it. Preserves, carefully prepared earlier, are inspected for minute flaws. After all, only show quality products will make the cut.

An easy way to become familiar with the judging process is to volunteer as a judge’s helper. Beware, however, volunteering is the carrot that draws you to the next level – entering your own fruit-flavored creations.

Ancient art renewed

Experts believe that making jelly, jam and preserves began in the Middle East, where sugarcane grew naturally. The ingredients then included fruit, sugar and citrus, which caused the mixture to congeal. Early New England settlers preserved their fruits with honey, molasses or maple sugar and used pectin from apple parings as a thickener. Commercial pectin appeared on the market in the early 1900s and quickly became the jelling agent of choice, even though it required plenty of sugar to work. Recently, cooks striving for the best flavor have rediscovered the ancient art of preserving with no added commercial pectin; richer flavor and less sugar are part of the payoff.

For the past six years, Barbara Meyer of Urbana, Illinois, has been perfecting recipes to enter in county fair competitions. She uses commercial pectin in herb jelly, but not in her jams and preserves. She avoids using a cooking thermometer; she says it feels too much like lab work. The judges agree with her techniques, and have awarded a rainbow of ribbons to her entries at the Champaign County Fair.

The recipes and techniques that follow are from Barbara’s winning repertoire.

Canning method

1. Use only jars that are produced for home canning. Recycling jars from store-bought products is not safe.
2. Inspect jars carefully. Discard any with chipped or uneven top edges.
3. Sterilize clean jars by boiling in the canner for 5 minutes. Leave in boiling water until ready to fill. (Keep the canner and hot water on a burner over low heat, and it will be ready for processing the filled jars.)
4. Sterilize jelly-making equipment in the canner along with the jars – tongs, wide-mouth funnel, ladle, non-metallic stirring spoon and a non-metallic spoon to skim foam from hot mixture.
5. Put lids and rings in a separate pan and cover with an inch of hot water. Lids are not boiled since extreme heat might soften the rubber seal. Use only new lids. Clean rings can be safely reused, but are seldom of show quality.
6. Lift one jar from boiling water with tongs. Place jar upright on a wooden cutting board or folded bath towel and immediately fill with hot mixture using a sterilized, wide-mouthed funnel and ladle. Leave the air space called for in recipe (usually 1/2 to 1/8 inch) at the top.
7. Wipe mouth of jar with clean washcloth dipped in hot water to remove all spillage. Neglecting this step may result in a bad seal.
8. Put lid and ring on jar immediately and tighten just until you meet resistance. Ring will not be completely tight.
9. Put sealed jars on rack or towel in hot water in canner. Water should cover jars by 1 inch.
10. Process in boiling water for amount of time listed in recipe. Begin counting processing time once water has returned to boil.
11. Remove jars from canner. Be careful of hot drips. Set jars on a wooden surface or towel leaving 1 inch between jars to cool evenly. Jelly will be liquid at processing temperature.
12. Cover hot jars with second towel.
13. Let jars cool undisturbed for 24 hours. The lids on those that sealed will be dimpled down in the center. At this point, you may remove the rings and place sealed jars in storage.
14. Refrigerate contents of jars that fail to seal and use within a few days.

Basil Apple Jelly

Using apple juice as the liquid in this recipe results in a golden yellow color and subtle apple flavor. Canned pineapple juice can also be used, to produce a very nice flavor.

1 1/2 cups chopped basil (or 1 1/8 cup leaves and 3/8 cup flower heads)
2 cups apple juice
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
3 1/2 cups sugar
Pinch salt
3 ounces liquid pectin

Wash basil and finely chop in food processor.

Make herb infusion by putting chopped basil in large saucepan and add apple juice. Bring to a full boil and boil 30 seconds. Let cool 15 minutes and strain infusion through doubled coffee filter. Discard leaves.

If using same saucepan for next step, rinse to remove leaf particles. Measure 1/2 cups herb infusion, return to saucepan; add lemon juice, sugar and salt.

Bring to hard boil, stirring. When boil can’t be stirred down, add pectin. Return to hard boil that can’t be stirred down; boil for exactly 1 minute, then remove saucepan from heat.

Skim off foam. Ladle into sterile jars leaving 1/2-inch head space. Process 5 minutes. Small 4-ounce jars (taster size) may be stacked on top of each other during processing.

Yields 4 eight-ounce jars.

Lemon Lime Basil Jelly

This jelly is translucent green with a light flavor. Most canners prefer the natural color and shun adding food coloring.

1 1/2 cups packed lime basil leaves
2 cups filtered water
Juice of 1 lemon
3 1/2 cups sugar
Pinch salt
3 ounces liquid pectin

Wash basil and finely chop in food processor.

Make herb infusion by putting chopped basil in large saucepan and add filtered water. Bring to full boil and boil 30 seconds. Let cool 15 minutes and strain infusion through doubled coffee filter. Discard leaves.

If using same saucepan for next step, rinse to remove leaf particles. Measure 1/2 cups herb infusion, return to saucepan; add lemon juice, sugar and salt.

Bring to hard boil, stirring. When boil can’t be stirred down, add pectin. Return to hard boil that can’t be stirred down, boil for exactly 1 minute, then remove saucepan from heat.

Skim off foam. Ladle into sterile jars leaving 1/2-inch head space. Process 5 minutes. Small 4-ounce jars (taster size) may be stacked on top of each other during processing.

Yields 4 eight-ounce jars.

A jam is not a preserve

In 1940, the United States Food and Drug Administration established Standards of Identity for jams and preserves. In general, a jam is a thick mixture of fruit, sugar and often pectin that is cooked until the fruit pieces are soft and almost formless – the texture of a thick purée. A preserve is almost identical to a jam, but contains large chunks of fruit or whole fruit.

This subtle distinction is important to a county fair judge. Experienced cooks often perfect an award-winning jam recipe first; they then introduce fruit chunks or whole fruit to develop their award-winning preserve recipe.

Fresh Apricot Jam or Preserves

Use apricots that are barely ripe. Slightly underripe fruit contains more natural pectin than ripe. Using ripe apricots will result in a soft jam. Include the skin when chopping apricots since pectin is concentrated there. An excellent source of beta-carotene (Vitamin A), apricots also provide Vitamin C, iron, potassium and fiber, among other nutrients. California produces 95 percent of all apricots grown in the United States.

These are available May through early July.

3 cups coarsely chopped, unpeeled fresh apricots (about 2 pounds or 14-20 apricots – at least half of them should be just underripe; chop more finely for jam than you would for preserves)
3 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Mix apricots, sugar and lemon juice together and let stand 12 hours, covered loosely, at room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Bring apricot mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, and boil rapidly until gel point is reached (218-220°F depending on stiffness of desired set). Preserves might take 25 minutes.

Ladle into sterile jars and process 10 minutes.

Yields 4 eight-ounce jars.

Peach Jam or Preserves

Depending on whether the flesh sticks to the pit or not, cultivated peaches are characterized as “freestone” or “clingstone.” Both kinds can have white or yellow flesh. White-fleshed peaches are the most popular types in China, Japan and neighboring Asian countries, while Europeans and North Americans have historically favored the more acidic, yellow-fleshed varieties.

8 cups peeled, pitted, sliced peaches (about 4 pounds large peaches or 6 pounds small sized – peel by dipping each peach into boiling water about 30 seconds) Note: Mature but unripe peaches make a more flavorful jam.
5 1/2 cups sugar
Juice of three fresh lemons

Crush fruit using potato masher for jam. (Leave slices whole for preserves.)

Mix peaches and sugar in wide, 4-quart saucepan. Heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring to full rolling boil that can’t be stirred down, then boil 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Pour into large, deep, heat-proof platters to cool quickly and retain color. When cool, cover lightly with wax paper and let stand 24 hours.

Peach jam needs to be processed in small batches, so place half the jam in 21/2-quart saucepan. Place remaining jam in second saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring, about 10 minutes or until transparent and jell point is reached (218-220°F depending on stiffness of desired set). Preserves might take 15 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir and skim foam. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath.

Yields 8 eight-ounce jars.

Strawberry, everyone’s favorite

Entering strawberry jam or preserves in county fair competition means competing with farm wives whose recipes have been in the family for generations. Judges carefully check flavor and consistency along with small details such as having a speck of rust on a jar ring or not having wiped the jar completely clean. For best results with your preserve, use 1/4 to 1/3 underripe strawberries since they contain more pectin.

Strawberry Preserves

4 cups washed, stemmed and cut up or crushed strawberries
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Mix berries and sugar and let stand 8 hours.

Bring to boil over medium heat. Add lemon juice. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 24 hours.

Bring to full boil and boil 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Skim foam. Ladle into sterile jars. Fill to 1/2 inch from the top. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath.

Yields 4 eight-ounce jars.

Shirley Splittstoesser is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois. She asked Barbara Meyer to share recipes and expertise developed at the Champaign County Fair.

Published on Apr 30, 2008
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