Friday, 1 November 2013

Jams, jellies and chutneys

Smoking, drying and salting have all been used for hundred, indeed thousands, of years to preserve food. In the days before refrigeration and freezing, people relied on time-honoured methods for keeping food from spoiling.  Using sugar is necessarily a more modern technique, given that we only started importing sugar cane in the 16th century and the sugar content of beet wasn’t discovered until the 1700s. 
It was the Victorians and then Edwardians who took preserving with sugar and elevated it to high art in the kitchen. They filled their larders with jams, jellies, catsups (ie, what we now call ketchups), syrups, pickles, and chutneys, all of which use sugar to a greater or lesser extent for its preservative properties. 
These days, we don’t really have the storage space of the big Victorian and Edwardian houses. And for many of us, we don't have much in the way of spare time. With fridges and freezers, there simply isn't as great a need to find ways to keep food beyond its natural sell-by date.  Instead we can concentrate on using time-honoured preserving methods to deal with a glut of produce or to create something different (and often superior) to the usual commercially prepared jams and jellies. 
Both jams and jellies rely on sugar and pectin for taste, consistency and ability to keep well. Pectin is a carbohydrate found in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables. It is a natural setting agent and it is the presence of pectin that makes jams and jellies thicken and set. Fruit jellies do nor (or should not) contain gelatin; they ‘gel’ through the presence of pectin. 
Some plants are richer in pectin than others. Strawberries, for example, are notoriously low in pectin and often strawberry jam needs to be made with sugar that has had pectin added to it. Apples are high in pectin and are often added to low-pectin fruits as another way of helping them to set, as are another high-pectin fruit, redcurrants. Damsons, plums and quinces are naturally high in pectin and will thicken into jam or jelly relatively easily. 
Jams include whole or chunks of fruit. The liquor in which the fruit is suspended should be thick and syrupy, but not jellied. 
Jellies are strained and so contain no fruity lumps. A properly made jelly should be clear, not cloudy. Ideally a fruit jelly for spreading on toast or serving with meat should be less hard-set than a dessert jelly. 
The sugar added to jams and jellies acts as the preservative - without added sugar the fruit won't keep, nor of course will they taste so sweet. Sugar is currently public food enemy number one and there’s no doubt that we should probably all eat less of it . However, you can't significantly reduce the sugar content in a jam or jelly and maintain the same preservative effect. If the amount of sugar required makes your teeth itch, then by all means reduce the amount of sugar to your taste, but then store the preserve in the fridge and eat it all up within two weeks. 
Chutneys are derived from the Indian chutni’, or ‘chatni’ (think of the ‘chat’ that you can eat in an Indian restaurant today), a spicy relish eaten as a side dish or accompaniment. Indian chatnis or relishes tend to be more spicy and savoury – and always vegetarian. When the British first encountered them in early Colonial days and brought them home and adapted them, it was the sweet and fruity aspect of chutneys they enjoyed. So our chutneys, as opposed to chutnis, tend to be sweeter, and less fiery - more of a cross between a jam and a pickle. Chutneys rely on both sugar and vinegar (and salt, to some extent) to preserve their ingredients.

General tips for making jams, jellies and chutneys
  • Use copper, steel or aluminium pans for making sugar-based preserves. Enamel pans are fine so long as they are not chipped. 
  • Use non-reactive, ie, not copper or aluminium, pans for vinegar-based pickles. 
  • Pick or choose fruit that is exactly ripe. Overripe and your jam or jelly might ferment. Underripe and it will lack flavour and will need more sugar. 
  • Don’t used the blemished parts of fruit. It will impair the flavour.  
  • Don’t pick fruit when it’s wet. It will be waterlogged and your jam/jelly will be weaker in flavour, and might go mouldy. 
  • Jams and jellies should be cooked until they are just set - test the liquid frequently to ensure that you don't overcook. Chutneys need to be cooked long and slow so that the ingredients soften and the flavours have plenty of time to blend.
  • The jars you use to store the preserves in should be sterilised. This is not a complicated process. The easiest way to sterilise jars (and their lids) is to put them through a dishwasher cycle (not a low temperature, or economy setting) and then into an oven at 120 degrees to dry off.  Alternatively, you can wash, then rinse the jars in very hot water, and dry off in the oven as above.  
  • You can sterilise in the microwave by filling jars half-full with water and heating on high for 2 minutes. Empty the jars and dry in the oven as above. 
  • The jars should have properly fitting, airtight lids, which should also be sterilised in hot soapy water, rinsed and dried.  
  • Your jams, jellies and chutneys should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Once opened, keep them in the fridge.  
  • Chutneys should be stored for at least three months before eating, so that the flavours can blend and mellow properly.
I've been lucky enough to have a glut of quinces from the tree this year - nearly 200 hundred plump quinces each weighing around 300g or more. The blossom on quince trees doesn't appear until May, by which time the weather had warmed up and it stayed warm throughout the summer - perfect conditions for developing and setting plenty of fruit.
Quince jelly is a great way to may the most of quinces when they are plentiful. It's a simple jelly to make, it cooks to the most beautiful clear amber colour and the resulting jelly is delicious, whether spread on bread or toast, or eaten to accompany meats or cheese.
Furthermore, if you go on to make quince cheese (quince paste or 'membrillo') with the same quinces, you get two sweetstuffs for the price of one: the jelly from the juice and the membrillo from the pulp.

Quince jelly 
The first stage with any jelly is to extract the juice. We do this without any sugar added at this stage. Chop up the fruit. Don’t peel it or core it – the peel and pips contain lots of valuable pectin. Do remove any blemishes, stalk or leaves. Put the chopped pieces in a big non-reactive pan and add lemon juice and lemon zest – about one lemon for every 1.5kg or 3lbs of chopped fruit. 

Then add water: 2 litres for every 1.5kg of fruit, although here I tend to think in imperial measurements and add a pint of water for every pound of fruit. Bring this to the boil and simmer away for about an hour and a half. You can use a potato masher to push the fruit down in the water and make sure lots of flavour is released. At the end of an hour and a half, the fruit should be very soft and mushy. 
Next you need to strain the fruit juice. Traditionally people suspend a jellybag made with a muslin square over a bowl and let the juice drip through. You can buy special jelly bags and stands, but I still like the old-fashioned method of turning a chair upside down on top of another chair and tying a big colander to the upturned legs and draping my muslin over the colander. My mother-in-law rigs up something similar using the clothes horse - another traditional piece of equipment in its own right.
Whichever way you use, give your fruit mix several hours, preferably overnight, to strain, and don’t, whatever you do, try to speed the process up by pressing down on the colander. This will give you cloudy jelly. 
What you are left with after straining quinces is an opaque pink juice, which is used for making jelly, and the quince pulp, which can be used to make membrillo.
The next stage is to boil this juice up with sugar until it sets into a jelly, then pour it into sterilised jars. 
Start sterilising your jars by whichever method you favour. Get a cold plate and a teaspoon and place these near the hob on the worktop. Have a tea strainer, mesh spoon, or shallow spoon handy for skimming. Measure the amount of juice you have. For every 600ml of juice, you need 450g of sugar.
Pour the juice into a large pan and add the sugar. Stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar, then turn the heat up to bring the juice up to the boil. From this point on, you need to keep a careful eye on the pan. The syrup should be maintained at a good rolling boil, so that it looks pale and almost foamy as it bubbles away. This is one process where a gentle simmer won't do. On the other hand, you don't want  it to bubble up so fast that it boils over.
When the liquid boils up, you'll see a white residue, like froth, or even something more solid, forming on the surface. This needs to be skimmed out of the jelly, either with a spoon, or a strainer. I find sweeping a tea strainer through the top of the liquid is an effective way to do it. 
How long you need to boil the syrup for will vary from batch to batch. I would usually expect around 20 minutes of good, hard boiling, but it could be less and is quite often longer. Test your liquid initially after about 5 minutes to get an idea of how it's progressing, but don't expect anything like a set at this stage.
To test manually, dip your teaspoon into the pan and drop a spoonful of the liquid on to the cold plate. Leave it to cool, then push your forefinger through the little pool of liquid on the plate. If it feels syrupy, if the surface of the liquid wrinkles at all as you push your finger through it, and if the the two sides of  the liquid stay separated instead of pooling together again after you have lifted your finger again, the your jelly is set and ready to pour into jars.
So, do your first 5 minute test, then test again after 5 minutes. This second test should look much more syrupy, but you probably won't get that tell-tale wrinkling of the surface of the liquid on the plate. From now on, it's a good idea to take your pan off the heat when you test. You don't want to find you've achieved your set with the pan still merrily bubbling away, as it carries on cooking your jelly. Once your liquid starts to look syrupy, test every 2-3 minutes. When you think it has set, let the bubbles in the pan die down and skim again so that you are left with a clear amber syrup. Have your warm sterilised jars ready and a ladle and, if you have one, a jam funnel (an ordinary funnel will be just as useful).
Spoon the syrup carefully into the jars and cover with the lids. Leave to cool, then tighten the lids fully. Label the jars and store somewhere cool and dark.

Quince cheese

Take the soft chunks of quince left over after straining for jelly, above, and push through a sieve, or, less arduously, a mouli-legumes. I find that if you use a mouli and start with the disc with the largest holes, then pass the puree you get from that through the smallest disc, you will get a fine quince puree for rather less elbow grease than trying to get the pulp through a sieve straightaway. Whichever method you use it's still hard labour. Don't be tempted to puree in the food processor, though, you want to sieve out the pips and skin and core, not pulverise them.

Weigh the final puree, put in a heavy-bottomed pan (a wide, non-stick pan is a Godsend), and add the same amount in weight in sugar. So, if you have 1kg of quince, add 1 kg sugar. Stir over a medium heat until the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil - the puree will pop and bubble. It's rather like looking into the crater of an active volcano.

Keep stirring and keep the mixture on the boil. The colour will deepen from pale orange to a deep rich reddish-brown. The puree will thicken and eventually - it may take up to an hour - you will be able to draw your spoon along the bottom of the pan and the mixture will be stiff enough to stay separate in the pan. Remove from the heat.
You can store quince cheese in small wide-topped pots, or spread out on greaseproof paper to cut into shapes when it's cool and fully set. If using pots, dampen a piece of kitchen paper with a little vegetable oil and rub it around the base and sides. This will make it much easier to unmould the cheese later. I use the little plastic pots which the local Chinese takeaway uses for your dipping sauces - they're just the right size and shape.
Leave to cool completely, then store somewhere cool and dark or in the fridge. Quince cheese seems to keep forever.

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