Thursday, July 03, 2008

Putting the RED in red, white and blue!

Well, folks...we're in the thick of it: the sweet, red, juicy, puckery, sticky thick of it. It may be the height of summer where you are (the three-day Fourth of July weekend begins tomorrow, after all!), but in my region, we are enjoying an extended spring, with all the lettuce you (and a family of famished rabbits) could eat, and as befits my favorite seasonal salad topper, the most delicious STRAWBERRIES! We savored the first quart of organic beauties from Vermont as long as we could before I had to break down and drive up into another country for a whole flat of the red, ripe lovelies. Since then, I have literally been up to my elbows in pot after pot of jam, plus one batch of creamy, tangy strawberry curd, and I STILL have a quart left! Sheesh!

For my strawberry jam this year, it was my great pleasure to finally be able to turn to that most hallowed volume, Mes Confitures, from Christine Ferber (now that it is no longer out of print!). I knew I wanted to try her Strawberry with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint, because so many people have reviewed it so favorably, and because Cyd LOVES strawberries and mint together. But I also wanted to try the Strawberry with Raspberry Juice and Balsamic Vinegar for myself. It seems like an unusual combination (as Ferber's recipes often seem initially!), but it's actually a classic and traditional marriage of flavors from Modena, Italy--the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. It also seems like it might be a more savory jam, but I assure you, it is sweet--equally at home on buttered toast, stirred into morning yogurt, or I imagine it would be just heavenly over ice cream! Although I confess, I did take the leftover foam that I had skimmed off the jam, added an additional tablespoon of balsamic to it, and glazed some grilled pork ribs with the mixture--OH MY!

The taste is a little hard to describe fully, but it is intensely berry-flavored with a depth and sophistication of flavor from the balsamic that I don't think the average person could identify specifically. Likewise, the black pepper (in both recipes) doesn't come forward as you might think--it just gives it a subtle little kick, a little something-something that, again, most folks wouldn't be able to pick out of the flavor line-up, even though I doubled the peppercorns. I'm sure I'm not doing the description justice, but I do not exaggerate when I say that it my be my favorite jam EVER. In fact, as soon as I finished the first batch, I set about making a second, and when my own raspberries are ready, I darn well may make a third! If you make one jam"summer," this should be the one.

And don't be put off by the Ferber methodology. Yes, it may take two or even three days to complete one small batch of her jam, but it's lots of passive time, letting the berries macerate in sugar syrup overnight one or twice until they become as shimmering, translucent and jewel-like as stained glass. The berries will stay whole in the jam (so be mindful of that when you're cutting them up--some folks may even wish to mash them a bit), but the beautiful glacéed fruit will be so tender that they will easily yield to gentle pressure with a knife against your toast or muffin. Remember, any fool can make a quick jam with a box of pectin, but patience and love will render a transcendent, yea, a resplendent confection, in the Ferber tradition. They don't call her la fée des confitures (the jam fairy) for nuthin'!

Strawberry with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint
(Source: Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber)

2 1/2 pounds strawberries (2 1/4 pounds net)
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 small lemon
5 fresh mint leaves (or 10! I used a combination of orange mint and Kentucky Colonel mint from my herb garden), chopped
5 black peppercorns, freshly ground (again, I used 10)

Rinse the strawberries under cold water. Dry them and hull (hull the strawberries after you wash them or they will absorb water). In a ceramic bowl, mix the strawberries, lemon juice and sugar, and cover with a piece of parchment (or just use a plastic bowl with a lid). Let this macerate overnight in the fridge.

The next day, bring the mixture to a simmer in a preserving pan. Pour it back into the ceramic bowl, cover again with the parchment, and let it refrigerate overnight once more. (I won't tell Ms. Ferber if you skip this step and move right onto cooking the jam. However, I just brought mine to a boil the second morning, let it chill all day, and then made the jam that evening, preserving Ferber's method, so to speak, but cutting the time down to just two days instead of three.)

On the third day, pour the mixture through a sieve and reserve the macerated strawberries. Bring the syrup to a boil over high heat, skimming as necessary. When the syrup has reached 221 degrees on a candy thermometer, add the strawberries, mint, and black pepper. Return to the boil and cook for five minutes, then check the set. (To check whether the jam is set, spoon a little onto a chilled plate, wait few seconds and run your finger through the drop of jam. If it wrinkles, it means the jam is ready). Continue to boil until the set point is reached (mine took about nine minutes total).
Pour the jam into clean, warm jars, wipe down the rims, and add lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes (Ferber uses the open kettle method but, as always, I'm a safety gal). Yield: 4 half-pints

Strawberry with Raspberry Juice and Balsamic Vinegar
(Source: Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber)

1 3/4 pounds strawberries (1 1/2 pounds net)
4 1/4 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 small lemon
1 1/4 pound raspberries (preferably fresh but thawed frozen will do nicely)
1 2/3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (the best you can afford, preferably the aged, thick stuff, as the flavor is so concentrated and even more so in jam)
5 peppercorns, freshly ground (or 10!)

Select small strawberries. Rinse them in cold water, dry them in a towel, stem them, and halve them (or quarter if larger). In a bowl, combine the strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper, and let them macerate, refrigerated, overnight (or use a plastic bowl with a lid).

Next day, place the raspberries into a saucepan with 3 1/2 ounces water, bring to a boil, and boil for a few minutes until the berries break down. Strain this mixture through a chinoise or sieve, pressing the fruit lightly with the back of a skimmer. Add the collected raspberry juice to a preserving pan. Pour the macerated strawberries into the sieve. Bring the strawberry syrup to a boil in the preserving pan with the raspberry juice. Skim and continue cooking over high heat. The syrup will be sufficiently concentrated at 221°F on a candy thermometer.

Add the macerated strawberries, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar, and bring to a boil once more. Skim, return to a boil, cooking for about five minutes while stirring gently. Check the set. The strawberries should be translucent. (Mine didn't reach the set point until about 10 or 12 minutes.)

Put the jam into clean, warm jars immediately, wipe down the rims, add lids and rings and seal. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Yield: 5 half-pint jars


Just the Right Size said...

I'm glad you made this. I have Feber's book and wondered if her recipes "are all that". Some of the flavor combinations are kinda strange and she seems to have this sort of elitist approach.

You're right though, any fool can mix together pectin and fruit, but I've always wondered if the extra simmering, soaking, marinating, made much of a difference. I do this with marmalade; however, but does soft fruit really need all the extra steps?

JoyBugaloo said...

I think Ferber just comes off as elitist because she devises unusual flavor combinations and makes use of local fruits that are available to her but not to us! (Boo hiss.) But I think we can use her recipes as a guide. For example, I'm sure that the recipes I made would have been amazing with "wild Mara strawberries"--whatever the heck those are! But the jams were incredible with the lovely little local berries that I got up in Quebec, too.

And as for her methodology, I do think some of it is necessary to preserve the fresh fruit flavor (e.g. by infusing the syrup and then cooking it on its own first) and to produce that almost glaceed fruit in the final product. Sometimes, it is my personal opinion that she goes a bit overboard. Like in the strawberry-mint recipe, I think you can skip the second boiling and no one would be the wiser.

All in all, I believe one can make a fine jam in no time at all with fruit, sugar, and a box of pectin. But the Ferber recipes truly take your homemade jams to a whole new level.


Just the Right Size said...


Thanks for the feedback! I'm going to have to give a few of her recipes a try; I'm running low on preserves and jellies.

Are you going to sell pies again this summer?

Anonymous said...

Hi. I have nearly 5 lbs. of tiny wild strawberries (from my yard) dry-frozen for jam. I love the idea of balsamic vinegar in strawberry jam; I always sprinkle fresh strawberries w/it to enhance the flavor. But I want a definite strawberry taste in the jam, and fear that the raspberries will dilute that? Can I make it w/all wild strawberries?
Thank you,

JoyBugaloo said...

Hello, HH in Maine. I see no reason why you couldn't use all strawberries and omit the raspberry juice. But I recommend that you try one (small) batch as Ferber dictates. It truly is my VERY favorite! Good luck! --Gina