I don't know about you, but strawberry jam tastes like Band-Aids to me. It always has. How would I know what Band-Aids taste like, I'm sure you're wanting to know. I'm an absent-minded cuticle chewer, that's how. You'd be surprised how many inadvertent bites of Band-Aid I've had in my life.
I like eating strawberries sliced and sugared and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. (Just the tiniest bit, people. You shouldn't be able to taste the vinegar, but it will bring out the very essence of strawberry-ness and your simple bowl of sliced, sugared strawberries will make even someone who (I swear) told me just the other week that he thinks strawberries are his least favorite fruit (can you even believe it??) sit up and ask for seconds.) I like eating them whole, dropped into a bowl of plain yogurt. I like eating them on my cereal or over a sink or at a picnic, where I am bound by my genetic code to get red strawberry juice on some article of clothing. In short, give me all the fresh strawberries of the world and I'll gobble them right up. Offer me some strawberry jam and I'll be honest, I'd almost rather just eat a boiled egg.
Last week, though, I went strawberry picking with my friends in a field right outside of Potsdam (of Sans Souci and Conference fame). What is with that weird greed that bubbles up when you're out picking fruit and you've filled all your baskets and somehow you just can't stop from picking, because with every step you take you're confronted with more and more perfect berry specimens that simply cannot be allowed to remain on the plant? I came home with more than three kilos, people, three. For two people, one of whom would rather be eating a kiwi. So jam it would have to be.
A week before I went strawberry-picking, Molly came to visit for a week, bearing a jar of Christine Ferber jam as a present. I used to be sort of obsessed with Christine Ferber's jam recipes, but over the years moved away from her methods, which felt fussy to me, even if the results were often spectacular. But inspired by the pretty little jar sitting on my kitchen counter, I decided that if anyone was going to get me to eat strawberry jam again, it would probably be her, the jam fairy of Alsace.
It was difficult to decide between two strawberry jam recipes of Christine's that I found online. One involved extracting juice from raspberries and mixing that with the strawberries along with balsamic vinegar. The other involved candying lemon slices and adding those along with spiky lemon grass leaves to the strawberries. How on earth would I choose? I suddenly found myself planning two batches of jam.
The lemon version has you put paper-thin slices of lemon in a water-lemon juice-sugar syrup and simmer gently until the slices are candied and looking shiny. You add the lemons and their syrup to the pot of sugared strawberries, along with those lemon grass leaves, which I pounded a little bit for extra fragrance. Christine's recipes use more sugar than the ones I'm used to (my mother usually aims for a three to one ratio of fruit and sugar), but I wanted to follow it just as it was written. I can be a little pedantic like that sometimes.
Christine is also a professional, so she wants you to skim skim skim that jam, which I did (my mother usually skips that step). I got very, let's say, focused on the skimming. But let me tell you, I've never made a jam that was as jewel-like and clear as this one. It was worth the effort.
The best part of jam-making, for me, is picking which glass jars to fill. At the moment, I'm having a little love affair with Weck's tulip jars, inspired by an author of mine whose book on canning you should pre-order now (trust me on this one). Her recipe for Plum Jam with Cardamom, speaking of recipes worth the price of the cookbook they're printed in, should go in some kind of Cooking Hall of Fame, it is so good. And wait until you see this cookbook. Ooh! I am so excited for you - it is a total gem. Anyway. Weck jars. In the US, they're hard to find and a little expensive. (Try Lehman's or Heath Ceramics for online ordering.) Here in Germany, where Weck jars were born, they're cheap and easy to find.
You have to process them in a water-bath, which is another step my mother always eschews as, to be honest, do I when using regular jam jars with screw-on lids, but the cuteness of the Weck jars is worth the extra effort of the water-bath. So! Here's how it goes:
You wash those babies with lots of hot soapy water and soak the elastic bands for a few minutes in hot water. You let everything dry off and then you fill the jars with the piping hot jam. Wipe off the rims, fasten the elastic bands to the lids, pop them on top of the jars, clamp down the metal clips and, using tongs, put the filled jars into a pot of boiling water. Bring the water back up to the boil once the pot is filled and boil for 5 minutes. Then carefully remove the jars from the pot with those tongs and let them cool on a cloth towel, overnight. Remove the clips the next day - if you've processed your jam correctly, the lids will be on very tight and you can go store the jam jars in your pantry and feel smug. If you pull the clips off and discover that the lid isn't being held on by a vacuum seal, there was a problem with the processing. Either keep that jam in your fridge to be eaten by you sometime in the next few weeks, or re-process the jar (wash the lid and elastic band again, re-fasten, put everything back in place, but put the filled jam jar (cold this time) in a pot of cold water, which you bring to a boil and then process for five minutes.
Questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. Remember, jam-making is not the same as pickling: there's very little danger. The amount of sugar in most jams is enough to kill any bacteria and the cooking process (not to mention the optional water bath) finishes off the rest. Little old ladies in tiny European towns have been making jam without vacuum seals and water-baths and high sugar volumes for millennia, or at least centuries.
Anyway, the jam. Clear and garnet-hued, it was certainly the prettiest jam I've ever made. The strawberries held their shape beautifully. The lemon slices snake their way through each jar. The jam is, for lack of a better word, the brightest, cleanest-tasting strawberry jam I've ever had. The lemon sort of elevates the usually more muddled-tasting strawberry onto a different plane, but because of the candying process, the lemon's bite is quite tame, muted even. The fragrance of the lemon grass wafts through each spoonful but if you didn't put "lemon grass" on the jam label, you wouldn't be able to identify its flavor. It's just this sort of faint, floral nudge here and there. In a word, fantastic. Boiled eggs? I'd rather have this stuff on toast, please. Giving it away is going to be kind of hard.
As for that other recipe? My strawberries were gone before I could get to the second batch.
Strawberry-Lemon Grass Jam
Makes five ½-pint jars
2¾ pounds strawberries
4 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Scant ½ cup water
10 paper-thin slices lemon
10 fresh lemongrass leaves, cut in half crosswise
1. Prepare your jars, whether by sterilizing in a hot oven or by washing in hot, soapy water. If processing in a water bath, put a large pot of water on to boil.
2. Pick over the berries, discarding those that are green, white or mushy. Rinse briefly in a colander and shake off the excess water. Hull the berries and slice coarsely into a 6-quart pot. Stir in 3½ cups sugar and set aside.
3. In a 2-quart pot, combine ½ cup sugar with the lemon juice and water. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add lemon slices and simmer gently until translucent, about 15 minutes. Pour over the strawberries and stir in the lemon grass. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Then bring to a boil. Stir gently and skim the foam from the top. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the temperature reaches 220 degrees on a candy thermometer. The jam should sheet from a metal spoon and a spoonful placed on a cold plate should gel within a few minutes. Remove the pieces of lemongrass.
4. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean, damp cloth. Place a hot lid on each jar and screw down firmly. Turn upside down and let cool completely, at least 12 hours. Or, as each jar is filled and capped, place in boiling-water bath with the water 1 to 2 inches over the jars. When canner is full place cover on pot, bring back to a steady boil and process 5 minutes. Remove jars with a lifter and set on a rack or towel 12 to 24 hours. Store in a cool, dark place.