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to improvise
to make music together
to make jam a kind of spreadable fruit preserve

Today I am jamming, improvising with words as well as making jam. The improv is happening in a poem. Unlike many of the things I write where a get a solid flash of inspiration – typically a line or two – this piece I am writing from a feeling and one word – “lost”.  I haven’t got a very good handle on it so I’m mostly brainstorming and free-associating. Writing down whatever comes into my head. It’s not being an easy piece to write and I may just let it go.

I love the English language because words can have so much nuance and meaning. Jam also means to cram together and I am jamming together a couple of disparate activities. It’s unlikely poetry will improve my jam making but it is possible that jam making, paying attention to a cooking process, will actually aid my muse.

Last week, on the 4th, we went out and picked raspberries and blueberries.  This is a traditional family activity and was the first real “date” my sweetie (aka husband) and I went on, on July 4 many years ago. Our young adult son came with and remarked that berry picking, etc. was now a “hipster” activity but he was NOT a hipster and could not be a hipster picking berries because he did this as a child.

This long time tradition of berry picking has led to an equally long time tradition of jamming. Everyone in the family has their favorites but when strawberry season begins, it’s an equal opportunity kitchen with the whole range of fruits converted into jam in their turn.  Currently, I have 12 lbs of raspberries, 6 lbs of blueberries and about 6 lbs of cherries ready to turn into jam.

Our children (and other people unrelated to us) have declared our jam the “best”. The kids have told us that our jam has “ruined them” for any other kind which they note is “too sweet” and “not fruity enough”.  We have several pieces to our formula.

First, we freeze our berries to concentrate the flavor. We found this one by accident when we didn’t have time to make jam after picking and froze the berries.  When we finally used them for jam we found the flavor to be intensified.

Two, we use low sugar pectin and reduce the sugar a bit more than called for.  Low sugar pectin can be difficult to find but it’s well worth it as the amount of sugar needed for regular pectin jam is quite high. Note the instructions say NOT to reduce the sugar. We’ve done it successfully but what you do depends on your comfort level and willingness to improvise.

Third, because we reduce the sugar in our recipe by about half the required amount, we cook the jam for three – five minutes rather than the one minute called for by the pectin package recipe.

What we are trying to balance in our approach to jam is capturing the fresh fruit flavor with preserving it for future eating. You can make jam with hardly any sugar at all (see this NY Times recipe http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/04/14/magazine/bittman-jam.html) but it won’t last long, plus you have to cook it for a long time.  Or you can use a LOT of sugar (7 cups sugar to 5 cups fruit in a conventional pectin recipe). Good for long term preserving, but really, really sweet, masking the flavor of the fruit.

If you’re new to this, I suggest you find low sugar pectin and follow the recipe to begin with. As you gain confidence you can tinker. It’s really quite easy. Be sure to follow directions for sterilizing your jars and processing your jam.

Unlike poetry, cooking does have some exactitude to it. Certainly you have to be aware of food safety issues when canning.  But once you become accustomed to your ingredients, be they words or food, you can play with flavor, texture and meaning.

Jam away.

Some other resources:
and the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
also check your local extension service (connected with your local land grant state university,  Ours is Oregon State University: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/  Try googling Extension + (your state name)