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In a Jam--at Last


One of the real pleasures of going on vacation is the ability to pretend--if only for a little while and if only in small ways--that you are rich. So, during a recent week in San Francisco, staying with a friend on blustery Potrero Hill, I made it a point to stop each day for breakfast at Zuni Cafe.

At first, I splurged on the likes of waffles and egg dishes. But eventually I settled into simpler indulgences: a great cup of cafe latte, toast made from good bread, sweet butter and some of the best jams I've eaten--barely sweet, full of fresh fruit flavor and only lightly set, more of a fruit spread than a normal, firm jam. Eaten in the quiet of the early morning, this breakfast was enough to warm up even a San Francisco summer.

The jam was the most noticeable thing for me. I've played with making jams and preserves for the last five years. And frustrating years they've been. Not that nothing worked--my Meyer lemon marmalade is much sought after in certain circles. And my version of Sunshine Strawberry Jam--which was printed in The Times--won a reader second place in the Ventura County Fair. He sent me the ribbon to prove it and it is framed and hanging above my sink.

Rather, the frustration was from never feeling that I was quite on top of the process. Each batch felt like an experiment. I'd gather the fruit, mix it with the sugar, let it macerate, fill my preserving pan (actually a battered nonstick spaghetti pot, the sole survivor of the cookware set my mom gave me when I went to college almost 25 years ago), set it over high heat and cook the jam until it reached 220 degrees, just like the books said.

The process sometimes took nearly an hour, and those last five degrees always felt like the sprint to the finish at the end of a long race: 216, 217, come on, come on, 218, almost there, 219, you can do it, keep going, 220! I'd pull the pan from the heat and sag against the counter in relief.

Usually, the results were just fine, but they were never consistent. Sometimes the jam would be set and firm, sometimes it would be dark and hard--overcooked for reasons I couldn't explain. Every once in a while, I'd hit the jammer's wall, a batch that didn't set. Then I'd have to empty everything out of the jars back into the pan and start from scratch.

I knew something was wrong. After all, haven't generations of cooks, operating in primitive conditions--without even a good jelly thermometer--made perfectly wonderful preserves? But I was so bound up in understanding the process that I couldn't figure out how to make jam.

Of course, I had good scientific explanations why preserving was so difficult. Making a good jam requires a careful balancing of sugar, pectin, acidity and heat. Stray too far from the ideal in any of those elements and you've got a mess. Right. And aerodynamically speaking, the flight of the bumble bee is an impossibility.

A couple of things cleared the way for me. The first was a case of nectarines I bought in Dinuba when I was in the San Joaquin Valley earlier this year. There's nothing like a big box of good fruit sitting on the counter, threatening to go bad, to bring out the preserver in me.

But I'd never made nectarine jam before. So I went scouring through my books to figure out a basic recipe. I found one in Jeanne Lesem's "Preserving Today" (Knopf, 1992). She calls for an initial cooking of the fruit, followed by overnight cooling, then a second cooking in small batches.

I sliced the nectarines and started adding the sugar. About halfway through measuring the sugar, it occurred to me that this seemed like an awful lot of sweetener and not many nectarines, so I added only a bit more sugar and said enough. After all, if this batch didn't turn out, there was plenty more fruit to play with.

I put the barely filled pan over the heat and cooked, stirring. The sugar cleared, dissolving into the fruit juice, and I kept stirring. Strangely, after only about five minutes, I thought I could actually feel the jam start to thicken.

By the time the 10-minute first cooking was done, I had the feeling something strange was going on. I set the pan aside to cool and when I came back about an hour later, sure enough, it had settled into a lovely, lightly set jam. Almost exactly the consistency of the great jams at Zuni. I let it sit overnight, then the next day hurriedly reheated it all in one batch, just enough to bring it to the boil so I could safely can it.

Especially after it ripened for a couple of days, this jam was wonderful. But a gift like that is always a mixed blessing for me. It wasn't enough that I had made good jam, I knew I was on to something but I didn't understand what.

Then in a long conversation with Sylvia Thompson, a dear friend and a wonderfully common-sensical home cook who is writing the chapter on preserving in the upcoming revision of "Joy of Cooking," she mentioned that she had found that small batches were the key to making good jam.

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