March 24, 2011
a weekday jam session and a lesson
And I don't mean music. Unless you call canning 72 jars of homemade strawberry jam in my little kitchen with two babies in tow, one of them only six weeks old, music. I guess I do. What a fun day! And exasperating and utterly exhausting all at once.
You see, I had a project to get done. I decided that there is no better wedding favor than a homemade one, and seeing how my April wedding will be all about the season, I could think of no better gift than strawberries. But since strawberries will just be coming in at all the local farms at the end of April (and Tennessee has some amazing pick-your-own strawberry farms), I could not wait until then to make the favors. I am crazy but I'm not insane.
So I asked my good friend, former boss and pastry chef extraordinaire Tom, if he could help me source some good strawberries now, a month early. He called his produce guy and lo and behold, he had some beauties just in from Florida. The strawberry season gets under way down in Florida about a month before it does here. On Monday I had two flats of strawberries in the back of my Volvo. That's 16 lbs of strawberries. And his guy wasn't lying: they were beautiful.
I invited my jam-making friend Rachel over to help out. Even though she just gave birth about 6 weeks ago to sweet little Aida, she was game! I knew there was a chance that we'd get nothing done and spend most of the time caring for the babies, but we did it anyway.
Rachel did in fact spend most of the time nursing and rocking her little one and keeping mine out of trouble, but if it weren't for her I couldn't have done it. She also gave me lots of moral support, which I needed because it was my first time trying to make jam in such quantities (I needed about 70 4 oz jars filled). I have made lots of small batches but never a mass production.
There were some failures, some successes and lots of learning along the way.
About two hours into it, I had to call in the reinforcements. Missy is a good friend, a local lady who seems to me to be the most amazing cook and mom in the universe. She can make --or sew or bake-- just about anything. She made the most adorable little knit hat and sweater for June that we love so much we are still squeezing her into despite the fact that she's outgrown them both. She brought the most delicious homemade food to us right after June was born and my family is still talking about her mixed berry bread pudding and tomato sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise. I mean, who does that? Missy does.
Anyway, thank God she showed up when she did because Rachel and the babies and I were ruining the whole operation. There is something about using pectin that has always intimidated me. So I usually stick to jams that don't require it and can set up on their own, like apples, blackberries and pears. But strawberries have very little natural pectin so it seemed necessary.
We used the Sure-jell brand and the recipe that I found on their website. But in my confusion over pectin I didn't realize that it called for the liquid kind and I had bought the powdered. This meant we added it at the wrong time and didn't really follow the recipe, and instead of a jam that gelled into a nice solid consistency, it stayed runny with all of the fruit rising to the top of the pot and a huge amount of liquid underneath.
Even though I knew something was wrong, we were in too deep. I had quadrupled the recipe and used most of the strawberries and sugar on this one huge batch. We filled the jars and processed about half of them before figuring out our mistake. Duh. First lesson of jam making: Do not make more than on batch at a time, especially if it's your first time making it. I tried to make a quadruple batch! I should know better. You can't do that in baking either, without lots of fussing with the recipe and trial and error. We didn't have time (or supplies) for trial and error. So we basically ended up with a runny, almost syrupy jam that looked and tasted beautiful, but would certainly not win any awards at the fair.
You may be asking "but why do you need to make award-winning jam? It's the thought that counts, right?" And my answer would be that I never give things away to people that I don't think are perfect. It's my dumb critical Virgo nature and there is nothing I can do about it. But more on this in a minute.
When our savior Missy arrived bringing with her her own pot with strainer, she showed us how she does it and of course, her one batch came out perfectly. It set up like a dream minutes after making it. We filled the last 12 or 15 jars, processed those and then, after everyone had left, I went about making yet another batch --the right way--just to prove to myself that I could do it!
June was getting really bored by this time, having only slept about a half hour all day because she didn't want to miss out on all the fun. She literally sat on the floor and screamed for a few minutes while I finished processing the last 6 good jars, cursing my mistake and feeling like a failure and a bad mother. That didn't last very long, I promise. I scooped her up with my sticky hands and soiled apron and took her out to her new swing on the porch and she laughed and forgot about the neglect and I sat there worn out and tired, and only partially satisfied with my more than six hours of labor.
I seriously considered dumping out the 'bad' jars (more than half of them) and going out to buy more strawberries and making them over. But then I came to my senses. What was I thinking? It still tasted delicious, it would be loved by everyone and it will be a gift that came from the heart and will embody the essence of our wedding. I mean, is perfection what I am striving for here? The mega-wedding industry and its over the top-with-cuteness wedding blogs that make every "DIY farm wedding" look like a movie set wherein every person is beautiful and every detail is perfect would have us all believe that perfection is what we need. And it is tempting to go down that road.
(I mean, who wouldn't want this?)
But I am trying really hard to resist that and to keep the urge to desire perfection under control (something that is very difficult for me) while trying to enjoy this process and keep in mind what the day will really be about. It will be about Daniel and I and our little family being loved and supported by our extended families and friends as we take this big step toward our future. It won't matter if the flower arrangements match, the tablecloths are white or brown or the jam is perfect. That won't be what people remember. And hopefully it won't be what we remember either.
So I decided to embrace the runny jam, to give it away with love and to smile on all that effort without beating myself up. How cute is this little package, no matter what is inside?
And now my mind is already on the next project. And my dress. And the caterer. And the lights. And the list goes on and on and on... Stay tuned!