It occurred to me recently that the fancy-schmancy outdoor kitchens that people like building into their outdoor entertainment areas would be very useful for preserving, because who wants to stand inside all summer stirring pots of jam in a hot kitchen?
I don't have a fancy-schmancy outdoor kitchen, but I do have a picnic table and a barbecue with a gas ring, and that's all I need to do most of my summer preserving outdoors. On the weekend I made jam from the cherry plum tree in my backyard, and I thought I would share the recipe, as practically every old garden in Tasmania features at least one cherry plum tree, and they are fiendishly difficult to cook with as they are mostly stone. But they are so prolific! It seems a terrible waste not to cook with them.
First, sterilize your jam jars in the dishwasher or in the oven (I go for the dishwasher method on hot days, or take the jars outside and pour boiling water into them and let them sit for at least ten minutes or so). I like to pick straight into the kitchen scales, because it easy. Lots of my cooking tips revolve around sheer laziness. I generally preserve in 3kg/6.5lb batches, because that is how much fruit fits in my pan.
So, fruit in pan on gas ring. I add a mug of water, then as it starts cooking, mash the fruit down with a potato masher. Rosy did this for me, and also stirred as the fruit came to a boil. Another advantage of outdoor cooking is the children think it is much more fun to help. Boil the fruit for about ten minutes and the stones come away from the fruit.
Then I add 1.5kg/3.3lbs of sugar, the juice and zest of a lemon, and four teaspoons of vanilla extract. This is half the amount of sugar usually recommended for jam-making, but I kept winding the sugar content back until it stopped 'jelling', then wound it forward a bit, and half the sugar to the weight of the fruit seems to always work for me. I do generally use fruit that is a tad underripe, because unripe fruit contains more pectin, and always add lemon to help it jell. This gives a jam that tastes like fruit, rather than sugar, which of course, is actually the flavour point I am after...
Now I let the jam bubble away merrily for twenty minutes or so, happily heating up the backyard rather than the kitchen, then I start testing for 'done-ness'. I use the wrinkle on the saucer method. Pop two saucers in the freezer, and when you want to test the jam, dollop a teaspoonful onto a saucer, pop the saucer back in the freezer for a minute to cool, then push your finger through the jam. Does it leave a distinct clear line of clean saucer behind it that the jam doesn't seep back into? Is there a distinct bow wave of jam in front of your finger with a hint of a wrinkle to it? Then the jam is done. If not, rinse the saucer and put it back in the freezer. After a few minutes, take the second saucer out (you use two saucers so you always have a cold one handy) and try again. When I test the jam, I don't wait until it is very wrinkly, because I like reasonably sloppy jam. But really, jam is very forgiving. If it is too runny, label it as pancake syrup or ice-cream topping. If it is too hard, label it as fancy-schmancy fruit paste and serve it with cheese and crackers. It is all in the marketing:)
I find about half an hour to forty minutes gives me the consistency I prefer. Now tip your pan of boiling jam Very Carefully through a colander set in another large pan. Very likely you won't get all of it in at once. That's okay, we can do this in batches. Stir the jam vigorously with your wooden spoon to separate jam from plum stones. Tip the stones into the compost, and do another batch. Once all the jam is strained, pour it into the jars.
Remember that all the utensils you use for this must be very, very clean (well, clean before you start mucking about with the jam. After that they will be very, very jammy). Screw the lids on tight and put the jars somewhere the children can't fiddle with them until the lids have popped to form a seal, then label and store and gloat over nine pots of jam that cost pennies to make on a sunny summer's morning in the garden..
Of course, the best thing about cooking jam al fresco is that the clean-up just involves hosing down the table. Try to not to water the dog, who is completely exhausted after a morning of.. well, sleeping.