It’s another hot summer Saturday in the house of my youth. The house is extra hot as Mom is in the kitchen fussing over a large tall pot, steaming, with cans in it. She is working on a batch of disgusting, slimy purple beets. Mother is also purple and slimy. With sweat. There’s a banging at the back door, just around the corner from the hot kitchen. I’m standing at the corner and see it is my father kicking at the metal screen door; his hands too burdened to knock civilly, or better yet, let himself in. In his arms is an overflowing bounty from his fertile garden: cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli and, unfortunately, more beets. My father is beaming, as if he has just taken a blue ribbon from the garden judges at our county fair. From my vantage point I can see my mother still in the kitchen. At the sound of my father’s assault on the screen door I see her straighten up from her wilted position, wipe her sweaty hands on her beet blood stained apron and mop her sweating brow with the moist skin of her forearm. I’m confused by the look on her face. Near to tears, she heads toward the back door to receive this delivery from my father. As she passes by me, she looks me straight in the eye with that look that often meant “you are in big trouble, Jennifer.” But instead, under her breath, and just under my dad’s radar, without moving her lips, she says very clearly to me “Don’t you ever learn how to can.”
I didn’t always follow my mother’s instructions. Usually that didn’t turn out too well for me. But the canning ignorance I embraced. I do love to do so many things in the kitchen and am usually open to try new things. But canning is one thing I have stayed away from because of the memory described above. While I’ve loved taking all kinds of cooking classes, I never expected to find myself in a cooking class focused on producing anything canned. But last fall, in the sandbox of Abu Dhabi, at night I daydreamed of what I would do when I returned to the states. And when I found the list of classes available at the Pantry at Delancey, I had to focus on the few classes that still indicated they had openings. The Marmalade Class had an intriguing write up, and an opening, and so I signed up without much thought to my aversion to canning.
So on Saturday I drove myself to the Pantry at Delancey and joined about a dozen other women for a two hour session with Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit Company in Oakland. The session was more a demo than hands on class, though, because of the small class size we could gather round the activity at the table and stove top to clearly see and understand the process. Rachel was far from the sweaty, harried canner that was my mother in the hot kitchen. Tiny and polished, she shared her enthusiasm for the craft of making delicious spreads from fresh fruit. While she has easier access to a variety of citrus fruits used in making marmalade, her instructions were universal. Mostly they took the mystery and fuss out of creating delicious marmalades.
Turns out the process, while not too complicated, typically takes a three day process. The time is required for soaking the fruit in order to release the naturally occurring pectin which causes the cooked down fruit to thicken up. The process differs based on the selected fruit and its specific properties: skin porousness, bitterness or firmness.
Marmalade contains two separate fruit components. The primary flavor comes from the fruit used for the chunkiness. This fruit is cut into wedges containing both the peel and the flesh (with seeds removed). The size of the cut will determine the chunkiness of the end product. It is either boiled or soaked overnight and then boiled (sometimes blanched if particularly bitter, like grapefruit, to remove the extra bitterness). Meanwhile, the fruit for the jelly part of the marmalade is cut into eighths, then soaked the first day, simmered the second day and drained overnight. On the third day the removed juices are mixed with the prepared fruit chunks, mixed with sugar and a little lemon juice and cooked on the stove top until just the right moment when it becomes perfect marmalade. We were shown several tests to help confirm when this stage has occurred, noting that it is important to stop cooking before it reaches a stage when it will become unspreadable, but cooked enough to hold the pieces suspended and not turn to liquid on your toast. While several clues indicate when it is done, Rachel does not rely on a thermometer. I think I’ll be able to do the same now.
Then the most wonderful discovery: for jams and marmalades the canning process does not have to involve a hot water bath and special equipment. Because of the high sugar and acid content they are not prone to host harmful bacteria. The cans can be sterilized in the oven and sealed in it as well after filled.
In the class two kinds of marmalades were demonstrated: a blood orange with Meyers lemon rind, and; lemon marmalade infused with rosemary. We were allowed to choose one jar to take home and after testing both I settled on the blood orange version. While tempted to hoard it for a special pantry item I couldn’t wait to share it. The verdict delicious. Bright and balanced. This is something I will try at home.