The humble jar of jam

Photo by mwri

Andreae Prozesky gets her fruit preserves on.

Consider the humble jar of jam. A staple of each pantry and fridge, perhaps, but how often is it called upon to serve any purpose outside other than as a foil for peanut butter or a splash of colour with toast and tea? There might be a batch of jam-filled thumbprint cookies whipped up at Christmas time, but that’s about the size of it. Talk about an underutilized resource. It’s a wondrous thing, jam, tested and approved over the years as a way of capturing a bountiful fruit harvest and preserving it for a less lush time.

As I have confessed in the past, I get great pleasure from putting up preserves. Between my own stockpile and the few jars acquired from friends and farmers’ market vendors, I haven’t cracked into a jar of store-bought jam since last summer. Not that there’s much to complain about with store-bought jams, though. Many of them are quite good, even at the regular non-fancy shops.

Often, grocery-store jams aren’t jams at all, but “fruit spreads” or “jam-type spreads.” I used to assume that anything that was a “something-type something” was automatically a lesser product, but in the case of preserves it’s not so. Long, long ago, a lot more sugar was required to keep jam from going bad, and vendors were required to use a certain quantity of sugar if they wanted to give their product the good name of “jam.” Modern canning being what it is, the jam manufacturers can get away with using much less sugar, which is good. Unfortunately, they’re still not allowed to call their product jam, so “fruit spread” or “jam-type spread” it is.

In this part of the world, the berry jams—strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, and combinations thereof—are the most popular of the bunch, and they’re lovely. Berries lend themselves to sweet, dessert-ish dishes. A most obvious application is cake. In British kitchens, the standard stand-by cake is called a Victoria sponge, and it’s basically two layers of white cake with cream and preserved (jam or sometimes lemon curd) sandwiched inside, and a dusting of icing sugar on top. Simple, beautiful, jammy.

If you prefer to jam out American style, how about this: I recently saw an ad in a magazine describing the making of home-made Pop-Tarts. While a part of me thinks this sounds ridiculous, there’s another part, a larger part (perhaps the 20-weeks pregnant part, now that I think of it) that thinks it sounds awesome. The happy hands in the photos rolled out pre-made pie crust into rectangles, dolloped jam in the middle of some and used the others for tops. They sealed the edges with a little cornstarch dissolved in water (to keep the jam from escaping), brushed the tops with beaten egg, then baked the delicious-looking tarts at 350F for about 12 minutes, until they turned golden brown. The all-important icing was just a paste of icing sugar, milk, and a few grains of salt.

Pie pastry and jam is actually a fairly old combination. Way back in the day, moms and kitchen help would roll scraps of pie pastry up with jam, cut them in slices and bake them as treats for the kids.
If you want to go savoury with your jam, there’s always the jam-cheese combination. Blueberry jam (or Concord grape preserves, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on them) simmered with a little red wine, a handful of walnuts, and a pinch of dried ginger and white pepper until the extra liquid from the wine cooks off makes an amazing topping for baked Brie or Camembert. People go cracked for it at parties, I swear. Want to make it portable for pot-lucks? Take your cold, unwrapped circle of cheese and place it in the middle of a sheet of puff pastry (available frozen at the grocery store—in a pinch you can use a tube of Crescent Roll dough). Spread the fruit goo on top and seal the dough all around. Bake at 325F or so about 25-35 minutes (until pastry is golden and cheese feels squishy, then wrap it in tea towels and rush off to your destination before it gets cold (don’t forget the crackers).

Going camping? wrap your jam-topped cheese in parchment paper, then in tin foil, then toss it in among the coals of your campfire. After a bit it will be melty and delicious, a little messy but well worth it for such obscene levels of luxury in the wilderness.

Ideas… delicious ideas…

Instead of buying flavoured yogurt, which is basically chalky, runny junk full of artificial sweeteners, gelatin, chemical stabilizers and thickeners, and creepy designer bacteria from a lab, stir a dollop of good jam into some proper plain full-fat yogurt (Astro Balkan-style and Liberty Mediterranean are both excellent) and revel in what yogurt used to taste like before it went corporate. Especially good for kids, who need good fat and who should never come near an artificial sweetener, ever.

Use up leftover roast chicken or turkey by shredding it up and tossing it with a dressing made of a big spoonful of mayonnaise, the same amount of plain yogurt (as above), a spoonful of apricot jam, salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Grapes, toasted almonds or pecans, celery, red or green onions, diced apple and the like all make great additions. Wicked on greens or in a pita.

Want to know the secret to bakery-shiny fruit tarts? They melt apricot jam and brush it over the fruit. Instant glam.

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