At the risk of sounding downright un-Australian, I'm not crazy about summer. The three months from December to February are a bit of an endurance test for me - a marathon of sweat and sunscreen. It's not all bad though. This time of year offers up many wonders as well, so sublime they make you forget all about the 42 degree (that's 109 Fahrenheit) day Sydney served up last week. In no particular order here are my top five: swimming in ocean pools, daylight saving, good movies (a brilliant excuse to get into some air-conditioning), the cricket and, last but certainly not least... stone fruit. Nectarines, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries... summer fruit is the best. Before this weekend, I'd never made jam, but the idea of sealing up my favourite fruit in a jar for me to enjoy on a future cold, dark winter's morning spread on a piece of toast was hugely appealing.
So on a bright, hot and blustery mid-January's day, I headed down the Hume Highway to a friend's beautiful, new, air-conditioned house. I found a recipe. She found some jars. We split the cost of a bag of cherries. I pitted, she chopped, we took turns stirring, and a couple of hours later we had jam that was darkly delicious, sighingly sweet, and bursting with the flavour of the season.
Adapted from a recipe by David Leibowitz
Exact quantities aren't dictated in this recipe but we used 2kg (about 4 1/2 lb) of cherries (unpitted) and got five good-sized jars of jam. We made a significant dent in one (with the help of my friend's husband and her three year old) the next morning over breakfast, then divvied up the remaining four jars. If you think I'm giving away either of mine - as people are wont to do with such homemade treats - you are crazy. I'm keeping them both.
- Buy as many cherries as you feel like pitting.
- Rinse the cherries and remove the stems. Using a cherry pitter, pit the cherries. (If you don't have a cherry pitter, click here for a genius idea of how to make something similar using an empty beer/wine bottle and a chopstick!) Make sure to remove all the pits.
- Chop about three quarters of the pitted fruit into smaller pieces, but not too small. Leave some cherries whole so there's a bit of texture in the finished product, but not too many - if you leave too many whole ones, they’ll tumble off your toast.
- Cook the cherries in a large, non-reactive pot. It should be pretty big since the juices bubble up. Add the zest and juice of one or two fresh lemons (we used two). Lemon juice adds pectin as well as acidity, and will help the jam gel later on.
- Cook the cherries, stirring once in a while with a heatproof spatula, until they’re wilted and completely soft, which may take about 20 minutes, depending on how much heat you give them.
- Once they’re cooked, measure out how many cherries you have (including the juice). Add 3/4 of the amount of sugar. Eg: if you have 4 cups of cooked cherry matter, add 3 cups of sugar. It may seem like a lot, but that amount of sugar is necessary to keep the jam from spoilage.
- Stir the sugar and the cherries together in the pot and cook over moderate-to-high heat. The best jam is cooked quickly. While it’s cooking, put a small (preferably white) plate in the freezer. Remain vigilant and stir the fruit often with a heatproof utensil. Scrape the bottom of the pot as you stir as well.
- Once the bubbles subside and the jam appears a bit thick and looks like it is beginning to gel, it will coat the spatula in a clear, thick-ish, jelly-like layer, but not too thick (this seemed to happen after about 45 minutes) turn off the heat and put a small amount of jam on the chilled plate and return to the freezer. If, after a few minutes, when you nudge it, it wrinkles, it’s done.
- If not, cook it some more, turn off the heat, and test it again. If you overcook your jam, the sugar will caramelise and it won’t taste good and there’s nothing you can do. Better to undercook it, test it, then cook it some more.
- Ladle the warm jam into clean jars and cover. Cool at room temperature, then put in the refrigerator where it will keep for several months.