I’m realizing that I have romanticized canning.
It’s like reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, in book club with my second-grader:
“The windows were shining and the pink-edged curtains were freshly crisp and white. Laura and Mary made new starry papers for the shelves, and Ma made vanity cakes.
She made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom… The cakes were not sweet, but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue.”
This scene glows for me, with all its talk of crisp linens, shiny windows and shelf papers. Those cakes seem like the most delicious confection in the history of mankind — surely the pastries had power to mend broken friendships in their sharing.
But then there was the whole part about how they had to ride across the country in a wagon. And live in a hole in the ground. And wonder if they would survive the next Minnesota winter. That was the reality of Ma & Pa Ingalls.
With canning, in my persistent optimism (ahem, no comments from the peanut gallery, please) — I just had this vague, quaintly-blurred image of a basement full of home-canned goods. Jams, jellies, tomatoes to get us through the winter. Little labeled jars, all stacked up nice and neat, making me an organized, thrifty, able femivore.
But reality is: massive quantities of fresh produce for little yield (not, by the way, from our lackluster garden), tennis elbow from cranking a food mill, unwanted steam facials from an over-boiling canner, and giant, looming question marks. Are my tomatoes safe to eat? Can you see botulism? If you can’t see it, can you taste it?
It’s enough to make me want to hang up my jar lifter and put my canner on craigslist.
Or more likely, for a day or two, just stick with freezing. I have a deep-freezer, and darnit if it can’t handle a few half-pint jars of blueberry jam.
Which, by the way, is likely more delicious than vanity cakes. I mean, c’mon — who is Laura kidding? Eggs and white flour, deep-fried in fat, with no sugar? No wonder Nellie left in a huff.
(No, I kid — please, no angry emails from
my older sister staunch Little House fans. The vanity cakes still sound magical to me, and Nellie was horrid to leave the party like that.)
If you have a shy two-pounds of blueberries leftover, say, from the 20 pounds that you might have purchased from a farm in your zeal for preserving, then this small batch of freezer jam is for you. So easy, and so worth the berries. I have been so taken with this jam, in fact, I’ve decided to try and get a few more pounds so I can properly can a few jelly jars as this year’s infamous teachers’ gifts at winter break.
Just to keep the vicious cycle rolling, like a late-19th century wagon wheel.
Recipe: Small-batch Blueberry Jam
: makes 3-4 half-pint jars of jam
adapted from a recipe in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, by Christopher Kimball
- 6 cups blueberries (about 1 3/4 pounds), washed
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (do not use less)
- 6 Tbsp fresh-squeezed & strained lemon juice (about 2 large lemons)
- In a large stainless (non-reactive) skillet (not a saucepan), combine all ingredients, and let sit for 2 hours.
- Have ready a small metal bowl nested inside a larger bowl filled with ice water. This will be used to test the jam for sufficient pectin.
- Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and cook until sugar is dissolved.
- Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until foamy. Continue cooking until blueberries thicken and start to become syrupy. At this point, stir constantly, until a wooden spoon leaves a trail on the surface of the skillet (or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the mixture reads 220º)
- Drop a teaspoon of the hot jam into the metal bowl nested in an ice bath. After a few seconds, when the mixture is cool, run your finger through the jam. If the jam does not run back together, it is ready. If it does run back together, cook about 5 more minutes, stirring constantly.
- Ladle jam into warm sterilized jars, leaving 1/4″ head space. Cover, and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, transfer to freezer (alternatively, you can water-bath can at this point).