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Book jam-packed with advice

September 7, 2005

BY LEAH A. ZELDES

It's time for jam and jelly making to undergo a renaissance, according to Madelaine Bullwinkel.

The Hinsdale cooking teacher says that folks who visit farmers' markets and U-pick farms seeking interesting fruits and vegetables are returning to the age-old practice of putting up preserves.

"I consider it to be relevant," says Bullwinkel, whose Gourmet Preserves Chez Madelaine, an updated edition of her 1984 cookbook, just has been released by Chicago's Surrey Books ($14.95).

"I've been using the recipes in my classes," says Bullwinkel, who founded her Chez Madelaine Cooking School more than 28 years ago, "and seeing there was still currency.

"I continue to go to France and see how much preserves in small quantity continue to be part of the quality of life there."

Contemporary statistics on the number of Americans putting up preserves at home are hard to come by. The last USDA survey on the matter was in 1975, when home canning had a surge in popularity spurred by the back-to-the-land-movement. The canning-jar industry's most recent poll of any significance occurred in 1996.

In 2000-2001, the National Center for Home Food Preservation conducted a survey of 1,244 randomly selected households across the United States. Of the 501 people who answered the questions, 27 percent had done some home canning during the previous year; the survey did not ask specifically about jams and jellies, however.

"It's growing," says Surrey Books publisher Susan Schwartz, "I know that."

Schwartz says preserving today is a hobby craft, like knitting and scrapbooking. The new popularity and change in approach to home preserving is evident, she says, in the packaging of canning jars. "Instead of a case of 12 with plain lids, I noticed they now come in a cute box with four jars with decorated lids."

Bullwinkel's book takes cooks beyond commonplace recipes to preserves such as tomato-basil jam, ginger-pear jam and ratatouille marmalade. They progress through the seasons, from strawberry-rhubarb jam through cinnamon cranberry apple jelly to quick pink grapefruit marmalade with vanilla. Along with recipes for jams, jellies and marmalades, the book includes recipes for baked goods and desserts to serve with the preserves.

"I take a different angle," the author says. Her recipes, which often combine more than one fruit or add herbs and spices, provide a guide to "putting together the aromas and flavors that you like." These are jams and jellies in flavors that you can't buy.

In general, Bullwinkel takes a traditionalists' approach to preserving. Freezer jams or similar shortcuts are not for her. "I consider them an aberration," she says.

She calls powdered commercial pectin, a mainstay of many home preservers, a "daring technical twist."

"I use it by the tablespoon," she says. "That is a bit of a concession."

On one hand, commercial pectin usually ensures a firm jell; on the other, it may render the finished product rubbery. Jams and jellies made with commercial pectin require less cooking time, which some believe yield fresher-tasting preserves. Others think longer cooking concentrates flavors.

"My recipes are small quantities," Bullwinkel says. So even those that don't call for added pectin cook quickly. Most make three to four cups of preserves.

Bullwinkel insists that commercial pectin "fosters a false sense of preserving security."

Its typical use also requires larger amounts of sugar than preserves that rely on fruit's natural pectin. "You have to add so much sugar that you don't really taste the fruit," she says, noting that some cooks can't bear to add the required amounts of sweetening and then find their jellies don't jell.

Bullwinkel's book includes a chapter on making jam with no added sugar at all. "No-sugar jams are wonderful for people who have to limit complex sugars," she says.

Making preserves doesn't have to mean an all-day session in a steamy kitchen, Bullwinkel says. "People have an overwhelming feeling that they have to process everything immediately."

For those who are busy or who don't want to be cooking for long periods, she suggests, "Start the process and then stick it in the refrigerator" to finish later.

Bullwinkel says preserving can be a fun, family activity in which the kids can help. "Go out and pick your own fruit," she says, and then come home and put it up. "One of my students told me, 'My daughter keeps her jam in her room. She doesn't want anyone else to eat it!' "

Preserving, the author says, teaches "organizational life skills. That's what I teach in my teen classes."

For the safe storage of jams and jellies, use sterilized canning jars with two-piece caps. Always use new lids. Jars and lids are available at hardware and cookware stores and some supermarkets.

While many authorities believe that high-sugar, high-acid fruit preserves need only be inverted briefly for a quick seal, the USDA recommends that filled, tightly capped jars be boiled in water for five minutes.

If you don't want to fuss with sterilizing jars and lids, simply store your preserves in the refrigerator.

Bullwinkel advises using preserves within six months for the best flavor.

For more on Bullwinkel's cooking school, visit www.chezm.com.

Online jam- and jelly-making resources include the National Center for Home Food Preservation (www.uga.edu/nchfp), Jarden Home Brands (www.homecanning.com) and the Sure-Jell Web site (www.kraftfoods.com/ surejell).

The recipe included here is adapted from Gourmet Preserves. Fresh blueberries should be in season for about a month more. Make the most of them.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

BLUEBERRY JAM WITH MINT

MAKES 4 TO 5 CUPS

2 pounds (about 3 pints) fresh blueberries, picked over and rinsed
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups sugar
4 (6-inch) sprigs fresh mint (or to taste)

Sterilize 5 half-pint canning jars or 10 half-cup jars by boiling in a pot of water to cover for 15 minutes or putting through the hottest cycle of a dishwasher. Sterilize the lids in boiling water. Leave the jars in the water or closed dishwasher till needed. (If you use the dishwasher, ready a pan of boiling water for the lids and canning funnel.) Place a small plate in the freezer.

Combine the berries and water in a 5-quart nonreactive pan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a fast simmer and cook uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, and then stir in the sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the mixture to return to boiling before adding more. Once all the sugar is added, cook at a slow boil for 5 to 8 minutes. The mixture will coat a metal spoon.

Test for jelling by placing a teaspoonful on the cold plate from the freezer; return to the freezer for 1 minute. The jam should hold its shape on the plate. Run your finger through it -- it should wrinkle. If not, continue cooking the jam for a minute or two.

Pour into a 2-quart, heat-resistant, glass measuring cup. Tie the mint sprigs together with kitchen twine and submerge them in the jam, crushing them against the sides and bottom of the container. Let steep 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, immerse the new jar lids in boiling water. Dip a wide-mouthed canning funnel into the water, too.

Remove and discard the mint. Using the funnel, fill each hot, sterilized jar to within 1/4 inch of the top. Wipe the rim clean with a paper towel dipped in boiling water, top with a lid and screw on the ring tightly. Continue with the remaining jars. Upend the jars momentarily for a quick seal, or process in a boiling-water bath, submerged by 1 inch, for 10 minutes.

Allow to cool completely, then check the seals. (Typically, you can hear a loud ping when a jar vacuum seals.) The lids should be concave and solidly attached; they should not flex when you press on them. Label and date and store in a cool, dark place.

Note: Bullwinkel suggests serving this sweet, delicate, lightly jelled jam with butter-pecan muffins, French toast, buckwheat blini or popovers.

Nutrition facts per tablespoon: 31 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 1 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

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