I've been thinking about making preserves for awhile. I don't have all the equipment, and it seemed like a big project, which it sort of is, and sort of isn't. Small batch is definitely the key to keeping interest up, as well as keeping sane. I was not drawn to my mental picture of endless hours in a huge farm house kitchen with giant dripping jelly bags, boiling caldrons, and a hundred jars of jam, all alike. I am one person, with some fairly regular guests; it takes a long time to use up one jar of jam- and I don't necessarily want the next one to be the same kind. I'd like to have some extras around for presents, but I'm not going into commercial production here.
I read a NY Times Magazine article about June Taylor, the Berkeley organic preserves person, who makes beautiful, expensive marmalades, conserves and fruit butters, which are said to be low sugar, loosely gelled, and delicious. There was an irresistable recipe for Blood Oranges in Clementine Ratafia, which involved first making the ratafia, with vodka and clementines. That has to sit around infusing for a couple of months. Then you put up blood oranges in an orange and lemon syrup, laced with the ratafia. This resulted in 6 pretty and delicious jars of the conserve (so small batch that I wish I had more), with the added bonus of leftover ratafia, a sort of Miss Marple-y tipple. I am not too crazy about this kind of thing in general, but it made a really out of sight hot toddy, when I developed the chest cold of the decade shortly thereafter. Just dump some into a mug of hot tea- nothing else needed, and plop into bed to await recovery.
I was sold on the small batch thing, but was dying to make something that jelled, if only to see if I could. The blood orange conserve was more of a syrupy business, at least as produced by me. In the Gourmet Cookbook, I saw a recipe for Nectarine Preserves with Basil, which used low-sugar pectin, shunned by both Ms Taylor and Christine Ferber, the french confitures expert, who uses her own apple jelly with her recipes for lower pectin fruits. I thought I would wait until the Nectarines appeared this summer, and try it.
For reasons unclear to me, the next time I went to the Giant Eagle, what did I see but reasonably priced white peaches. So despite the advice of the experts to use only in-season fruit of impeccable freshness and quality- I bought them and a box of the pectin and set to making these. I departed from the Gourmet recipe only in that I did the first part of the recipe at night, and added a step of overnight maceration, which all the other recipes I admired seemed to recommend.
White Peach or Nectarine Preserves with Basil
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup water
5 pounds white peaches or nectarines, peeled, pitted, sliced
1 1 and 3/4 oz package of low sugar
pectin, plus 2 tbsp out of another pkg.
About 1 cup of fresh basil. Save about 8 small sprigs separately
Combine sugar, lemon juice, water and basil in a nonreactive pot. I used a nice heavy 5 qt. Analon Dutch oven, and it was fine. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add peaches, bring to a boil, turn off heat. Cool. Put in ceramic bowl, cover surface with parchment, and put in fridge overnight.
In the morning, sterilize 6-8 1/2 pint Ball jars and their screw lids in boiling water. I used my pasta pot.
Meanwhile, bring peaches and syrup to a rolling boil, reduce heat, and cook 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove peaches from the syrup, and put them in a strainer over a bowl for 5 min. Put down a thick kitchen towel on a stoveside surface. Carefully remove the jars and screw lids from the boiling water with tongs and set them on the towel. Turn off heat under the sterilizing pot, and slide the flat, sealing parts of the lids in the hot water.
Pour the drained peach juice into the syrup. Boil until the combo reaches 220-224 degress on a frying or candy thermometer (yeah, yeah, but they really help with a lot of things, and don't cost much at all). Whisk in the pectin and boil 1 minute more. Using a slotted spoon, distribute peaches among the jars. Tuck a sprig of basil in each. Ladle syrup over peaches, leaving a 1/4 inch gap to the top. Fish the flat lids out of the water with tongs, set each on a jar, and align with fingers. Screw lids on, but not too tightly. Pour or ladle about 1/3 of the water out of the sterilizing pot (to make room for full jars). I put one of those rubbery silicon potholders in the bottom to protect the jars a bit, and then loaded them back into the pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and boil 10 minutes to process. Remove jars with tongs, and set back on towel. You will hear pinging sounds as they cool. This is the vacuum forming and sealing the lids. If the lids are not concave in 24 hours and/or if they go "boing" when you press them the next day- put them in the fridge, and eat them first.
I used a serrated peeler, which is, in my view, a really cool innovation, permitting the peeling of soft fruits (including tomatoes) without the nuisance of blanching. Mine is the $5.95 Messermeister model, but OXO is making one now, too.
Recipe regrets: I was punished for using suboptimal fruit by having so many bruises to cut out that I only got 4 jars of preserves. The syrup with the basil tasted so nice that I put the excess syrup in 2 jars, and put it up as well. Like the preserves, it is totally (maybe too) jelled. I doubt if it will be too marvelous, as it is not a fruit essence jelly, but only sugar that fruit passed through, really.
I am wondering whether the processing may have dimmed the lovely fresh flavors (and smells), and thinking it might have been better to process them European style- relying on the heat in the preserves to seal the sterilized jars. I am nonetheless gloating over my growing little hoard of tubby bottles.