Jam Season: Gooseberry Jelly

I have one jar of blackberry jam leftover from last summer, which is perfect timing for the arrival of long lazy days and abundant fresh stone fruit and berries. I love making jam as it is a relatively easy canning project, it almost always turns out at least edible, if not delicious, and it makes an (undeservedly) impressive gift to all my non-canning friends.

I’ve been up on Lopez for the last week or so, enjoying the slow pace of life and the summer breezes that lift off the water, making it considerably cooler than the concrete oven that is Seattle in August.

I arrived late to Crowfoot Farm's u-pick last weekend, a bi-weekly outing for me in the summer, and the raspberries were mostly done, but there were still an abundance of sweet, small Tri-star strawberries. I had 6 dollars in my wallet, so did my best to estimate 1.5 pounds of fruit as I combed the rows, trying not to eat every third berry I picked. My strawberry jam always turns out with a funny texture and discolors easily, so I decided to try something new with these gems. I found a recipe for whole strawberries in vanilla syrup, which I used as a starting point for a couple of jars of sweet canned strawberries, which are now waiting to be popped open and poured on yogurt in January when I have pretty much forgotten what a fresh summer strawberry tastes like.

Later this week, my friend Rom came to the island for a visit. Rom’s mom Holly is the famous namesake and owner of Holly B’s Bakery on Lopez. The three of us headed out to pick - wait for it - THORNLESS blackberries at a neighbor’s house who had more blackberries than they knew what to do with. They thought Holly might like to pick some to bake into her scones or danishes this week. We filled two buckets with these “friendly” berries, before making an unplanned stop at their row of gooseberry plants on our way out. We picked another half bucket of gooseberries, of which I was the lucky recipient, and I headed home to make jam.

I know nothing about gooseberries. In fact, up until yesterday I potentially thought they were one of the fictitious berries Willy Wonka invents in the Chocolate Factory (“the snozberries taste like snozberries!”). After a bit of research, I discovered they are related to the currant, cook similarly to the cranberry, and look a little bit like a grape.

I started a batch of gooseberry jam, combining fruit, sugar, and acid (usually in the form of a lemon, but I didn’t want to drive to town to get one so I substituted powdered citric acid). As the jam cooked down, it was separating and was thick with crunchy seeds and sour skins. I added a scraped vanilla bean, some pectin, and a little vanilla extract, but nothing seemed to help.

I made a midcourse correction and decided to make jelly (for the first time ever). After straining the mixture, it produced a thick, fruity spread that I think will be delicious spread on a cracker with some strong cheese.

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The benefit of making small batches of jam (no more than a pound an a half of fruit), is not only that you can make lots of different kinds, but if one turns out not-so-well, not too much is wasted. I think I salvaged my first attempt at gooseberry jam, though we’ll see how the jelly version tastes in a couple months. Recipes are a good starting place, but sometimes it takes a little experimentation to end up with something delicious.

Jam “recipe”:

1.5 pounds of fruit
1 cup of sugar to start, more to taste
Juice of half a lemon, or a sprinkle of citric acid

Mix it all together in a skillet and cook until the jam thickens. I often cheat and add pectin (Pomona’s brand - instructions included in the box), though your jam shouldn’t need it if you cook it down enough. Some fruits contain more natural pectin than others, and you can experiment with what consistency and spread you like.

Once the jam is thickened (there are lots of theories on how to test this - put it on a plate in the freezer and see if it runs after 5 min, take a finger swipe the back of your spatula and see if it drips.) Generally I figure the jam will continue to thicken as it cools, so it should be medium thick and as you slide your spatula across the skillet you see the bottom for a second before the jam fills in. Honestly, the best method is trial and error ’til you learn what hot jam should look like. Remember: if it cools and you don’t like the set, you can always pop your jars, cook it down more, and reprocess. All it costs you is a few new lids and a bit of your time.

Process the jam jars in a water bath canner (at some point I’ll post about my method, but until then, here is a good description of how to can at home.)