I don't remember my first meeting with the man who will become my husband — he probably doesn't, either. Not because we barely noticed each other at a party or couldn't find a moment at some bar. I don't remember meeting him because I wasn't even a year old, and he was only 8.
Our dads met through work years ago and immediately became fast friends (our families did, too). I may not remember the moment I met my fiance, but what I do remember from our youth is his mom's zucchini bread flecked with walnuts, her baked chicken lasagna with cream sauce and her jams made from the wild-grown fruits of West Marin County, Calif., where he grew up.
I remember playing hide-and-seek in their house with a view of Tomales Bay, dogs always underfoot. And I remember our family get-togethers that stretched comfortably throughout the years, though we lived about an hour's drive apart, full of rambles in the woods and picnics on the beach, now culminating in the grandest family get-together yet: a wedding.
I'm not really a wedding person — though heaven knows I've attended more than my share. When we got engaged I was thrilled — of course, and always. But all too soon the gnashing of teeth began over the guest list, the color of the invitations, what kind of music to play, what sort of vibe the whole affair would have (think English country pub, near the sea). I lamented the expenditure of that precious mental energy and longed for a return to "normal" life — one where my biggest decision was whether I should make brown rice or quinoa to serve with my roasted vegetables.
However, I was certain of two things right from the start. One, that I would bake my own wedding cake. And two, that I would make and can blackberry jam to give away to our guests.
Don't ask me why I thought this — or baking my wedding cake — would be a good idea. I simply knew that I had to do it. So, I did.
Blackberries are emblematic of the Northern California where we grew up and so were the natural choice for an edible thank-you. They grow wild along the coast and in the fields, practically falling into your hands at their peak in late summer (the bushes thrive in a cool, mild climate — i.e. this part of the country). This year, because of late spring rain, the blackberries ripened late, too, ushering in that elusive phenomenon known in the Bay Area as "Indian summer" (or to some "true summer").
Canning is a way to hold on to a season's harvest bounty. Once I recover from this year's great blackberry project, I plan to return next year to canning applesauce and tomato sauce, delve into making plum chutney and create a not-too-sweet strawberry jam. Right now is time for late-season tomatoes, pickles, pears, even the last stone fruit in many parts of the country. With squash back at the farmers markets (or the garden), I can make a simple roasted butternut squash puree with maple syrup and can that, too.
We picked our blackberries in late summer until we couldn't stand to look at another one. We picked blackberries along the foggy coast, on a hot day along the Inverness Ridge and along a trail in my hometown of Sebastopol. We enlisted anyone who had a free hour — and thick skin. We picked with kids and we picked with adults and we picked just us two, a sweet reminder of the purpose of all of this.
About The Author
Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.
Blackberry picking can seem daunting, and avoiding all the thorny vines while hunting for fully ripe fruit while standing on tiptoe can get tiring. At the same time, it's meditative. Little niggling stresses faded as I filled my bowls; the scratches I earned in the process I wore proudly as battle scars.
Back in the kitchen, I turned the 20 or so pounds of blackberries we'd accumulated into jam — masses of it. I knew how much effort would go into making 100 jars of jam, as I'm pretty well-versed in the canning process, but it was truly a major production. Yet this is exactly the kind of work I like. I may not care — much — about the font on my save-the-date cards, but I certainly do care about my jam.
Canning is time-consuming although it's not overly arduous, even when undertaken in a kitchen as small as mine. But you must be prepared to sustain a few hot-water-splash burns and a broken seal here and there. You'll become well acquainted with pectin (usually used to "set" jam, though you may experiment in doing without) and will appreciate the judicious addition of fresh lemon juice.
After hours of cooking down the berries, filling 103 five-ounce jars with hot jam, sealing and clamping down the lids tightly and then processing each one in a water bath, my sense of accomplishment was astonishing (even if I cursed my existence once or twice). I stacked up those jars carefully in a cool, dark place, and I coo to them every so often in proprietary pride.
Yet I'm very ready to let them go.
At many moments during the picking and canning process, I thought about where those blackberries were destined — some would be layered into the cake I have still to bake, alternating with ribbons of homemade lemon curd.
But most will go to our guests, all close friends and family, many of whom are traveling a great distance to be with us on our wedding day. As I cooked, I imagined them returning home and unpacking their jam to spread on good whole-wheat toast, stir into yogurt, drizzle over vanilla (or lemon?) ice cream. I hope each bite reminds them of California, and of how much they mean to us.
Of course, you needn't use a wedding as an excuse to preserve food for winter or for otherwise. And you needn't use blackberries.
As Indian summer waxes in Northern California and "that day" fast approaches, my old friend turned soon-to-be-husband and I have tucked away a jar of blackberry jam to eat after the berry stains have faded and the rush of the wedding has subsided.
Sometime, in February perhaps, we'll open it up. It will taste slightly bittersweet, as blackberries do when you don't add too much sugar (I tend to err on the side of less is more). We'll dip spoons straight in and remember this summer — and all the summers before when we scrambled over rocks and chased tadpoles in the pond as children. We'll congratulate each other on surviving this last mad dash and toast to our future. As long as we have jam, I think we'll do just fine.
— Test your recipe before canning to make sure you actually like it and also to ensure you know what you're doing. For example, I like to reduce the amount of sugar called for, but I will test it out first to make sure it won't throw off the flavor or affect how long the jam takes to set.
— Jam is best made in small batches so it takes less time to set. I usually double the recipes below with great results.
— To pectin or not to pectin? Pectin is a fruit-derived jelling agent that helps set jams and jellies more quickly. I've made jam without, or have used slices of apple which contain natural pectin to help jell the jam. But if you are new to canning, or don't want to wait longer for your jam to set, pectin is the way to go. Make sure to adjust the amount of sugar accordingly, as powdered pectin is a bit bitter.
— Sterilize jars and lids in a large pot of boiling water (or in the oven at 200 degrees) shortly before you fill them. The key here is to pour very hot jam into very hot jars. Test the seal on a Ball jar by pressing on the lid — if it springs back, it's not sealed and should be put in the fridge. For Weck jars, remove the metal clamps and gently try to lift the lid. If it comes off easily, the seal has failed.
— Canned jam should be stored in a cool, dark place. It should be consumed within one year of canning.
I included pectin in my blackberry jam recipe because I was worried about my jam not setting enough. Leave it out if you prefer. If you choose to skip the pectin, you'll need to cook the jam longer, perhaps a half-hour or so, and can reduce the amount of sugar if you wish. It's best to make jam in small batches, so try doubling this recipe in a few pots if you have a lot of berries and wish to make a lot of jam.
In a medium-sized pot, mash blackberries with a potato masher or a fork. Over low heat, stir in the lemon juice and the pectin. Bring to a rolling boil and add the sugar, stirring until it dissolves. Return to a boil and boil rapidly for about 15 minutes, skimming off the foam and discarding, until the mixture thickens.
Pour the jam into sterilized jars, leaving about 1/4-inch space at the top. Wipe the rims clean. Apply lids and clamp or screw on tightly. Process in a water bath (the large pot of boiling water) for 10 minutes.
Remove from water bath and set aside, letting cool to room temperature, about 8 hours (the jam will further set as it cools). Press on each lid. If a lid springs back, it is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.
Feeling overwhelmed with all the jam you canned? Fold it into cake – specifically, this one. It's sweet but not too, and slightly gritty from the cornmeal but not in an unpleasant way. It's run through with good butter and vanilla and is slightly tender from the buttermilk, and the addition of a 1/2 cup of blackberry jam turns the batter a pretty purple. Scatter turbinado sugar across the top before putting into the oven to create a crunchy cap that finishes the cake off beautifully.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons finely grated orange peel
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup blackberry jam
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch cake pan with 2-inch-high sides (I use a springform cake pan).
Dust pan with cornmeal, tapping out excess.
Sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth and fluffy. Beat in orange peel. Gradually add sugar and beat until light and fluffy, occasionally scraping sides of bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in buttermilk, jam and vanilla. Fold in dry ingredients until just incorporated.
Transfer batter to pan, smoothing top. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar.
Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 10 minutes. Run knife around pan sides to loosen. Turn cake out onto plate, then invert, crushed sugar side up, onto rack. Cool completely.
Serve with whipped cream and a small bowl of blackberry jam to dollop on top of each slice.
Popovers used to intimidate me until I realized the secret: Keep all ingredients at room temperature before making the batter. You'll want to make these fairly close to when you want to serve them, as they're best fresh and hot. I love them as an alternative to rolls with dinner, although they would also be lovely with afternoon tea, served with lots of good butter, blackberry jam and honey.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus 1 teaspoon room temperature butter for pan
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
Honey, for serving
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Grease a 6-cup popover pan with the 1 teaspoon of butter.
Place the rest of the butter, flour, salt, eggs and milk into a food processor or blender and process for 30 seconds. Divide the batter evenly between the cups of the popover pan; each should be about a third to half full. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the popovers to a cooling rack and pierce each in the top with a knife to allow steam to escape. Serve warm, with jam and honey.
Sorbet is one of the easiest and most delicious desserts to make, and this one is elevated by spooning maple-syrup-infused blackberry jam compote over the top. Since you used lemon juice when making your blackberry jam, the hint of lemon in the compote ties in nicely to the lemony flavor of the sorbet. Try serving this with ginger cookies for an extra punch. You may use regular lemons if Meyers aren't available.
2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 8 Meyer lemons)
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the water, sugar and honey. Bring to a boil and boil for about 1 minute, or until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and cool. Stir in the lemon juice and lemon zest and pour into the bowl of an ice cream maker. Freeze according to manufacturer instructions.
When sorbet is frozen (it will be soft), transfer to a storage container and cover tightly. Freeze until ready to serve.
To make without an ice cream maker, transfer the lemon mixture to a 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan and freeze until firm (about 3 hours), stirring with a fork every half hour or so.
1 cup blackberry jam
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon cornstarch
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the jam and maple syrup, stirring to combine well. Whisk in the cornstarch until it is dissolved. Cook over medium heat until the jam is slightly firm and remove from heat.