Cooking · Lazer Creek Apiary

A Good Thermometer is Hard to Find

One of my main frustrations with cooking with sugar, whether it be jam or fondant for the bees, is the inconsistency of the texture of the final product.   I know I have to get this right before I’m ready to start selling any jams.   I’m now on my fourth thermometer and finally both batches of jam I made are exactly the firmness that I’ve been aiming for all this time.

Thermometer
Thermonib Thermometer

I’ve been using the metal candy thermometers that clip to the side of the pot with varying results.    Even on the best batches, the jams were not as firm as I wanted until I used the above Thermobib thermometer.   I made two batches of jam this week and both are the same consistency.

The jam in the picture is spiced apple and fig jam.  It’s probably a little more chunky than most people would prefer, but I like to taste pieces of apple in the jams I make for us.   It is a simple recipe – 1 pound of figs, 1 pound of Granny Smith apples,  4 cups of sugar, 1 cup of water, 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 tablespoon of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of nutmeg.  I chop the figs first and cover them with a cup of sugar and the salt to draw some of the moisture out of the figs.  Then I peel, core, and chop the apples, add them to the fig mixture and dump the rest of the sugar and the spices on top.   When the figs have been resting for at least 30 minutes, I add the water and a strip of the apple peel, and bring the mixture to a boil while constantly stirring.    It needs to stay at a rolling boil for a minute or two and then it’s a matter of just boiling enough moisture out to reach the magic temperature of 220 degrees.   Remove the strip of apple peel before ladling the mixture into jars.   (The pectin in the peel helps the jam set and the rest of the peel makes a nice, healthy snack while cooking!)

I used a recipe from Delicious magazine for the blackberry apple jam, with the modification of boiling the blackberries in the water first and then straining out the pulp and seeds through muslin.  This is a good option for people who need to avoid seeds.   Personally, I just don’t like having to get the seeds out from between my teeth!    As posted in a previous blog, I’d already boiled the blackberries when I picked them at the farm, so it was just a matter of defrosting them and warming them through a little before straining them.  I chopped the apples a little finer for this batch.

Jam and Honey
Jams and Honey

At the end of “cooking day,”  we had two batches of jam from new recipes and had bottled 33 pounds of honey.    I love seeing the purple of the blackberry jam and the gold of the spring honey with the sun behind it.

One other recipe I tried this week was figs in honey.   I don’t know if the flavors will integrate over time, but this is a recipe that I would only make for family in the future as it uses too much honey for us the market it.   I do want to try Roasted Figs in Honey as an ice-cream topping sometime, but again just for family.   Sometimes we just need to enjoy what our fig tree provides for us without turning it into jam first!

I’m very happy to say that these were the last recipes I tried on our old, boring, beige counter-tops and that I am looking forward to cooking in our almost-updated kitchen.  More about that in the near future…..

Canning · Gardening

Unexpected Figs

My husband and I were raised by a generation that admonished us to eat everything on our plate and never let food go to waste.  We somewhat reluctantly shelled peas, cut beans, picked gooseberries and pulled endless weeds from the time we could help until we left home.  It was therefore somewhat of a relief when the 17 degree frost killed the flowers on our fig tree this year.   I had visions of staying guilt-free at the farm and not having to think about the number of figs going to waste.

We had always wondered about the little figs that appeared shortly after the first leaves — and sometimes before.   I did a little research after the frost and found out that what look like figs are actually inverted flowers.   It seems odd to me that a flower and the fruit look pretty much the same, but it clearly works for the tree — aside from the fact that it is dependent on a specific species of wasp for pollination.  But no flowers equals no figs and that meant a summer without  chopping, boiling, stirring and canning figs every 3 days or so!

Figs
Figs

Then, lo and behold, a couple of weeks ago the fig tree erupted with twice as many figs as in years past!   I don’t know whether having more leaves before producing flowers inspired the tree to pop out so many or whether it’s just saying thank-you for the Miracle Grow.  Either way, I’ll be making fig jam again this year.   On a positive note, I get to experiment with even more recipes.

Our biggest yield last year was 15 pounds in one picking.   Now, I was picking about 3 pounds every day when we were in the city and the 15 pounds were a week’s growth after a farm trip.  That much maxed out my big jam saucepan.   At the farm today,  I was so happy to see our three new fig trees recovering from the frost and the drought, but I’m also wondering about our level of insanity in planting 3 trees!   I may need to get that 6-burner stove I’d been considering for the new house.

For now, I’m going to stop worrying about the figs in my future and go harvest wild blackberries!   I don’t think I’ve tried fig and blackberry jam yet, but I know that fig and apple jam is one of my favorites!

Blackberries
Blackberries

I’ll have to boil them and then freeze them here and then take them back to the city to turn into jam, but that much I can handle on my little RV stove!   Let me check to see if it’s stopped raining so that I can start picking…..

Canning

Experimenting with canning.

Figs:
We have had a fig tree in our yard for 10 years, but have left most of the figs for the birds until this summer.  As our thoughts moved toward retirement and how and where we want to spend it, I decided to retry canning — something I have done sporadically since learning how in high school.  The figs seemed like a good place to start.

The first recipe (see link) I found is the one I used all summer, with some modifications.   With just one tree, I was making small batches of 1 – 2 pounds of figs at a time and found that I needed to add more water.  After a few batches, I also grew tired of all the chopping and started tossing the figs in the food processor and using dried lemon peel.  The food processor actually made the jam better because the pieces of fig were smaller.  (They were probably what they should have been in the first place, but that’s a lot of slicing and dicing.)   I eventually developed a routine of picking figs first thing in the morning and again early evening.  If I had just made a batch of jam, I picked figs that were still firm.  As I gathered more figs toward my ideal quantity of at least 2 pounds, I allowed them to ripen more.  Figs that were almost ripe in the morning were pecked by birds by mid-afternoon, so how long to leave the figs on the tree became a balancing act.

One day, we were going out of town and didn’t have enough figs to make a batch, but I did have apples.  Fig and apple jam is good, but I later found that fig and blueberry jam is even better!   With 10 jars of fig jam in the pantry, the addition of other flavors was a fortunate experiment.

Orange Marmelade
I was so excited over the fig jam success, that I tried my hand at orange marmelade.  It was a lot of work and peeling the pith from the inside of the skin was a far more tedious job than suits my personality.  After all that slicing, and chopping, and cooking, and cleaning, the marmelade didn’t set.  I eventually dumped it all back into a pot and added orange jello.  It still hasn’t set 4 months later, and it never really tasted the way it should.  I have thought about pouring it into a cake pan and using it in a as a substitute for pineapple in an upside down pineapple cake, but I’ve also thought about just pouring it down the drain and freeing up my mason jars!

Baked Beans
For years, I cooked beans in a crock pot, but a year ago I bought an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and have been much happier with the results.  My two favorite recipes are Carribean Black Beans and Boston Baked Beans from The Joy of Cooking cook book.  I have only canned Boston Baked Beans, and found that I need to add more water than the recipe calls for if I want to pour the beans into cans without leaving air pockets.    I also tried to substitute peppered bacon for the salt pork, but when my husband came home with salt pork, I found out that sticking to the recipe as far as that goes produces better beans!   (After 30 years in the South, I’m finally using salt pork!)

Freezing beans is easier, but regardless of the type of plastic container I have used, I always end up with some beans becoming freezer burned.  Canned beans can’t be stored for very long, but a batch of 2 pounds of dried beans doesn’t last us more than a couple of months anyway.  We don’t have to deal with freezer burn, and we don’t have to defrost the beans so it’s easier to just grab a jar from the pantry.

I have tried adding curry powder (after eating some Heinz curry beans) and red pepper flakes to the recipe, but always go back to the original, unadulterated recipe, other than the extra water.   After filling the jars, I can the beans in my pressure cooker for 75 minutes.  I can fit 5 jars in the pressure cooker, so I usually end up with a couple of jars in the refrigerator (unpressurized) for immediate use and 5 jars for longer-term storage in the pantry.

There probably won’t be any new adventures in canning until next summer when our garden and my brother-in-law’s farm start producing again.  I know for sure that I’m not going to try marmelade again!