Pepper Jelly, aka the first time EVER that something was not spicy enough.

One of the perils of a good jam, jelly or preserve is that you really can’t taste it without burning your face. By the time you can sample and possibly make any change to the taste, it’s already cooled and in cute little jars.

Jam Lesson #5:

Quit being such a p**sy and go for the spice.

Since I have never made (or really eaten, to my knowledge) any kind of pepper jelly, I figured I would follow the easiest recipe (calling for a red bell pepper, a green bell pepper, and 6 jalapenos with the seeds and ribs removed). It looked like it was going to be pretty mild, but I was unprepare for how sweet it was.

Anyway, it makes a lovely jelly, it is awesome spread on a tortilla before the hot carnitas and cotija cheese is added, and it was great mixed with soy sauce as a spring roll dip. I plan to make a spicier version … perhaps more than a couple of versions, I’d like to have a variety in my pantry, from wimpy to pants-on-fire.

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And then there was … bacon. Bacon jam.

I felt triumphant. I had gone from being a jam virgin to making three relatively successful jams that people seemed to enjoy eating and hadn’t lost their eyesight or anything. I had some empty jars left over and was wondering what to attempt next when I came home to check my mail, just to find that Martha Stewart had dedicated a large section of the December 2010 issue of “Everyday Food” magazine.

Page 100. Slow-cooker bacon jam. What.

Martha, why do you mock me? I will make that bacon jam. Show you.

Jam lesson #4:

But it’s not jam.

Ok, I’ve had enough of your attitude. Just because it doesn’t have pectin and mounds of sugar? Just because it’s slow-cooked instead of forced to the rolling angry boil?

Well, I am no expert. It might not technically be jam. But people love to eat it and people love to get it as a gift, neatly wrapped in a pretty piece of fabric.

This was by far the most popular jam I made in 2o10 … even though I suppose it’s technically more of a tapenade or dip. Here goes: render a massive amount of bacon – the recipe says  1 1/2 lbs but I doubled it to three and may have (ahem) used a little extra – in a big pot. When it starts to smell like victory, add chopped onions, garlic, chives, and assorted things you like to use.  I added some extra herbs. Then add a cup of strong coffee, maple syrup, cider vinegar and some brown sugar. Put it all in your slow cooker, on high, with the lid off. Your kitchen will smell amazing.

Smells like victory

 

After the mixture starts to thicken and get bubbly and a little darker, it’s ready. I learned after two batches of this awesomeness that although bacon fat is … well, kind of the idea, it is a little bit greasy for some. If you’re giving it as a gift, skim off some of the fat, if for nothing else then because it doesn’t look pretty through the glass jar.

This stuff is delicious on any sandwich. I also tried some with hot sauce and cream cheese as a tasty dip for tortilla chips. It is amazing.

Pretty bacon jam

Why not share?

Of course, it wasn’t an accident that the magazines are putting ideas like homemade jams and jellies in our heads around the holidays. From Halloween til New Year’s, people everywhere – like me – are looking for ways to wow their friends and acquaintances with the deliciousness coming forth from your kitchen. Something that can be done on a budget? Even better. Something that can be decorated artfully and delivered personally? Lovely.

Pom-Pear Jam

Ginger-Peach Jam

I have always loved ginger and peach together. A few years ago my ex and I ran a bartending company, and I was experimenting with different flavors in simple syrups. One of the tastiest ones I made was the ginger/peach.

Really it’s a very simple recipe, as are most jams and jellies. A tasty fruit or two, in this case a fruit and candied root (packaged as “sugar ginger” at the asian foods store), a citric acid (usually lemon juice but sometimes wine or even a vinegar), sugar and pectin.

I boiled the peaches (fresh or frozen, not canned, you definitely don’t want the extra sugar and preservatives in even a “light” syrup) with the chopped candied ginger, added sugar and pectin, and that was it.

Jam lesson #3:

The deal with jam

The whole jam-making process is way, way easier than I thought it was. Once the measurements are worked out, it gets even easier. I used the Certo brand pectin gel, which is sold in packets of two. It comes with an easy-to-use instruction sheet detailing the ideal ways to measure the fruit for certain kinds of jam, and how much sugar to add. For example, for a berry jam, you would use 4 cups of fruit, 7 cups of sugar and one packet of pectin. My layperson’s understanding of it is that the consistency depends on your ratio of sugar to fruit/citrus to pectin, so follow the instructions on whichever pectin you use. Once the three components are mixed together at a rolling boil, it is ready to ladle into jars and seal.

 

“Jam? Hell, I can do that!”

It started innocently enough … I was flipping through my issue of Cooking Light magazine, reading a nice little feature on the awesomeness of pomegranates, when I see a recipe for a fresh pomegranate-pear jam. Sounds tasty, right? Looked easy at first glance, too, until I realized it called for the cook to physically extract the juice and seeds from the pomegranates.

Now, I don’t like lazy cooks any more than you do. But really? Unless you have a juicer or a strong-armed pirate hanging around, it’s not likely that you can pull something like this off in less than a couple of hours. And the recipe yields 2 cups of jam? OK, some modifications clearly needed to be made.

Jam lesson #1:

Measure. No, really.

But what the hell do I know about making jam, much less converting the recipe of someone clearly more qualified? Is jam making like cooking, an art, that can be altered according to the mood of the cook? Or is it like baking, which is basically chemistry that eventually is tasty? Well… there’s only one way to find out.

The recipe calls for pomegranate juice, seeds, rose wine, pears, sugar, and pectin. Fresh rosemary is tossed in at the end.  I mushed up the cooked pears and added the juices and perhaps a little too much wine. I left out the pomegranate seeds since I don’t particularly care for them (and why make something you won’t eat yourself), and I think that might have contributed to the gelling failure. I added the sugar and, since I probably tipped a little extra wine into the pot, the measurements were off and the jam barely set.

It was strange; I sealed a few jars of this non-setting jam, and the half-cup or so that I simply refrigerated gelled perfectly. I also later attempted another batch where I kept the seeds in, measured the fruit to the sugar exactly (using the charts in the packet of Certo pectin), and it was perfect, although much sweeter than the previous batch.

Jam lesson #2:

Who says it has to stay jam?

The best lesson I learned from the pom-pear failure was that it wasn’t a failure at all. I had attempted making it into jelly donuts and jellied candies, but they weren’t sweet enough. I glazed pears with it in a pie crust, and it was total liquid. (*Disclaimer: I can’t bake. This failure could totally be a failure of me to bake properly instead of a failure of the failed jam. Wait.)

I wasn’t until weeks later when my friend, who had asked me for a jar of the failed jam, informed me that she had used it for a glaze on some chicken breasts. I did the same thing, also glazing some carrots, and they were divine.

Strongly considering making a batch of jam that doesn’t set and labeling it “chicken glaze” instead.