For years I made blackberry jam at the end of August by myself, or with Ted’s help, as Christmas presents for the clerical staff at Burbank High, as a thank you and a bit of recognition, and for my friends and family. Since it can only be made one pot at a time, I often made 12 batches in order to have enough. That would yield me 84 jars, enough for gifts, personal use, and thank you presents throughout the year.
One time, I needed a secretary to type up the extensive print-ready copy of the semester final that the department would use. There were three versions of the same two-hour test. I asked her what she wanted as compensation, and she said, “Two jars of jam.”
Some few would return the empty jars to my school mailbox, and I’d fill them again, with new lids for the next year.
Because I also picked the wild blackberries, the jam was very fresh: made the same evening when it was cooler. On rare occasions I had to buy berries because they weren’t ripe when we left at the end of August, and they were gone when we returned in late September for harvest. It was always a problem in later years when I was working, too, and had to be back at school by mid-August.
I’d wait and wait for the berries to ripen, and, if I were lucky, I’d just be able finish it before we had to return to California and the opening of school. Sometimes it was so fresh that on our trip home, jar lids would still be popping, announcing their vacuum seal.
As usual, I feel the need to write down the process, and the best place to begin is with the ingredients and the equipment I use:
Three pints of berries per batch (preferably wild, very ripe, organic and freshly picked)
Certo (one envelope per pot)
Sugar (7 cups per batch)
Lemons (the juice of half a lemon per batch)
An 8” ricer on a tripod with a long wooden pestle (because that’s what Grandma Arlie used)
A 12” high stainless steel pot (when it boils, the liquid rises)
A 12” wooden spoon
A 7” saucepan for boiling lids and rings
One toothpick (just wait)
Dishwasher for sterilizing jars (or a kettle of boiling hot water)
Half pint jars (7-9 per batch)
A wooden cutting board, if you’re working on tile or granite
A series of five stainless steel bowls (a huge one for catching juice, one for storing 4 cups of juice, one to hold the seeded “sludge”, and two that will hold 7 cups of sugar)
A juicer for the lemons
A large strainer (for rinsing the berries)
Two measuring cups, one that holds four cups and one that holds a cup
Shoes, not just socks (this is important… so that feet don’t get scalded with hot liquid jam)
Two rubber spatulas
Assuming I’ll be working alone, I ready the scene by placing several thicknesses of newspapers on the countertops, under the bowls that will hold sugar, over the area where I’ll be juicing berries, and on the wooden cutting board where I’ll be pouring jam. I even place sheets up the walls behind where I’m juicing to protect the paint from being spotted with purple.
Then, I load the jars into the dishwasher and put it on rinse cycle to sterilize them and keep them hot so they don’t crack when they’re filled with the hot jam. (There’s no soap involved in this step.) This is a huge improvement over boiling jars in a kitchen that is already going to be too hot.
The jar lids and rings go into the saucepan on medium heat until the water boils. Then, I turn it down to low for the remainder of the time.
I measure out 7 cups of sugar into a bowl and add the juice of half a lemon. (I consider this the secret ingredient.) I actually measure out two of these bowls to stay ahead of the game. I can pour one of them into my cooking pot on the stove, which awaits the juice.
I cut open a Certo packet and leave it standing up near the area where I will cook.
The sink must be cleaned in order to accommodate the berries. I rinse them in cold water (three pints at a time), picking them up in my two hands to inspect for spiders, twigs, and moldy berries before I place them into the strainer to drain before I juice them.
Now, I’m ready to juice the berries. I place three pints into the ricer and plunge the pestle into them circling it round and round to allow the juice to flow out of the holes in the sides and bottom.
If they are especially juicy, and I’m especially energetic, it can splash, so that’s the reason for the apron and the newspaper on the walls.
The key to this is knowing when all the juice has been wrung from the berries. My test: when the seeds stick to the pestle and don’t slide down or seem to be glued there, then, I know that I’m done. At this point I transfer the seeds remaining inside the ricer (what we call the “sludge”) to a separate bowl by scraping the pestle with a spatula.
I measure the juice, at this point, and hope that I have four cups. If so, I add one tablespoon of sludge to give it authenticity, not enough seeds to annoy the eater, but enough to make it look like jam. (On the last batch, if I do not have 4 cups of juice, I have three choices: change the ratio of sugar to juice, go out and pick what I still require, or add whatever I need in apple juice. The latter is only done in emergencies.)
All of this is poured into the waiting pot filled with sugar and lemon and stirred until it is mixed before turning on the heat to high medium. It is important to stir this frequently so it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. It doesn’t have to be a constant stir, though. I usually use this time to clean and juice the next batch of berries when I’m alone. If you don’t have a spoon rest, then place the wooden spoon across the top of the pot so you don’t lose track of it.
It will take the first batch of jam about 15 minutes to boil, making the most delicious smell and creating a wonderful magenta color.
When it starts to boil, I count out 60 seconds while I’m stirring. When it reaches a rolling boil, one that cannot be stirred down with the wooden spoon, I know that it is time to remove 9 jars from the dishwasher and turn them over to drain on newspapers.
Then, I return to the pot, stirring as I add Certo to the mix. I count 60 seconds again while I stir.
Now it’s time to turn off the gas (or propane as it is here on the farm) and ready the jars for filling by turning them over and placing a row on the wooden cutting board. My board is only long enough to hold six jars, and I can’t put a second row behind them because it doesn’t work well when I’m pouring the huge pot of very hot jam. The extra jars seem to be in the way.
I, then, use the tongs to pull enough lids and rings out of the boiling water to dry on the newspaper, and I’m ready to pour.
This is a tricky task. The pot is heavy and unwieldy, and the liquid is composed of hot sugar that would make a terrible burn, so I am always respectful of this event. I use oven mitts to lift the pot, and I take a Sumo wrestling position, bending my knees and keeping my back straight as I pour. The pot at no time touches the glass jar.
No liquid can remain on the top or sides of the jar where the lid will be screwed on, so timing is important. I stop pouring at a higher level than one would think necessary to fill the jars because the jam settles and more needs to be added if the jar isn’t full enough.
I stop pouring and get ready to move on to the next jar, but there is usually a final drop. I transfer the pot to the next jar, placing the drop into the waiting empty jar. Sometimes it lands on the glass ring and must be carefully wiped off holding the very hot glass jar gingerly and wiping with a wet paper towel. (I often muse that it would be a mean trick to give someone a jar where the lid is stuck on with the sugary glue, but if you’ve every received a jar like that, it was not done intentionally.)
When I’ve filled six jars, I know that there is more, but not how much. A batch can vary from six to nine jars. I’m never sure, so I always have extra jars waiting. Sometimes it depends on how full I’ve made the jars. Now is the time to look at the first ones that I poured into and decide if they need to be topped off. This is another time to be careful of accidental drips on the rim.
When I’m satisfied that the first six are full, I make a second stand, placing two or three more in an “L” shape on the cutting board, so as not to bump the pot on the full glass jars, and if I’m feeling strong, I hold the pot with one hand and use a rubber spatula to scrape the last bits into the final jar, although that last bit can go into the next batch.
This may be what causes me to sometimes get an extra half jar. (A half full jar can be filled with jam from the following batch or used as our tasting sample or our breakfast jam.)
Now, I return the pot to the stove, and it’s time to place the lids on the newly poured jam. I carefully hold the very hot jars with the tips of the fingers on my left hand while I screw down the rings with my right. Often they do not go on straight or easily the first time. As many times as I’ve done it, I still have problems, and I can never use oven mitts in this step because they’re too unwieldy.
At this point, I know that I shouldn’t move the jars any more than I have to. I usually wait until the next batch is just about ready, and then I gently move them so as not to break the gel. I put them onto a place that is impervious to very hot items. Moving may or may not be what can make the jam runny, but I’m not taking any chances.
The next batch can be made without cleaning the pot. That’s great news, and I return any unused jars to the dishwasher and punch “rinse” again. I cut another Certo packet and stand it up, put all my equipment back in its original place, wooden spoons, tongs, oven mitts, for the next go round. Usually I’ve rinsed berries, juiced them, measured out sugar and lemon for the next batch while I was waiting for the previous one to boil, so I’m ready to go once more. If I’m efficient, I can make a batch every 20 minutes.
When I’m done, I can appreciate the delicious smell which fills the house and taste the cool jam. I look at the beautiful jars, and, again, as Beowulf did, “I joy in the work of my hand.”
Then, it’s time to clean up..........
I roll up the stained newspapers, smiling at the fact that no counters or walls were harmed in the process, and I use my one toothpick to push the recalcitrant seeds out of the holes of the ricer.
As I’m working, the jars begin to vacuum seal, and the popping of the lids makes me laugh. From bush to jam jar in only a few hours; it’s enough to make Grandma Arlie proud.