Things are finally starting to calm down a little around here, chaos caused by–among other things–blowing the engine in our last working vehicle a couple of weeks ago. We hate car shopping–as evidenced by how rarely we do it (we tend to buy old junkers from friends or acquaintances, and then just drive them into the ground from there)–so we’ve been stressed beyond normal recently, spending two weekends back-to-back looking over car lots for the right replacement mobile, and searching online for possibilities in between.
All that work recently means I haven’t been able to seek the comfort of my kitchen as often as I like. But, even in the middle of all that distraction, I’d already spotted a project
We got up early Saturday morning to take the rental car back, ran by the public library to feed my husband’s Books on Tape addiction (we can order books/CDs/DVDs/and a lot more online from the local library system here in Seattle. You put in a request from the main website. They ship it inter-library loan to your closest branch, then send you an email to come pick it up. Do they do that in your area, too? Check! It’s a great service!) … and then to Fred Meyer to pick up some great blueberries they had on sale!
My husband absolutely loves blueberries. They’re his favorite fruit, but–most of the year, especially up here in the PNW–they’re cost-prohibitive. Paying $5.99 a pint (or even more!) makes them a treat, not a staple, so I watch the grocery ads for him/them like a hawk. Needless to say, I was THRILLED to see them going on sale for $7.98 for a 5-pound box. I bought one the first day–right as they went on sale–to give him as snacks for work. They were excellent, too … plump and amazingly sweet … so I decided I’d go back on the last day of the sale (when hopefully life would be calmer for me) to get ten pounds to put up somehow.
When I got to the store that last day, however, I discovered that the berries I’d bought a few days before were gone … replaced by blueberries that looked exactly the same, the same size container for the same price … just grown on a different Oregon blueberry farm. I was further disappointed when I got home and tasted them. They weren’t nearly as sweet and succulent as the first flat I bought.
I decided to risk losing a few of them in order to hold them for another couple of days, keeping them in a coolish place in my home to encourage them to ripen further, rather than in the refrigerator, which would halt almost all of their natural enzymatic ripening. And it paid off some. The second batch was still not quite as sweet as that original box, but they definitely improved as they ripened. Bonus points: I had about three pounds of the original box left as well–berries I’d kept in the fridge the whole time, trying to keep them just so as long as possible–so adding them in helped sweeten the others.
When life finally calmed, I grabbed my 13 pounds (or so) of lush berries–some of them nearly as big around as my thumb–and picked through them in small handfuls, cleaning out any stems, debris, and over-ripe/mushy berries, etc. Once I had about two-thirds of them cleaned, I put the ones I’d finished into my big 36-quart pot, then added about a half cup of concentrated lemon juice and a 750ml bottle of DaVinchi’s Sugar-free Huckleberry syrup.
Wait! … she said she added Sugar-free Huckleberry Syrup!?!?! What the … ?
Have no fear. There is method to my madness, grasshopper
With most fruits, when you go in pursuit of jelly or jam … you usually add some some sort of liquid to the fruit in the very beginning, right? Water, fruit juice … it depends on the recipe you’re using. And–again–it’s basic science. You need to bring jellies and jams up to boiling at some point during their cooking process in order to kill the bacteria (and to activate the pectin), so most recipes add some form of liquid–in no small part–to protect the fruit from the direct heat on the bottom of the pot. Some fruits are very juicy all on their own, but most fruit and fruit purees are too thick. Without that extra liquid, it would be very easy to burn your yummy fruit and make it stick to the bottom of the pan … long before it ever reached the boiling point. That liquid also helps coax juice and pectin out of the cellular structure of the fruit: osmosis at work again. Plus, since most jellies and jams require the addition of pectin in order to gel anyway, adding liquid allows you s-t-r-e-t-c-h your actual fruit over a larger amount of final product, giving you a lighter fruit spread calorie/sugar-wise.
I chose a flavored coffee syrup for my additional liquid (over water or fruit juice) based on several factors:
- Rather than using plain water or juice, the sugar-free syrup brings additional flavor to your creations without adding additional calories or carbohydrates.
- Most of the time, I’m making Splenda-sweetened jams/jellies anyway. That’s what we like/eat. DaVinchi and Torani both use Splenda in their syrups, so the syrup is basically part of my sweetener in this recipe. If you don’t have a problem with sugar in your jams and jellies–but you’d also like to bring new and interesting flavors to your jellies and jams–then use the full-sugar versions of the syrups instead … just be sure to take that sugar into consideration in your overall recipe. Both brands also make a small line of ‘real fruit’ syrups, but–to me–that seems pointless. I could do the same thing by just adding … more fruit.
- And last–but certainly not least–I periodically use flavored syrups in my canned goods because of availability. Yes, I know what they cost in other parts of the country. I feel bad for people forced to spend $10 … $15 … or even more for a 750ml bottle of flavored syrup. However, I live in the land of coffee … which means I also live in the land of coffee syrup. DaVinchi is a Seattle-made product, and Seattle is lined with coffee shacks … who sell gallons of coffee syrup every day, along with steamed milk and over-roasted espresso. Thanks to living in the middle of that sort of over-saturated market, I can buy 750ml bottles of coffee syrup seven days a week at Cash & Carry or Costco Business. They each carry the bulk of DaVinchi and Torani’s flavor selections (dozens and dozens … absolute walls of them … the selection is amazing in both places), and they sell the 750ml size for approx. $3.25-3.85/bottle. In other words–for people in the Seattle area–coffee syrups are cheap … and plentiful, too.
In addition to flavoring some of my jellies and jams–and, of course, my coffee–I also use flavored coffee syrup as the liquid I add to my apples when I’m making applesauce. Use your imagination when it comes to potential flavor combinations. Apple-Cinnamon works! Caramel-Apple is a classic … but what about Kiwi applesauce? Peanut Butter applesauce? Root beer even? Who knows what YOU might like? Experiment!
Sugar-free blueberry and raspberry are our personal favorites for apples. Bonus points: they make beautiful purple and pink applesauces, too. When he tried my homemade version, my husband said he’d never go back to eating that stuff out of plastic tubs again. And I know those little plastic tubs of commercially-prepared no-sugar-added/fruit-flavored applesauce aren’t really all that expensive overall, but you never know what went into them. There’s probably a USDA rule someplace that regulates allowable parts per million of rat byproducts in commercially-prepared applesauce, just like the similar regulations on all sorts of other foods you buy pre-prepared … but when apple season is in full swing around here, and people are begging you to come get the fruit from their trees … I can make it for him for pennies a serving … AND I know what’s in it!
Okay, pardon the ADD moment … back to the blueberries!
I turned my heat up to medium and put the lid on my pot of blueberries and SF huckleberry syrup, then finished cleaning out the rest of the berries from there. By the time I added the remaining berries to the pot, the first portion were already boiling. I cooked them in two stages like that intentionally, such that–in the final product–I’d end up with some berries cooked to mush, comprising the juicy sauce part of the jam … and some more whole, providing the occasional chunk.
Once the overall mix cooked down to the point where it was about half-and-half liquid and softened solids, I was ready for the next step.
I had plenty of berries overall, so I decided to split the batch up and make two things instead of one. I grabbed my ladle and offloaded about 1/3rd of the batch into another pot, then set it aside for later.
I measured and found that I had exactly sixteen cups of fruit and juice remaining in my pot. While I had it out of the pot in measuring cups, I pureed approximately half of my volume with an immersion (stick) blender before returning it to my big pot. That gave me a good mix of textures, ranging from velvety sauce to whole berries … and everything in between.
I put the pot back over the heat, and then began adding my spices from there. I wasn’t making chutney (which LIVES for the spice!)–I was making spiced jam–so I decided I wanted the additional flavors to just play a little harmony line in the background of the final product–not lead guitar. I started intentionally light, adding/stirring/tasting as I went along … AND taking into consideration the fact that the flavors will grow in the jar with time. I ultimately added about half of a small nutmeg and a whole cinnamon stick–both freshly-grated–then topped it off with about two tablespoons of Mexican vanilla. That sounds like a lot, but–considering my overall volume (16 cups)–it was just the perfect background note to the growing sweetness of my huckleberry-flavored blueberry jam.
Once my spices were busily perfuming my mix, I got ready to add the pectin. Since I was going with no-added-sugar, I knew I needed some extra pectin in order to make the jam set up thick enough to suit my taste.
A tangent, but it’s important to this discussion: No-Sugar-Added jams and jellies–even when you follow the instructions inside the box of no- and low-sugar pectin–tend to be much softer set than regular full-sugar jams and jellies. That’s okay, I suppose, but I’m not quite sure why pectin manufacturers felt like we’d be happier with “it’s going to be softer than usual” … rather than “you have to use less fruit/more pectin to get the same set.” I suppose they did it (and then promoted the idea) so that you didn’t feel like you were having to spend more money on pectin to go low-/no-sugar added … but that makes no sense to me as a home canner. My philosophy on NSA fruit spreads is … if one box will give you a soft-set gel … then a box and some extra will make that same amount of fruit gel a little stronger/thicker. And I don’t mind paying the extra in order to have good, semi-solid low-/no-sugar spreads.
Using that logic as my guide, I used a total of five boxes of low- and no-sugar pectin for my 16 cups of prepared fruit … when their math would have had me use more like four. I also tasted my fruit for sweetness before I added anything to it. The huckleberry syrup definitely sweetened the overall mix, but I decided my husband (who isn’t really partial to sweet in much of anything … except fruit spreads destined for his peanut butter toast) would be happier if I added about four cups of additional Splenda. I measured it and set it aside so it would be ready when I was ready for it.
My next hurdle to overcome was adding dry pectin into hot fruit … without making pectin pearls, that is, which are far less appetizing than their tapioca cousins. You can try to do it according to the vague directions you find inside the box of pectin–sprinkle it in thinly … while mixing it furiously–but invariably you end up with a few icky lumps of half-dissolved pectin floating around in your fruit spread somewhere. To avoid giving that as a gift, the trick I always use is simple, and borrowed in part from tempering eggs.
The low-/no-sugar recipe in most boxes of pectin includes adding a small amount of water to your prepared fruit. Instead, take about a half-cup of that cold water and put it in a large bowl. Using your immersion blender (a standard mixer would work, too), gradually mix each box of dry pectin into the water–one box at a time–being sure to work all of the lumps out of each addition before you add in the next box. Then–once you have all of your pectin incorporated into the water, and while your immersion blender is still running on high–add about a half cup of your hot fruit into your pectin as well. Blend it quickly and thoroughly, being sure to keep the blender running at full speed.
I got all the lumps out of my pectin mix, then poured it into the main pot, stirring it in well. Be sure to scrape your bowl to get it all! Losing as little as a teaspoonful of it can change the overall texture of the batch.
From there, I turned the heat up to high and then basically stirred it non-stop until it reached a full, rolling boil I couldn’t stir down, being extra careful to keep the bottom well-scraped as I went. Once I’d achieved maximum boil, I set a timer for one minute.
When my alarm went off, I pulled the pot off the heat and added my four cups of Splenda, making sure to stir it in completely. I didn’t have much in the way of foam (for some reason–maybe related to the way I stir and the fact that I always go NSA … I rarely have to do much in the way of skimming), so I basically just packed it into my prepared jars from there, leaving one-quarter inch headspace. From there, I processed my jars in a BWB canner for 15 minutes, and ended up with nine pints of excellent spiced blueberry jam!
Once my jars of jam were cooling on the counter, I turned my attention to the remaining third of my berries. I decided they’d make a glorious NSA blueberry pancake syrup, so I grabbed my immersion bender again, and quickly swirled the entire contents of the smaller pot into a thick blueberry slurry. I added about a teaspoon of McCormick “Vanilla Butter Nut” Flavoring to round out the flavor and give it a little more depth, and just a dash of salt to make it seem even sweeter. I also measured out about two cups of Splenda to add in later, and then set the pot over high heat.
Just like with making jams and jellies, you need to bring your syrup up to a good, rolling boil at least once in the cooking process in order to sterilize it. You spent all that time sterilizing your jars. It would be a shame to just throw dirty fruit into them, right? Even though you’re not trying to activate pectin here (except the small amount in the blueberries themselves), you need to set a timer and let the syrup boil on high for at least one minute, just to run off any remaining canning cooties before you jar it.
When my boiling cycle was complete, I stirred in the Splenda, jarred my syrup, and then processed it for 15 minutes in a BWB canner, just like with the jam. It looked/smelled/tasted so amazingly good … I ended up frying bacon and making pancakes for dinner that evening … and cracking open the first jar! Oh, MY!!! It was a HUGE success … rich, dense but smooth, and soooo amazingly BLUEBERRY, all over your tongue! The taste was made even better by husband’s response:
“You mean I can have blueberry pancakes anytime I like? You DO love me!”