Ancient Carbs, Part 2: The Year of the Dog

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The Yellow River Breaches Its Course ~ Ma Yuan

 

“The last time we were together we talked about first civilizations and Mesopotamia. Do you guys remember how people settled near the rivers there and started cultivating plants for food?”

“The Tigris and the Euphrates! They grew wheat there!”

“Right! Now we are moving east, to China, where people also settled near rivers. Anyone know which rivers those are?”

“The Yellow River!”

While they had a hard time identifying the Yangtze, they did remember that the people of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Valley grew rice in the fertile soil near the perpetually flooding river.

Growing rice requires a lot of water, but millet, a naturally prolific crop in China, does not. The fast-growing, small-seeded grass thrives in warm, dry conditions, and is therefore especially well-suited for the more arid climate of northern China. In fact, scientific studies suggest that people there cultivated millet even before rice.

Some of the kids knew what millet was.

“It’s bird seed!”

I told them all about the exciting 2005 archaeological find at Lajia, an excavation of a Bronze Age site on the banks of the Yellow River in central China.

“So, the noodles they found in an upturned bowl were about 4,000 years old!”

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From BBC News (Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

 

“Ewww. I don’t think I want to eat noodles anymore.”

My son is sensitive when it comes to food imagery.

I explained how the airless conditions in the bowl had prevented the noodles from decaying. Scientific analysis proved that they were the same age as the excavation site and were made from both foxtail and broomcorn millet.

“So, this provided some evidence in settling a long running argument about the origin of noodles. The earliest record of noodles in China was written sometime between AD25 and 220. Up until the find at Lajia, the question of whether noodles were first invented by the Italians, the Arabs, or the Chinese, had still been up for debate.”

There seems to be an endless variety of Chinese noodles: cut, extruded, flicked, pulled or kneaded, and even shaved. Yet the most basic are made from a simple combination of starch flour, water, and sometimes salt.

We checked out a video of a cook making shaved noodles, and then another fascinating video about the art of making 9-foot long noodles by hand.

“The Lajia noodles were thought to be similar to a pulled type called la mian — la means to stretch, and mian means noodle.”

I showed them yet another impressive video of a la mian noodle master.

La mian noodles are made with flour derived from wheat; the gluten in wheat provides the plasticity and elasticity required for the repeated twisting and folding of the dough. I like to compare the process of kneading dough to straightening out a messy pile of yarn — the goal is to align the gluten strands just like one would line up the separate pieces of yarn.

“Ok, so we’re not making those. Nor are we doing a noodle dance.”

I told them they could go home and do the noodle dance in their own kitchens.

Instead, we would be making an easy pulled noodle based on this recipe.

I had mixed and kneaded the dough in advance because the gluten has to rest and sufficiently relax before it can be pulled.

I filled two pots with water, and while those came to a boil, I cut the noodle dough into strips.

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I showed the kids how to take a strip of dough, one end in each hand, and simultaneously stretch and pull it, bouncing it a little as it lengthened. Then, I took hold of one end and stretched it even more, pulling the noodle through my hands as if I were measuring out a length of ribbon.

“Long noodles are supposed to signify a long life. It’s ok if you break your noodle, but you’re never supposed to cut them.”

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The kids were a bit cautious at first, but they soon got into a groove.

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And then they started cranking out noodles like experts.

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I had them stand away from the stove while they pulled the noodles, moving in only to take turns gently lowering their long strips of dough into the pots of water.

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While we stretched and cooked, we talked about the importance of noodles in Chinese culture and the upcoming Chinese New Year.

“Hey, how can it be the New Year when it’s already February?”

Ah, but they already knew all about it, and informed me that the date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar calendar. (I knew this)

Specifically, the first day of the new year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.

“So it can be a different day every year?”

“Yep! Anyone know which animal is represented this year?”

“The dog!”

We continued chatting, noodling, and cooking.

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I fished the noodles out of the water as they finished cooking and placed them in a nearby colander set over a bowl. They stayed fairly warm until all of the rest were done, but a short dousing of hot water refreshed and reheated them enough to toss with some ginger-scallion sauce and quickly sautéed veggies.

The moment before we ate was a flurry of activity — the kids were absolutely dyyyying to eat the noodles they had so proudly stretched. I felt a little like Kung Fu Panda slinging noodle bowls onto the table in front of eager diners.

The kids further dressed their noodles with hoisin, tofu, and other assorted items.

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The noodles got a hearty thumbs up from all involved. My son requested that we make them again immediately. I guess the ancient noodles hadn’t put him off his lunch after all.

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Hand-Pulled Noodles

Maggie Zhu over at Omnivore’s Cookbook gives excellent and detailed instructions on making this type of pulled noodle. I followed her recipe, mixing the dough in my stand mixer for 15 minutes.

(I highly recommend making the dough the day before you plan on pulling the noodles. I did a practice run, cooking the dough the same day I mixed it, but the noodles made from the overnight dough turned out much nicer and thinner.)

Mix the dough, cover it and let it rest for two hours, then divide it into eight pieces. Lightly coat each piece with oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Let the pieces come to room temperature, then pat each piece into a rectangle and place on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Keep pieces covered until ready to pull.

When you are ready to cook the noodles, cut each rectangle into strips on a lightly floured board — remember that they will get thinner as you pull them! Cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. They are pretty much ready when they float. Drain and keep warm.

Maggie advises bringing the water to a “roaring boil” for the most authentic chewy texture. I didn’t do this for the kids’ batch because we had so many arms and hands about, but the noodles turned out just fine. They were a bit softer than my test batch, but nobody seemed to care!

I made a double recipe of Ginger Scallion Sauce that we tossed the finished noodles in. I also quickly sautéed some shredded cabbage and carrots with some chopped garlic and added those to the bowl. We placed extra sauce, some sliced red pepper, hoisin, tofu, soy sauce, and Sriracha on the table and let each kid dress their own noodles.

This was a hit with the kids, and super fun for all involved. Give it a go and make sure you share pictures with me if you do!

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Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!

 

Cake As A Lens

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I thought we’d do something a little different in baking class this year — American history examined through cake recipes.

I am a big fan of the Food52 site, and was excited by a genius post in which the author chose a dozen American cakes that “highlight advancements, ingredients, or fads throughout the years.” The post inspired me to create my own recipe list, (though it contains most of the same cakes), that we could use to enhance our study of 18th and 19th century America.  There is a wealth of information in these recipes of years past –ingredients and cooking methods employed by the bakers of the time, the recipe author’s culinary and homemaking tips, and even bits of the cookbook creator’s biography — all of these things would contribute to a fuller picture of everyday life in a continually changing America.

We are excited about the focus of our baking journey this year, and we hope you’ll join us in your own kitchen. If you do, be sure to let us know. And share your photos! The kids would be tickled.

Happy baking!

 

Recipes in this series:

Election Cake, late 18th century

Indian Pound Cake, 1828

Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Malinda Russell’s Cream Cake, 1866

Angel Food Cake, 1880’s

Devil’s Food Cake, late 19th Century

1-2-3-4 Cake, late 19th/early 20th Century

…Five Piping Bags!…

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Four gel paste colors, three cups of flour, two sticks of butter, and a 200-count box of double-pointed round toothpicks!

That last part doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “a partridge in a pear tree”, but it was a stretch anyway.

It’s holiday cookie time!

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We skipped the mixing and baking this session and just jumped straight into decorating.

I had about five dozen sugar cookies at the ready, along with a large amount of royal icing.

We had used piping bags once before in baking class, but I felt a little reminder would be helpful.

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I demonstrated how to hold the bag, placing the closure in the crook of my hand.

“You’ll squeeze the bag from the top of the icing so it comes out at the tip, just like toothpaste. What do you think would happen if I were to squeeze it from the middle?”

“You’ll get icing coming out the other end!”

“Exactly. That would be super frustrating. And messy. So, from the top, you can twist the bag a bit to increase the pressure.  Easy peasy.”

I know what my bathroom looks like after the kids brush their teeth, so I was fully prepared for icing bag explosions.

“The icing in the bag is for outlining.  It is thicker than the icing in the bottle which is called flood icing.”

I showed them how to make a little dam of icing on the edge of the cookie, keeping the tip of the piping bag close the the surface and steadying it with the fingers of my other hand. Then, I partially filled in the outline with the thinner flood icing.

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The flood icing shouldn’t be so thin that it flattens out completely on its own.  A toothpick comes in handy for spreading it to the edges of the outline.

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After I had a base color down, I used contrasting flood icing to add dots and lines.  Then, using a toothpick, I enhanced the design by dragging the tip of it back and forth through the still wet icing.

“Ooooh”

That little trick never fails to thrill.

They were chomping at the bit to decorate at this point, but I wanted to show them how they could create other designs by drawing lines from the center out…

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Or by drawing concentric circles. Or how to turn dots into hearts by dragging the toothpick through the center of them.

“Just play around with it.”

So they did.

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They tackled the decorating, without trepidation.

They shared piping bags and bottles and encouraging words.

There were a few breaches of icing dams, one or two dropped cookies, and at least one masterpiece was ruined by a 95 lb. dog, but there was nary a fight or complaint, and only a couple of tears were shed, (thanks to the dog).

And there were no icing explosions!

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Just lots of creative color combinations.

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And concentration.

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And inspired designs.

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And meticulous work.

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And chatter.

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And excellent piping technique!

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And compliments, enthusiastically given.

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And proud children.

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And moms who happily took up the task of decorating when the kids had had enough.

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Oh, and messes.

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But it was totally worth it.

“Sure”, you say, “but what am I going to need to make this a tear-free, (parents included), cookie decorating party?”

Let me lay it out for you:

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Gel paste colors, I prefer Americolor.

(please note that all the decorating supplies aside from Americolor gel paste colors, can be found at many craft supply stores or even party supply, near the wedding or cake decorating items, and they are usually cheaper than Amazon.)

Piping bags, I prefer Wilton.

Round #2 piping tips (do not pay more than $2 a piece for these)

Couplers come in handy when decorating with kids because they provide a secure seal around the bag.  There is nothing worse than springing a leak near the tip and dripping icing all over your just finished masterpiece.

Plastic squeeze bottles

Toothpicks

Damp dish towels or plenty of paper towels

Cookies! Baked and completely cooled, (I usually bake them the day before).  After trying many different sugar cookie recipes, I found that I like this one the most.  I usually double the smaller recipe to get about 6 dozen cookies. Simple shapes are best for the kids, they are easier to decorate and less likely to break.

Royal icing, this recipe works well if you are using pasteurized egg whites from a carton, which I recommend because it is just easier, especially if you are making a big batch, which I also recommend. You do not want to run out of icing. For our decorating session, I used 9 oz of egg whites and 12 cups of powdered sugar.  That gave me more than enough to tint several colors. Remember, you will need two different consistencies of icing, the thicker outline icing, and the thinner flood icing. To do that…

Make it. It should be thick enough to make a little peak, but not so thick that it is hard to pipe. To adjust the consistency, you will be adding water to thin, or more powdered sugar to thicken it. But before you thin it…

Tint it.  Working with one color at a time, place some of the thick, white icing in a small bowl. Use the gel paste colors, (a little goes a long way!), to tint it.  When you have the color to your liking, place a third of that into a piping bag fitted with a piping tip.  Use the side of a spatula to press all the icing forward, like you would a toothpaste tube; you do that right? Do not overfill it, a third full is good for a child’s smaller hand; no more that half full for an adult. Twist the bag at the top of the icing and tie it with a piece of string.

Thin it. Add water, a half teaspoon at a time, to the other 2/3 of tinted icing left in your small bowl.  I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it thins out fast. Stop adding water when, if you lift a spoonful of it up and drag a ribbon of it across the surface, the ribbon disappears in “1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi”. This is all very scientific, I know. Pour your flood icing into a squeeze bottle.

Continue tinting and thinning as before.  Don’t make yourself crazy with the colors.  The kids were fine with red, yellow, green and blue. And white, of course! Don’t forget to save some plain white icing, outline and flood.

Now, go make some cookies!

Wishing everyone a very happy holiday and a joyous new year.

The Food of the Gods

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(Another activity I meant to write about back in, oh, May.  I never claimed to be efficient.)

We are Story of the World users.  Sometimes we do the suggested activities, sometimes not.  Sometimes we come up with our own.

In Chapter 32 of Volume 2: The Middle Ages, we covered the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan Empires.  The kids were particularly interested in the importance of cocoa to the people of pre-Columbian Meso-America, which lead, of course, to a discussion on chocolate.

We enjoyed this video, where the boy demonstrates how cocoa pods are harvested, and how to roast and grind the dried cocoa beans to make hot chocolate.  My kids thought this would be fun to do themselves.

I envisioned a chocolate tasting session.  I do it for the kids.

One shopping trip and three bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate later, we gathered around the table to examine a small bowl of cocoa nibs, which are pieces of fermented, dried and roasted cocoa bean.

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The kids checked out the craggy cocoa nibs, rolling them around in their hands.  The deeply aromatic, dark brown bits smelled just like chocolate. They popped the nibs in their mouths.

“Um…oh, that doesn’t taste like chocolate!”

I wish I could have gotten a picture of their collective faces.  If you’ve ever eaten unsweetened chocolate when you were expecting it to be sweet, you’ll understand.

“They’re kinda crunchy.”

“Like nuts.”

They went back for more.

“They taste a little like chocolate…but a little sour.”

Personally, I like the taste of cocoa nibs.  They are crunchy yet tender, and seem buttery in the way that nuts are, (from the cocoa butter). The chocolate flavor is intense, yet not sweet.  The flavor just takes some getting used to.

Apparently they had gotten used to the flavor, as they kept slipping nibs into their mouths throughout the rest of the session.

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We talked a bit about the cocoa tree, (genus Theobroma, which is Greek for food of the gods), the parts of its pod, and how the Aztec and Mayan people used it to make a cocoa drink, called xocolātl, which means “bitter water”.

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The kids took turns with the mortar and pestle, grinding up the nibs to steep in hot water.

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We strained our cocoa water and added a little honey, remembering that the people did not have access to sugar at that time.   We had read earlier about the different flavorings and spices the Mayans and Aztecs may have added to their cocoa and debated which ones might taste best.

“Vanilla!”

“Chili pepper?”

At least one kid liked the cocoa water.  Everybody else was underwhelmed.

We all knew that the chocolate we drink or eat in today’s world was different from what we had just tried.  We discussed how the Spaniards brought cocoa back to Spain and added sugar; eventually it made its way to the rest of Europe, where the process of making our contemporary chocolate was born.

“Let’s try some chocolate!”  Big whoops all around.

We opened up the different bars and tried a little of each.  I had chosen Mast because they are single-origin chocolate bars, meaning cocoa that has been harvested from one variety from one region, with the sole addition of a small amount of sugar.   I wanted the kids to taste just how different the chocolates could be.

We started with Belize since that was from the area we had been studying. The responses were mostly “yum.”

On to Dominican Republic.

“Oooh that tastes different!”

And Madagascar.

“Fruity!”

Of course we went round again because now they could taste the differences and better compare the three.

Everyone offered up their favorites.  I don’t even think there was a clear winner.

We looked up the different growing regions on a map.  I pointed out that they were all fairly close to the equator.

“The trees must grow better in warmer weather.”

“And with rain.”

“Where else do you think they might grow cocoa trees?”

“Hawaii?”

“What about Canada?”

“Noooo!”

Not quite ready to end our sweet session, we whipped up a batch of hot chocolate.  Rich, slightly milky, barely sweet.

We all enjoyed it very much.  Although one of us kept hold of a mug of cocoa water.  She was sticking with both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refrigerator Jam For A Hot Day

 

(This is from a session we did back in May.  Better late than never, right?)

 

I had planned on another baking lesson. Then the hot, dry Santa Anas started blowing. There would be no baking happening in this house.

Now my friend, well she has AC.  And while turning on an oven still sounded enormously unappealing, when she suggested we gather at her place to make jam instead, I gladly accepted the invitation.

She also has a lot of cutting boards.

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We set the kids up with butter knives, strawberries, and instructions on how to cut the just ripe fruit.  In chunks, not too big, not too small, and no greenery or white “shoulders”.

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They made short work of three pounds of berries, scooping them up and dumping them into a heavy, wide pot.

Then we added granulated sugar, (just enough to enhance the natural sweetness of the berries), and the juice of one orange and one lemon.

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We talked about how store bought jam contains a lot more sugar, (as much as 1:1 by weight!), than we would be using for our jam.   Sugar acts as a sweetener, but also as a thickener and a preservative.  Since we weren’t aiming for shelf-stable jam, we didn’t have to worry about losing the preservative effects of more sugar.  This jam would be runnier than a commercial product as well, but truer in flavor.  A reasonable trade-off in my book.

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We started cooking the mixture over medium heat.  The additional liquid from the orange kept the berries from sticking while they gave up their juice.

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The kids took turns occasionally stirring the contents of the pot.  The smell of warming berries made bellies growl.

We talked a bit about how fruit contains pectin, (in the cell walls of land plants to be exact), and how it helps jam gel when it is activated by the cooking process.

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We continued to cook the jam, adjusting the heat so that it bubbled steadily. The goal is to cook it fast enough to preserve the fresh and bright flavor, but not so high a temperature that there is a risk of burning the jam or the cook!

Aside from the delicious smell, we could tell the jam was getting closer to done by looking in the pot.  The berries had a translucent appearance and were completely submerged in syrupy liquid.  The bubbles, once large and thin, were now smaller, tighter, and more viscous.  Less boiling water, more bubbling lava.

We had placed some small plates in the freezer beforehand, and now was the time to retrieve them to start checking the consistency of our jam.

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We placed a spoonful of the hot mixture on the cold plate and drew a finger across it.  When we could make a clear path that didn’t fill in we knew we were done.

The hot jam was ladled into jars and left to cool.  Later, the jars would make it to the refrigerator where the jam would continue to thicken further.

But first a little snack…

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Refrigerator Jam

So this is not really a recipe.  I mean you can use nearly any fruit and, depending on the sweetness of it, as much or as little sugar as your tastebuds dictate.  I like to start with 1/4 cup of sugar per pound of fruit and go from there.

The amount below will yield about a 1/2 pint.  It is better to cook small batches in order to protect the fresh and bright, fruit flavor.

This is not a “putting up” jam, so it will be runnier than store bought and should be kept in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least a week. Unless you fail to hide it from those who don’t comprehend what “a reasonable amount” means.

1 lb of fruit, chopped

1/4 c sugar, more or less to taste

2 T liquid (fruit juice, lemon, whatever)

Place all ingredients in a pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until thick, (see description in post above).  Place in jars.  Cool. Refrigerate. Look forward to toast.