Jammin' With You.
From grape jelly to cherry jam illustrates my life. A childhood of grape jelly, deep, dark purple, almost black except in the light when it shimmers the violet of aubergines. Grape jelly spread on toasted white bread, grape jelly with peanut butter for the ideal sandwich – although I did prefer them separately. Unsophisticated jelly for a kid.
Jelly glasses, jam jars. A collection of Flintstone's jelly glasses lined up in the kitchen cabinet (right next to the Goofy Grape, Jolly Olly Orange and Freckle Face Strawberry mugs), the only glasses we kids drank from, always one important reason to buy grape jelly. Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty, Dino and the kids, we scrambled to claim each one as our own. Pour a glass of milk or juice and drink it down, discovering the face of the cartoon character molded into the bottom. Who was I today? Wilma? Betty? Pebbles?
Cherry jam, my adult predilection, a mark of the country I have adopted – or which has adopted me – the country I now call home. Cherry jam spread on toasted baguette for breakfast or tender brioche for an afternoon treat. Jam jars, not glasses. Jam jars stacked in threes, cleaned of the jam, jars perfect for storing spices and colored sugars, baking mixtures of cocoa and sugar or cinnamon sugar, raisins and nuts let loose from their packet. Jam jars the best for stashing half cans of chopped tomatoes or leftover pizza sauce, chickpeas not used in the latest tagine. But never to drink from. A long way from childhood, a long way from home.
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.” the Queen said. - Lewis Carroll
Jam, jelly, marmalade, preserves. I never give it a second thought, what makes it jam, what jelly, what preserves?
And throw fruit butter into the mix. I discovered fruit butter – jam to my obviously naïve, gastronomically challenged mind – in Philadelphia. We used to get together at the hippest restaurant in town for college students back then, an all-you-can-eat salad bar buffet, the best French onion soup and homebaked breads in the world. And there was always a terra cotta pot filled with smooth, sweet, tart apple butter the color of deep caramel, a local specialty. Apple butter – jelly? jam? – generously spread on thick slices of chewy bread, goodbye diet, hello hips. College comfort.
Marmalade must be bittersweet, the sugary sweetness of fruit and sugar, the bitter edge of citrus rind. Orange, lemon, kumquats….
Jam or jelly, jelly or jam, no one has explained it to me yet, no one has yet to convince me. Smooth and wobbly, gelée they call it in France. With bits and pieces of fruit, confiture. I always, invariably choose cherry.
Jam swirled into vanilla cake batter. Jam melted and brushed over paper-thin wedges of fruit in elegant concentric circles on a fine round of puff pastry, glistening gold.
One memorable traffic jam in the center of Milan, an Italian traffic jam. Heated argument ensues, the drivers out of their cars, struggling towards each, fists clenched, arms flailing, girlfriends hanging on, pulling back. Voices raised in hysterics, calling names, threats flying back and forth like punches. Whose fault? Your fault? The whole macho thing going on. Cars inching forward, closer and closer, from all directions, lines of cars splayed out like the June Taylor Dancers in formation. Car doors pop open one after the other, drivers step out, some enthusiastically, wanting to get involved, others tentatively, curiously, just wanting to discover the cause of the holdup, anxious to move along.
We stood and watched from a distance. Thoroughly amused.
In a jam. In a pickle. In a stew. In a nutshell. In apple-pie order. In the soup.
My legs turn to jelly, wibbly wobbly. My teeth chatter, my heart pounds. My blood runs sluggishly through my veins like jam. Cherry red. Sanguine Strawberry. Blackberry dark. My heart jammed in my throat like an old sock. Breathe deeply, slip into jammies and bake.
Bake. Cookie dough smelling of vanilla and cinnamon, tiny bits broken off and rolled between the palms of my hands, gently, tenderly; fingers, hands buttery slick. Dough like wet sand on the beach; building castles. Line up the balls of pale yellow dough on a worn, tarnished old baking sheet silver and black, line up those balls of cookie dough spaced apart but in perfect rows. A jam jar… or a jelly glass… press carefully, rounds becoming discs, not too flat, not too fat, perfect discs. Then press the thumb into the dough, into the center of each round to make a small well, a dip, – only the thumb will do, making the ideal indentation, not too big, not too small, not too deep.
A teaspoon of jam. Spooned into the impression made by the thumb in the center of each disc. Strawberry, blueberry, rose or lemon it doesn't really matter; we each have our predilection. A teaspoon of jam, one by one then bake. Jam thumbprint cookies.
In a Jam
The steps from the hallway of the house down to the garage – a combination, a mishmash, a merger of garage, basement, laundry room – was steep and narrow forcing one to lean heavily against the wall for balance. It smelled of, oh, I don't know, locker room, gas station, subterranean cellar all in one, damp, musty, earthy, metallic, of petrol and forgotten boxes of clothing.
Just at the bottom of those stairs (one reached for the light switch, groping and feeling one's way along the dusty wall until finding it and illuminating the back half of the garage in a faded light from one watery weak light bulb overhead) and straight ahead was the second refrigerator – nothing fancy, mind you, but an old thing in the family for years and years – chock full of tubs of margarine, packets of gruyere, wheels of Camembert (heavens! In the refrigerator?), a chicken or a roast beef for Sunday's lunch. Next to it was the hulking freezer, a child's treasure chest; lift the lid to find chocolate-dipped ice cream on a stick (eskimos), cones topped with vanilla ice cream swirled with chocolate, crunchy with chopped nuts, and popsicles in every color. Big plastic freezer bags were filled with summer fruit right off the trees, cherries, purple plums, peaches and apricots waiting for winter.
But along the back wall of the garage, jammed back between extra rolls of paper towels, bottles of sugary syrup for summer drinks and cans of beans and corn were rows of Madeleine's homemade jams. All summer long when the berries were ripe from the bushes and trees, she would make jam. She made her jams much the way she made everything else. By intuition. She rarely weighed or measured anything; her one measuring cup was marked in approximations, flour, sugar, semolina, rice, liquid marked along the top and black lines up and down to show you where to stop.
She would clean, pit and trim the fruit as needed and dump it into a large pot, eyeballing the quantity, the weight in order to add, more or less, the equivalent amount of sugar. Then she would bring it all to a hardy boil and let it all simmer, stirring and skimming as needed. She would have a row of empty jam jars (the kind that had once held store-bought jam), sparkling clean, and when she judged the concoction ready, she would ladle it out into those jars, pop on the lids and carry them down to store on those old wooden shelves in the back of the garage for other seasons.
Fruit jammed together in jars jammed together on those old shelves.
This must be one of my family's absolute favourites, and what is strange is that they all like it. I don't know about you, but few are the times I can satisfy both my three children and my husband with one dish but this one - a cross between a muffin and a cupcake - does it. I hope it does the same for you!
200 g/ 7 oz sugar
3 tbsp fresh cream
100 g/ 3.5 oz butter, melted
250 g/ 8.8 oz flour 1 tsp baking powder
100 g/ 3.5 oz dark chocolate, chopped
3 - 4 heaped tbsp strawberry jam
Whisk eggs and sugar in a bowl for a few minutes, add the cream and the melted butter and stir until smooth and then add the chopped chocolate.
Sift flour and baking powder into the bowl and mix well. Now it is time to add the jam and when you do that, you need to be quick and careful, I fold it in with a baking spatula or a big spoon and take great care not to mix in the jam too well because I want there to be jam 'clusters' to surprise me in the finished muffins/cupcake.
Spoon the batter into muffin/cupcake forms and bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 10-12 minutes.