Sometimes you need a little fanfare, a little flourish, and sometimes you need to dispense with the baroque and resort to plain-spokenness. This is a time for plain speaking: Thank you, Karen. Karen, for new friends of PTMYB, is my Boss Lady at LuthorCorp, a fellow fighter of the good fight on behalf of box factory customers everywhere. Karen is freshly returned to LuthorCorp from a summer-long maternity leave, which she spent with her new baby son, the most blissed-out child I've ever had the pleasure to hear on the phone, and her three-year-old daughter, who is not only the smartiest and prettiest and funniest three-year-old in New York City, but who was also considerate enough to be born on Lloyd's birthday, thus saving me the confusion of adding another date to the mental Rolodex. Karen could have spent the week in a foul mood, having to eschew the company of these cuties for the box factory, but instead she returned bearing gifts, including a gift card for yours truly from one of my favorite places in the world, as a thank-you for keeping things running while she was out. Yesterday I found myself in Bridge, on the heels of a disastrous clothes-shopping trip in which I tried in vain to find a scoop-necked blouse that would not make me look like a sausage. I knew that poking around a room full of Silpats and double-boilers and cake pans and bean pots and carbon-steel melon ballers would be an instant mood elevator. I glanced up at the copper cookware hanging on the wall, the pieces I never bother to look at because I can't afford them. Out of curiosity, I asked the nice woman behind the counter what the prices were on the preserving pans. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she gave me the price. Not only was there enough money on the card for me to pick up the larger of the two pans, but there was enough left over for me to buy a 2-quart Sitram saucepan. (If you are not a kitchen-tools nerd, trust me when I say that this is exciting stuff.) I never ever thought I would have one of these kettles to call my own, but after 10 years of making jam and jelly in a T-Fal dutch oven and various stainless steel spaghetti pots that were just a little too small, a little too tall, a little too narrow, I now have something tailor-made for the task: Copper makes it conductive, able to heat evenly and fast; the wide, shallow structure allows for fast cooking and evaporation; the generous volume (15.5 liters! 15.5 liters!) means that I can let sugar syrups boil and rise without racing to turn down the flame before the whole thing boils over. Did I say thank you, Karen? Thank you, Karen.
Of course, one of the dangers of this sort of purchase is that my depth perception and sense of spatial relationships really, really suck, and thus I didn't realize just how big this thing was until I got it home:
This would be Exhibit A: the relative size of the new preserving pan to my trusty hob. (If you're wondering: yes, those are stains and burn marks on the walls, requiring bleach to remove them, and yes, those are baked-on stains on the stovetop, requiring a healthy dose of oven cleaner to remove them. I'm getting right on it. Thank you in advance for not pointing, laughing, fainting or screaming like a cheerleader.) To quote Marge Gunderson, he's a big fella. It will be a challenge, if not an outright impossibility, to have the preserving kettle and the boiling-water canner on the stove at the same time. But I have never been one to back down from a challenge. I was going to just keep this on the hob for a week or so, ooh and ahh over it, and then make a nice big batch of paradise jelly as soon as the quinces came in. Then I went to meet Bunni at the farmer's market yesterday, and discovered that crabapples had just come into season, which meant that I had to buy five pounds right away.
Look, look at all the room left in the pan! No more full Dutch ovens! No more nervous glances at a boiling pot! What do you mean that I could have got around this by not buying so damn many apples? What a silly notion.
Now if only I could find a Very Large Jelly Bag to go with the Very Large Preserving Kettle, I'd be laughing.
Eventually those five pounds of dry, sour, hard little apples, so unpromising if you bite into them, will turn into several jars of the one of the nicest and simplest jellies I know how to make. It clarifies to a truly beautiful pale rose shade, soothing to just look at. But don't just look at it. If you ever find yourself with a jar of crabapple jelly in your possession, go ahead and eat it, especially if you like your jellies on the tart side. Lloyd once came up with a great snack idea, which I have since appropriated for breakfast: a slice of this focaccia, a layer (thin or thick, as you like it; I like the former) of creme fraiche, a layer of crabapple jelly. I am cursing my bad planning right about now, as I have neither creme fraiche nor focaccia at hand. Feh.
(Did I say thank you, Karen?)
Plum Tucker Recipes, Part One: Damson jam. It only took me a few zillion weeks, but here is the methodology for damson jam. (Many thanks to everyone who found the original damson jam post via various and sundry search engines, and who offered such excellent advice, encouragement, thoughtful questions and captivating memories. I have been sorely delinquent in acknowledging your kind correspondence, and I apologize for that.) You can scale this up or down according to the amount of fruit you have on hand, but I've never had much luck with small batches of jam. Two pounds is about as small as I've ever made, but if all you have is a pound of fruit, by all means try it. Or you can make damson crumble instead, which I've been telling myself for years that I need to make.
Put something compelling on your stereo. (I like The Carl Stalling Project, Vol. 1, not only because I am a toonhead but also because it takes me about the length of this album to stone five pounds of damsons.) Wash and dry 5 pounds damson plums and cut the fruit from the pits. (I have been advised by Grace in the UK that stoning the fruit is not necessary; she recommends highly a jam made by a farm that doesn't remove the pits, and she makes an elegant case for playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with the stones one finds in one's damson crumble. I will admit that I like cherry tarts and olive bread better when the cherries and olives are unstoned; spitting the pits out is a small tradeoff. However, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for pit-spitting, so I will reluctantly err on the side of convenience here. But Grace, you and I are of like minds on this. Put the cut fruit into a preserving pan or a large Dutch oven, add about 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) water -- just enough to keep the fruit from sticking to the pan -- and put over a medium-high flame. The plums will begin to let out their juice; once the juice comes to a boil, add 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 pounds granulated sugar and the juice of one lime. (The lesser amount of sugar will make a looser, more tart jam; the greater amount will make a sweeter jam, and will also make a jam with a firmer set.) Skim any scum that rises to the surface. Let the jam boil, skimming as necessary and stirring occasionally so that the jam doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan. Cook until it is of the consistency you like. The easiest way to do this is to throw a saucer into the freezer; after 10 minutes of cooking, place a drop of jam on the cold plate. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it's done, but again, if you like a firmer set, you can cook it a bit longer. Sterilize your jars (I find that 5 pounds of fruit yields 10 half-pint jars, with a bit extra for instant consumption), boil your lids, fill and seal the jars, process in the boiling water canner for 10 minutes, take them out and listen for that satisfying ping that tells you that the seal has taken.
Plum Tucker Recipes, Part Two: Plum Cake. This is another one of those dishes that I can only make in the summertime (although once the plums are gone and the the apples arrive, this turns into apple cake, which is very different texturally, but no less lovely), and thus make about once every three days until the last of the prune plums are gone. This recipe comes from Cooking on the Edge, the best food zine that ever was; the cake was a creation of the editor/publisher Jill Cornfield's grandmother, and was a fixture at her family gatherings. It is buttery, sugary,custardy and luscious, and you don't have to butter and flour the pan. That does mean that you have to serve the cake out of the pan, but if you're not serving this for a special occasion,there's no harm in that. (If you do want to serve this for a special occasion, then by all means, butter and flour the pan, and turn the cake out after letting it rest for 10 minutes out of the oven.)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4). Beat together 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, 1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar and 1/2 tsp. salt until the butter is white and fluffy. Beat in 2 large eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. Beat in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. (I often omit the vanilla and use Fiori di Sicilia, a mix of citrus oil and vanillin -- the only way I will ever countenance the use of vanillin chez PTMYB -- that I order from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalogue.) Add 1 dip-and-sweep cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour with 1 tsp. baking powder mixed into it. Mix gently until all flour is absorbed. Scrape the batter into an ungreased 8"x 2" round pan. Cut up 1/2 pound (about 5 to 7) Italian prune plums into fourths and embed them, cut side down, into the surface of the cake. Bake for 45- 50 minutes, until the top of the cake is a deep golden brown and the plums have almost vanished beneath the surface. (This is a very moist cake, so the standard insert-a-toothpick test doesn't always work. Basically, once the surface is golden-brown and dry to the touch, it's done.) This is fabulous fresh out of the oven for dessert, but I like it even better for breakfast the next morning.