8.08.2010

The lure of lore

When we made jam with Cynthia at the farm she sterilized her jars by slowly heating them in the oven at 100º C. Her oven didn't have any gauge of temperature. Sé mi horno, chicas, she told us, grinning, an invitation to share her secrets. Just as Cynthia knew her oven, and when it was going to rain, she knew how to make jam, bread, ice cream, beer, and champagne. All without a recipe. Without anything but her plastic kitchen scale and her contented smile. She just knew.


Cynthia started with recipes. Every so often she'd pull out her penned catalogs - pages of loose leaf with happy notes from former apprenticeships and classes. She brought them out to share with us. She no longer needs them; her work in the kitchen has become her friendly routine.

With Cynthia as our guide the volunteers and I voraciously jotted down partially translated scripts from our days spent learning in her kitchen. I flip through mine and find the menu for Christmas dinner, stick figure-like sketches reminding me how to shape bread into braids and pretzels, recipes for butter and empanadas, but the dulce recipe, the one for jam, is missing.

Finding dozens of recipes for apricot jam - each a variation of the one that came before - I turned to another guide, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking-the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I recall Cynthia as I read his explanation. With every recipe she served a story, an elaboration, an explanation. McGee knows the true science of the kitchen, but Cynthia, with her magic kneading hands and dulce de leche marbles, knows the lore.

Apricot Jam 

about 5 cups of apricots, halved and pitted
about 1/4 cup of water
3 3/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

A little bit about jam making (learned from Mr. McGee):
  • Jam making is a process that involves  cooking fruit to extract its pectin. The combination of heat and acid will eventually break down the fruit. 
  • Once the fruit has broken down, sugar is added and the mixture should be rapidly brought to a boil to remove the water and cause the other ingredients to concentrate, forming the jam. Boiling is continued until the temperature of the mix reaches 217-221º F or 103-105º C. 
  • McGee explains that a fresher flavor is produced when this cooking is done at a gentle simmer in a wide pot with a large surface area to allow for greater and quicker evaporation. 
  • At last, an acid is added, and the readiness of the mix is tested by placing a drop on a cold spoon to see if it gels.
So. Stick a spoon or dish in the freezer.

Place the apricots and water in a large, wide pot. Cook at a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the fruit has mostly broken down. Then add the sugar and raise the heat to bring the mixture to a boil quickly, still stirring frequently. Once boiling for several minutes, reduce the heat until the mixture is at a gentle simmer. When the mixture has condensed and most of the liquid appears gone (if you have a thermometer, the temperature of the mix will be 217-221º F or 103-105º C) add the lemon juice and mix to incorporate. Test the readiness of the jam by placing a drop on the chilled spoon or dish. If when you push the mixture gently with your finger it wrinkles instead of sliding back to its original position, the jam is ready.

Can or store accordingly.

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