Horn of plenty

Yesterday was the autumnal equinox. Friends and I celebrated with a dinner, sort of like doing Thanksgiving early and locally before some of us scatter across the country to spend the holidays with family. I volunteered for dessert. (Given my love of baking, I usually volunteer for dessert. But yes, I could bring casseroles or bread and still get to play with the oven.)

I have a weakness for specialty bakeware. As I’ve never put much energy into learning how to decorate cakes, baking them in interesting shapes is my best shot at making them look different. Yes, yes, yes, the cake itself is the important part—but it doesn’t hurt to play once you’ve taken care of the essentials.

Maple cornucopia cake

So, okay, I can’t take credit for the cake pan. Nor can I take credit for the recipe, which was simply printed on the overwrap for the pan. (If the recipe was meant to be baked in this particular pan, why does it always overflow? Aargh!) But hey, I mixed it all together right, and managed to get it out of the pan in one piece. And by the way, cake mixes have led me to forget how long making a cake all the way from scratch can take. It’s not like I had to dice any of the ingredients, so I’m puzzled as to how it could take so long to measure out flour, sugars (brown and white), maple syrup, spices, etc.

Adventures in jam-making

I like to make jam. I’m not entirely sure why: after all, stores carry jam in all sorts of flavors for a lot less money and effort. (Of course, department stores carry sweaters in all sorts of styles and colors for a lot less money and effort, but I knit them anyway.) Unfortunately, most jam recipes I’ve found make jam for the masses. As a single person, even one still fond of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a recipe that promises to fill 8 half-pint jars at a minimum is off-putting. That would be 8 jars of the same flavor, and while I could probably work my way through that much strawberry preserves in a year or so, I want to play with other flavors. Also, I have zilch canning experience and an irrational conviction that if I try, I will kill myself with botulism poisoning. Terror aside, canning involves great quantities of steam and boiling water, neither of which makes a hot, humid summer afternoon any more endurable—and the hot, humid summer is when the fruits I love with are at their peak. I’ve tried making jam in my bread machine, which limited me to two recipes and was too hands-off to be any fun. When I finally found a small-scale recipe, I wilted from all the steam and stirring involved, and it still restricted me to about two variations with no suggestions as to how to substitute other fruits. Bleah.

This year, however, I found full instructions for freezer jam. No canning involved! As I looked into it further, I realized that you don’t cook the fruit either—so much for all that steam. And the crowning glory was that the recipe was scaled for anything from 1 to 6 half-pint containers and let you substitute in just about any fruit I wanted to work with. Okay, it involved buying one particular brand of instant pectin, but that was a small investment and worth it to see if it would make jam-making manageable. And so, armed with raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, I set to work.

The process is dead simple. First, mash the fruit with a potato masher. The raspberries and strawberries behaved perfectly, as though they could imagine no higher destiny than to become jam. Blueberries, on the other hand, resist crushing. Tougher skins? And when they finally do burst, they spray everything in the area with juice. I’m hoping I didn’t just ruin a favorite T-shirt.

Next, mix the sugar and the pectin. The recipe swears that you can use certain sugar substitutes instead of sugar. I’m torn between thinking that that’s great for diabetics and anyone else who can’t or doesn’t want to eat a lot of sugar and thinking that that just makes it another odd chemical concoction. (Let’s not ask what was in the pectin that lets it work without cooking—I’m trying to convince myself that this was a fairly natural food.)

Finally, add the fruit to the sugar and pectin, stir for 3 minutes, pour into containers, and let sit for half an hour. Freeze or refrigerate.


Raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, strawberry, strawberry

Okay, as of this writing, it hadn’t jelled as much as commercial preserves. Maybe these will just have to be spread on toast or rolls or something, and not made into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I can live with that. And a few random observations:

  • 6 oz. (170g) of raspberries was just enough to make 8 oz. (237 ml) of jam. 6 oz. of blueberries wasn’t. Hmph.
  • My blueberry jam isn’t all that pleasant to look at (tastes fine!). Large commercial producers must be doing something to it to improve the appearance. I probably don’t want to know what that is.
  • That strawberry huller I bought 2 years ago was a wise purchase. Never mind that today was the first time I’ve used it.