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Jam Scam

September 4, 2012

It’s not easy to avoid sugar and starch these days. I did pretty well during the first months of my pre-diabetic awareness, but lately I’ve either lacked the time to do the necessary shopping or the energy to prepare lunches for work days. Perhaps I lack a good excuse too, but in any case I’ve been compromising my diet. Fish and chips, white bread and tortillas, wheat beer… Of course there are alternatives in a health-conscious town like Portland and I often take advantage of them. But the best way to eat right is the old-fashioned one: cook it yourself.

This past weekend I had a well-earned respite – three days off from work and worry. On Sunday I took a friend, my daughter, and a friend of hers berry-picking. It was a comical venture. The goal was to make jam and we did it, but not without a lot of laughs and lunacy.

We drove up the I-84 into the Columbia Gorge – past acres of blackberry plants lining the freeway – to a spot I remembered finding with Eva last summer. What I didn’t remember was the steep slope directly under the single, scrawny bush. After picking half a quart’s worth of berries the girls were ready for the playground. We did find another bush and doubled our volume before quitting, but it wasn’t the epic picking session I’d imagined.

They had so much fun at the playground – and we laughed so hard at their antics – that there wasn’t time to find a better spot. We dropped Eva’s friend off and headed home. My friend had previous jam-making experience; she suggested purchasing some pectin and cheesecloth, so we stopped by a store.

Here’s where it got confusing: There were two pectin choices. The boxes seemed identical except that one contained 2 ounces and the other, 1.75. However, the heavier box was cheaper! They appeared to come from the same manufacturer so we bought the box containing more product. When we got home and read the directions it informed us the jam would only set if we followed them exactly. No substitutions, no skimping on sweetener – for reduced sugar jams and jellies we needed to purchase a different version of the same product.

I was shocked by the amount of sugar it called for. I would’ve skimped even if I wasn’t pre-diabetic; I wanted to skimp anyway. Also, the recipe called for lemon juice. Maybe that was why it needed so much sugar – to balance out the tartness. In any case we didn’t have a lemon and neither did the neighbors. After a fair amount of hemming and hawing we decided to forego the warning and use a substitute anyway. I found some brown rice syrup in the back of a cupboard and we had leftover raspberry lemonade, so it was a plan.

Throughout the process we discussed the possible reasons for the recipe’s insistence on exactitude. Was there pectin in lemons? Would it only react with processed sugar? Were we going to have to buy vanilla ice cream to go with our blackberry syrup mixture? Was the pectin company in league with the sugar manufacturers?

In the long run I intend to find a natural source of pectin. I don’t really care if my jam’s a little runny. Every batch is a learning experience, as I reminded Eva – remember our first tries making ice cream? The first was little more than a smoothie and the second resembled flavored whipping cream.

We boiled a couple of jars and poured the mixture in. It’d developed a skin so I was hopeful. I started cleaning up, and guess what ? Sitting in plain sight on the counter was a beautiful, sizable, bright yellow lemon! I don’t know where it came from – someone must have brought it to our housewarming party the day before. Thank you, sweet irony.

Some time later the jars popped and by the morning they’d set perfectly. In fact they’d set so well it was hard to scoop the jam out! What gives, Sure Jell? Is that an insurance stipulation, a recourse to fend off disgruntled customers if their jams don’t set? Do you think yours is the Holy Grail of jam recipes?

I don’t. We made blackberry jelly with brown rice syrup and flavored lemonade. It tasted great over our morning oatmeal… and I didn’t follow a recipe for that either.


From → Journal

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