Marin County Fair 2010

I Need a Canning Intervention

Is it possible that someday I’ll just know where the jelling point is, like any practiced artist learns her craft? Too often, I just don’t get it, and even my candy thermometer won’t save me. A preserve will usually jell somewhere between 220F and 224F, but within those few degrees there’s an astonishing range of possibility — from sugary soup to something that looks like it would bounce back at me if I threw it against the wall. (And sometimes I want to do exactly that.)

In addition to the thermometer, I frequently use the “cold plate” test, putting a drop of hot marmalade or jelly on a plate that’s been in the freezer for a while. Though, truth be told, I never use a plate. I use the bottom of a frosted glass mug that Steven keeps in the freezer for beer. (It’s the only time I use those mugs. I like to drink my beer from the bottle, thank you.) I put the mug back in the freezer for about thirty seconds, then take it out again and push at the liquid with my fingertip. If I see a little wrinkle, I’m usually good to go. But not always. Sometimes the little wrinkle seems to be fooling with me. I see it, but the mixture doesn’t set. Other times, if there are a lot of wrinkles and they’re too deep, I know I’ve already overdone it.

The jelling point has been giving me fits for the past few days. In the first place, I didn’t intend to do a lot of canning this weekend. Then I visited my cousin’s Meyer lemon tree and a handful of lemons turned into, well, about fifty of them. After that, I went to the grocery store and got distracted by the very last clementines. I got all nostalgic about the end of citrus season and grabbed a box of those, too. But what put me over the edge was getting my hands on the entry guidelines for the 2010 Marin County Fair.

This will be my first time entering anything in the fair and I’m kind of spazzed out about it. I’m pretty well set in most of the categories I want to enter: I have three marmalades, three jams, and a conserve, which are the things I do best — and you’d think that would be plenty. Except I got it in my head that I want a jelly. One really nice jelly. That’s where the rest of the trouble starts.

I got so inspired by Julia’s Apple Apricot Almond Jelly that I decided to play with similar flavors, even though it’s not apple season and I should know better. (Like my failed Garlic and Green Chile Jelly, I seem to be punished for working out of season. Or maybe I’m just not meant for jellies.) I decided to try Apple Earl Grey Almond Jelly from Frances Bissell’s out-of-print book, Preserving Nature’s Bounty.

The first batch set too hard. The second batch didn’t set at all. If things go as I predict and hope, the next batch will work out fine. In photography, this approach is called “bracketing,” adjusting your exposure to get it just right. In jam and jelly making, this approach — if you ask me — is called a pain in the ass.

I’m going to rest up and try again later, maybe next week, or maybe in September for next year’s fair. I like the flavor of this recipe well enough, but if I’m going to do it a third time I’ll make it a little less sweet (the classic apple jelly recipe in the Ball Blue Book uses less sugar for the same amount of juice) and I’d like to bring out the Earl Grey flavor even more. The almond component is truly excellent just as it is.

This is the batch that’s too firm — not too firm to eat, but too firm to be judged. It’s a looker, isn’t it?

Apple Earl Grey Almond Jelly

4 cups apple juice (made from about 3 pounds of tart green apples, such as Granny Smith)
2 tablespoons loose Earl Grey Tea
4 cups sugar
3/4 cup slivered almonds
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Wash the apples and cut them into chunks (no need to peel or core them), then put them in your heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot along with half of the tea, wrapped in cheesecloth. Cover with water and simmer until the apples are tender, mashing them up to extract as much juice and flavor as possible.

Strain the pulp through a jelly bag or cheesecloth, letting it drip for several hours or overnight.

Measure 4 cups of juice into the clean cooking pot. Add the sugar and the rest of the tea, again, wrapped in cheesecloth. Simmer until the sugar dissolves and then bring the liquid to a boil and cook until the setting point is reached. (It sounds so easy!)

Remove the mixture from the heat and discard the bag of tea. Skim any foam and allow the jelly to stand for a few minutes before stirring in the almonds and almond extract. (I found that if you don’t let it sit — and if you don’t have a proper set — the almonds will sit right on top of the jelly rather than sinking into the mix and looking all pretty.) Ladle the hot jelly into sterilized jars.

I left 1/4 inch head space and processed in a water bath canner for ten minutes. Yielded 4 half-pint jars.

Anyway. In the last three days, I’ve made two kinds of marmalade (both of which I love and will post soon), two iffy batches of Apple Earl Grey Almond Jelly, and some Amaretto applesauce, using a bag of Golden Delicious apples I decided not to try in the jelly. I also started another batch of clementine confits, mostly so I can have the syrup after the two-week process is complete.

All this, even though there are plenty of other things I should be doing — like my taxes, like the contract editing job sitting on my desk with its deadline looming ever larger. I haven’t even washed my hair. (I’ve found that sugar syrup works okay as a styling gel, but the set, again, is a little firmer than I would like.) Will somebody come over here and take away my jar lifter? Just for a week or two. Please?

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  • Reply Jane March 30, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Good luck at the fair! I use to enter the Pleasanton fair when I lived in CA. I'm in MO now and enter 2 fairs and the State fair. Last year I even got Best of Show. They are fun. Sit back and enjoy the ride!

  • Reply Shae March 30, 2010 at 5:09 am

    Jane: Thanks for the encouragement and the inspiration. Best of Show! I'm really excited about the fair, even if I end up going without a jelly.

  • Reply Julia April 5, 2010 at 12:59 am

    That jelly looks simply gorgeous. The almonds are so pretty!

  • Reply Julia April 5, 2010 at 1:01 am

    I forgot to say: rock that county fair!

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