Last summer a friend gave me frozen plums. Enormous, icy bricks of purple, purple plums. They’d been tucked away in her freezer for quite a while, and she needed to clear them out in anticipation of moving. So this fall, when I haven’t had time to preserve a single thing, I’ve been opening the freezer and thinking, whoa, that’s a lot of plums. Those, in addition to the plums I put away in June when my neighbor’s tree fell down.
Tumbling toward the holidays, I wanted to make something instead of cranberry relish with turkey. My mom makes the best cranberry relish. (I know, everyone’s mom probably does that. But my mom’s is really the best.) I’m still not eating sugar, though — at least not much — so I decided to try for something rich and tart and sweetened with honey. Plums and spices seemed just right, and plums do the fruit butter thing so well. Even though they’d been in the freezer longer than I want to say, the texture of this butter was just perfect and the flavor good enough that the first batch is already gone.
And that’s okay, because I have more plums.
Holiday Plum Butter Sweetened with Honey
6 cups plum pulp
1.5 cups wildflower honey
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (or other orange liqueur)
2 tablespoons orange zest, finely minced
10 cardamom pods, cracked and ground (husks discarded)
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise
1 bay leaf
1. Break down the plums into pulp. Mine were frozen with the pits still in them, so I let them thaw, washed my hands well, and plunged in, fishing out the pits from the mixture. Then I used a Vitamix (any food processor will do) to make a roughly blended pulp.
2. Add all remaining ingredients except the vanilla bean and bay leaf. I gently warmed a cup of honey and stirred it into the plum pulp, then mixed in the Grand Marnier, finely minced orange zest, cardamom (cracked and ground with mortar and pestle), and lemon juice. I let all of this sit in the fridge overnight, because I wanted to give the mixture a chance to come together so I could taste it before cooking. (Letting a mixture sit for a night or even an hour is a good thing to do if you think you may want to make some adjustments to the flavor.) The plums were very tart so I decided to add a half cup more honey before cooking, for the total of 1.5 cups.
3. Add the vanilla bean and bay leaf, then cook. I brought the mixture to a steady but gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Then I almost immediately turned down the heat to medium low — and then down even further as cooking progressed. Watch for sticking and stir as needed — toward the end, you’ll be stirring often. After cooking for about 30 minutes, I used an immersion blender to turn the mixture buttery smooth, then continued cooking until the mixure was very thick, about 40 minutes. There was a good clear track across the bottom of the pan (the track filled in verrry slowly) to tell me the butter was done.
4. Store in the fridge or process in a hot-water bath. For me, this recipe yielded about two pints of plum butter for the fridge. If I’d canned it, I would have left 1/4″ head space and processed the jars for 10 minutes in a hot-water bath.
I want to say it’s going to get crazy cold here, but I know that’s going to make a bunch of people either laugh or get irritated. Oh well. This is California. When temps drop into the 30s, it’s all over the news.
Go ahead, laugh.
Also, this weather app estimates temps for some part of Fairfax that’s warmer than our house. When it says 36° or below, I know we’ll get frost. Last year, we had so many frosts and freezes that I got all tuckered out from dancing with giant covers for eight different trees — seven citrus and a baby apricot. Put them on at night, take them off in the morning, put them on at night, take them off in the morning, repeatedly obsessing about whether or not it’s going to get cold enough that I have to drag my butt outside in the dark to put them on at night, take them off in the morning.
Every year I read about protecting trees by stringing them with Christmas lights and I think, I want to try that, but then I’m too lazy to make it happen. This year, I decided that one burst of focused energy would be better than all those gyrations with the covers, and it’s on. I went out and bought seven boxes of outdoor-rated C7 lights. To give off enough heat, they have to be old-school, energy inefficient C7 or C9 lights, not LED lights. I strung them in all of my vulnerable trees, being sure to concentrate the bulbs around the trunk and in the lower branches. That way, the trunk is protected and the rest of the tree will catch the rising heat.
To protect the plugs from rain, I cut up plastic bags and used electrical tape to secure the plastic around each exposed plug and socket. (Not that we’re getting any rain, but that’s mostly a another story. The relevant part here is that, if it hasn’t been raining, remember to water plants deeply if a frost or freeze is expected. It’s one of the best things to do to keep them safe.)
There’s some risk to this experiment. A few of the citrus trees got confused by our unusually warm fall and went into furious bloom. I’m ready to accept that many of those blossoms won’t become fruit. Overall, I figure there may be some damage to the trees, but not death. And if we go into a prolonged period of hard freeze — say, a week or more — I’ll bring out the covers.
The other thing I’ll need to watch is our electricity bill. If it skyrockets, this will be a single season event.
Meanwhile, it’s very cheerful!
P.S. The other garden-related task I completed this week is reconditioning three pairs of sad and rusty pruning shears and snips. (That was another thing I’d put off for a long time. Now that it’s done, I’m very pleased and proud.) I followed these instructions from Weekend Gardener, which I found to be clear and easy.
The other day I spent hours working on an apricot thing that turned out terribly. It happens to everyone with a recipe blog: You get what you think is a great idea — in this case it was sugar-free vanilla apricot butter made in a slow cooker — and you launch into your preparations with tremendous enthusiasm, all the while writing the blog post in your head, describing how it felt to make it and how great it turned out. Then you get to the finished product and you’re like, wow, this really sucks.
A number of things went wrong with my slow-cooker butter; mostly it just cooked too long. The fruit darkened and caramelized in a an ugly, bitter way. I tried to rescue it at the end with some honey, but it was way too late. It was a sad end to five pounds of beautiful Blenheim apricots, for sure. And I felt pretty silly about the time I’d wasted describing it to you in my head.
No, I didn’t cook them in this tiny pot. They’re just hanging out there after weighing.
That same day, however, my friend Gina had brought me two big boxes of apricots from a backyard tree. I don’t know what kind they were. The good kind. But they were starting to collapse on themselves, so I got right to breaking them down, cutting away bruised parts and setting aside clean halves to make another batch of Marisa’s Honeyed Apricots. (I have a case of those now, which I’ll use during the coming year to make jams like this Honey-Sweetened Apricot Blueberry Jam.)
Because I ran out of regular pint jars in the middle of all that, I had some fruit and honey syrup left over. So, after taking all day to make something godawful, I dropped those leftovers in a pot and made something perfect in twenty minutes. This is crazy easy to prepare and it’s one of those things worth eating straight from the jar.
Honey-Sweetened Apricot Jam
Makes about two cups
1 1/4 pounds pitted, quartered apricots (weight after pitting)
1/2 cup filtered water
1/4 cup wildflower honey
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Combine the water and honey in a medium saucepot and bring to a simmer to make syrup. Add the apricots and lemon juice and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking or scorching. (Turn down the heat if necessary.) The jam is ready when it starts to mound up and your spoon leaves a clear track across the bottom of the pot. As mentioned, mine took about 20 minutes. It’s a tiny batch, so just jar it and store it in the fridge. Without sugar, it probably won’t last for more than a couple of weeks, but I don’t know for sure because mine was eaten up within a few days.
Here’s the first apricot picked from my own tree. It took three years! She says, “So what? Aren’t I worth it?”