I have always loved taking little risks in the kitchen. When I was in high school, my dad looked on with horror as I stood in the kitchen in a crisp, white chef’s jacket, wearing a pair of swim goggles to protect my sensitive eyes, and dropping streams of batter into hot grease, my first attempt at making funnel cakes. (An attempt that was successful, might I add.)
The older I get, and the more I cook, the less I see these feats as risks. Perhaps excursions from the ordinary dinner or baked good, but not so much risky. I suppose when you’re 14 and handling hot grease, risk is a perfect word for it. Nowadays, I prefer to think of my cooking style as a learning process. I’m learning as I go; I’m learning what whole foods taste like in their raw form, I’m learning what happens when you apply steam, or cook things in a frying pan as opposed to an oven. I’m learning which spices I like the best by trying them and, sometimes, having them turn out a little funky. Sometimes the experiments work; sometimes they don’t.
Canning, to me, feels like an experiment, the way that funnel cakes felt like an experiment back in high school. Canning is a time-honored practice, one perfected by previous generations, one made to seem difficult and steamy and time-consuming. An article I recently read in the new Southern Living included a quote from the author who said that canning was really quite easy, but we’re scared of it because our grandmothers made it seem harder than it was; they wanted to be martyrs, and to achieve that, they had to make everything they did look and sound difficult. I don’t know about the martyr part, but there is a certain level of mystery to the way our grandmothers cooked; a dash of this, a bit of that, add this to taste. (To taste is hard to translate.) But what this author got down to is that canning is really quite simple and fun. And she’s right.
I tried canning a couple months ago when I made strawberry jam. My jam was fine, but it’s more like syrup. Really, really sweet strawberry syrup, with bits of strawberry floating around. Also, the juice and the sugar separate, so you must stir before you pour the “jam” onto your bread. Don’t get me wrong; I still eat it. But it’s not really jam.
This week, my farmer’s market posted on Facebook that they would have figs at the market. I haven’t had figs since I was probably 12 or 13 years old. We had a neighbor who had a fig tree, and she gave us bags and bags of them as the tree yielded far more than she could use. I remember my stepdad canning them, sterilizing jars and lids in the oven, making fig preserves. I remember them fondly, remember them being so different from the Fig Newton cookies, but I couldn’t have told you what a fig actually tastes like. So I set out to find out.
I went to the market, loaded up a bag, brought them home, photographed them, and then waited two days. But last night, finally, I got down to the business of making fig jam. I first tasted them raw; figs are soft, and have a very subtle sweet flavor, which made the jam I made all the more surprising since it is very flavorful.
For the jam, I wanted to use a freezer method because I don’t own a canning kit, and since I’m just a lowly adjunct professor, I’m not getting paid right now, and therefore can’t buy one. I wanted a recipe that used a LOT less sugar than the strawberry syrup/jam fiasco, and I wanted it to be sweet but flavorful (beyond just sweetness). I found a recipe for vanilla-fig freezer jam on The Family Foodie blog, and this was a great base for my recipe, a tweaked version of the Foodie’s.
Fig Freezer Jam
Adapted from The Family Foodie
8 cups fresh figs, quartered
3-3 1/2 cups raw sugar (I used Turbinado)
Juice of one lemon
1 package of Sure-Jell (pectin – I use the No Sugar Added kind)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Place a small, clean plate in the freezer. This will be used to test the consistency of the jam.
2. Place the figs in a nonreactive sauce pan or stock pot. If you want the pieces smaller than quarters (which I did), go ahead and snip them to the size you want with kitchen scissors, then put them in the pot. Add the sugar, stir to coat, and then let sit for 15-20 minutes, until the figs begin releasing their juices. (If you’ve got time on your hands, you can watch the juices release, which is kind of awesome.)
3. Mix the lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, and Sure-Jell in with the fruit and stir to coat.
4. Move the pot to the stove and bring mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low, keeping the mixture bubbling. (If you smell burning sugar, turn the heat down to low. You don’t want to scorch the mixture, but you want to keep it bubbling nicely.
5. When the mixture gets thicker and dark (about 20 minutes), spoon a drop on the cold plate from the freezer, and then turn the place sideways. If the drop stays put or only spreads a little bit, your jam is done. If it runs down the plate, keep cooking, checking the consistency at five-minute intervals until done.
6. Allow the mixture to cool in the pot, and then spoon into sterilized jars*, leaving them uncovered to finish cooling completely.
7. Once jam is cooled completely, put the lids on, snug but not super tight. Put jam in the freezer (and if you want, retain one for the fridge so you can use it sooner than later).
And that’s it! It really is that simple. I’ll tell you, this jam made my house smell like Christmas. It sort of tastes like pie filling, which is fantastic. The cinnamon gives it another layer of flavor that increases my longing for the hot weather to leave us and for fall to arrive. The jam didn’t separate this time (hallelujah) and when I sampled it this afternoon on a buttered English muffin, I had a hard time not helping myself to seconds. I have big plans to try a similar approach with apples, peaches, and maybe even nectarines. The experiment went well, and it didn’t even require me to wear goggles.
*To sterilize jars, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Carefully place the lids, rims, and jars into the pot and let them bathe in the Jacuzzi for 10 minutes (be careful that they don’t knock around and break the glass). After 10 minutes, remove the pot from the heat and carefully remove the materials using tongs, placing the materials on clean paper towels to air dry. Be careful not to handle the jars and lids since you want them to stay sterilized until it comes time to put the lids on. There are great videos and resources, including Pick Your Own, to help you with the process.