The Second Act: A raspberry jam success story. (I think.)

Before.
Before.

Every couple minutes, the lid on another jar pops and seals and my heart fills with joy. Now the only concern is whether or not the jam will set, because I got too excited and misread the recipe, and then when I went back and reread it I was all, “that can’t be right,” and even though I didn’t really know what I was doing I scoffed and decided I could do better … but the leftovers are firming up nicely so hopefully that’s a good sign. I now have eight jars of raspberry jam, and there aren’t enough exclamation points in the world to convey how excited – no – how ebullient I now am. Ebullient means enthusiastic or BUBBLING OVER WITH JOY, all caps. I know you probably know that, but I had to look it up to double check and it’s my job to know words like that, so, you know. Anyway. It’s like when you figure out how to do something you used to think was impossible, like merging onto the highway, only it turns out you can totally do it and then you’re just so full of pep that you can’t stop beaming or asking for high-fives. Except better, because I still don’t really know how to merge onto the highway without braking.

Like I said, I’ve never really done this before. I’ve hovered close by while my mom canned things or pickled stuff or turned fruit into jam, and I watched my grandmother from the stool I’d perch on across the counter top on the other side of the kitchen, but I never really got all that helpful over it. I think that’s because the last time I saw either of them can anything I was much smaller and far more likely to drop hot things all over myself and everyone. I think it’s also quite a pain in the ass, this canning business, and so after a certain point I suspect it became more trouble than it’s worth. And the mess gets everywhere, and it’s sticky.

The recipe I used comes from The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving via Epicurious, but I didn’t really read it all that closely and it turns out my way was way better, because if you follow this recipe, I think you’d end up with not very many jars of cloying red plonk. I’ll give you the recipe I thought I was using, but you may want to follow Epicurious’ Procedure for Shorter Time Processing because I am not very helpful as far as the technical stuff. There’s molten raspberry goo running down the side of my fridge.

Raspberry Jam

  • 4 litres/1 gallon/16 cups of fresh raspberries
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 cups granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 250°F. Place sugar in a pan in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Apparently sugar dissolves much quicker in the raspberry mixture when it is warm. This is true. The sugar disappeared in no time. Literally, seconds.

Put raspberries and lemon juice into a large stainless steel pot. Bring to a full boil over high heat, mashing berries with a potato masher as they heat. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Once the sugar is good and warmed, add it to the pot. It will stop boiling for a minute or two, but let it come back up to a boil. The recipe said that it should only take five minutes to form a gel, but I think that’s based on not nearly as many berries and way more sugar (by volume) than I used, so I boiled the berries in the pot for closer to ten minutes. To test whether the jam was thickening, and it’s hard to tell when it’s at a full-rolling boil, I took a small spoonful of jam and stuck it in the fridge for two to three minutes. If it was thick enough when it was cool, then that was good enough for me.

When satisfied that it’s thick enough, spoon the jam into your prepared jars – I used eight small jars of varying sizes, which held between one and two cups each. The recipe should make 10 one-cup jars.

The result was a jam that tasted like raspberries, not too sweet. There was just a tiny bit left over, and I ate it all with a spoon, and it was as bright and cheery as the fresh berries were, which is pleasing because it means that we’ll get to taste summer all year long. The best thing about this recipe is that it doesn’t make way too many jars that you’ll eventually throw out, and it’s manageable enough that you can make it on a tiny apartment stove (mine has only one large burner – the other three are the little kind, which makes it just slightly larger than the stove you get in those awesome plastic Fisher Price kitchens).

Raspberries, pre-jam.

Progress.

Steamy.

Rolling boil.

Filling the jars.

Sealing.

Mess.

By now, all eight lids have made their happy little popping noise, so barring a disaster or something, they should all be sealed. Now we wait – apparently I am to test these in 24 hours to be sure that they’ve sealed tightly. So think happy thoughts for my eight little jars. Tomorrow, or possibly the next day because I’m now out of jars and lids and everything, the challenge will be red currant jelly, which will be a different kind of experiment and though I haven’t decided if it’s going to be spicy habañero red currant jelly, plain-old regular red currant jelly, or something else, I think it’s going to be fun – I’ll tell you all about it very soon. It’s kind of like being an Iron Chef in your own kitchen, which is better because you always win and if you’re lucky you can still get someone else to clean up.

After!
After!

This was supposed to be a single post about raspberries, but it’s turned into a three-part series, and this is the introduction, so bear with me. It will either conclude awesomely, or you will find me on my kitchen floor in tears. Or, “Canning: Act 1.”

Inspiration.Grace is a bit of a keener. She canned cherries, which takes actual work and know-how and a cherry pitter, and while I am not to be outdone, I don’t want to try too hard because it’s uncomfortably hot in here, sweaty hot, and I figure I can make jam and have that be plenty good enough. And you know what kind of fruit is perfect for a full-mouth flavoursplosion that you don’t have to peel or pit anything for? Raspberries. We’re in July now, kids, and raspberries are plentiful. So our berry-picking team – Grace, James, and I, now plus Nick – travelled forty minutes to Langley to pluck bucketfuls this week’s fruit obsession.

I Pick!
I Pick!
Nick, Grace, and James read the rules.
Nick, Grace, and James read the rules.

Also, not stated but implied, "Don't have too much fun. If you're having the kind of fun that causes you to shriek gleeful obscenity into the fields, please keep it PG13. There are little people everywhere, and you will not see them until after you've said something terrible but kind of awesome."
Also, not stated but implied, "Don't have too much fun. If you're having the kind of fun that causes you to shriek gleeful obscenity into the fields, please keep it PG13, even if you think you're hilarious."

And so we picked raspberries, which was the plan. At first it looked like everything had been picked over, and we were a bit despondent, but that’s the thing about raspberries. To get the good ones, you have to look under the leaves, and that’s where you find berries so ripe that just the swipe of your fingers invites them to pop off into your hand and they’re so juicy and red that just the touch of your skin causes them to eke scarlet summer perfume all over your palm, and if you can get them to your mouth in one piece you’ll find that it’s the most perfect flavour you’ve ever let melt on your tongue.

Nick picks.
Nick picks.
Juicy.
Juicy.

And they’re so big! Nothing like the tiny little things you buy at $4.99 for those dinky green paper half-pint containers that usually contain at least three rotten ones, which you don’t find until after you get home and company’s on the way so there’s nothing you can do. No. These were big and fat, and surprisingly inexpensive.

And so we picked, and Nick threw unripe ones at me which is against the rules and ate twice as many as ended up in the bucket which is also not encouraged, and James went shirtless and was ravaged by the branches, and I was awesome and well-behaved and didn’t say anything inappropriate except for a few times but most likely no one heard me, and Grace picked meticulously and only found perfect berries because she has a knack for that, and patience, and the inappropriate things she said were way worse than the things I said, so there.

I'm trying to show you how big the berry is and also I should probably have worn a bra.
I'm trying to show you how big the berry is and also I should probably have worn a bra.

But that’s not all. No. We got the raspberries, and had a great time playing outside … AND THEN WE GOT CURRANTS! Which means that raspberry picking came with a bonus round, and so now in addition to a recipe for raspberry jam, I am going to figure out jelly making, and that’s why this thing will take place in three parts, as opposed to one long, rambling, generally incoherent celebration of summer fruit. And I’ve never really done this on my own and unsupervised before, but I’ve bought or borrowed everything I need to make it work, so how hard can it be, right? And the good news is, if I can do it, any idiot can. And if it fails? You can totally just buy jam.

I expect that by the end of the week, we’ll all be happy little badgers surrounded by piles of vanilla bean scones smeared with fresh raspberry jam, or brie dripping with red currant jelly and baked in puff pastry, and nothing will ever feel more right. Stay tuned!

I know, right?
I know, right?

Sometimes you just want to drink wine, eat pudding, and watch YouTube videos of wiener dogs getting their cute on, and I’d like to think that there isn’t anything wrong with that.

Today was Friday, and it was pretty much the worst Friday ever. Nick got yelled at by crazies all day at work, and I wore pants to the office and nearly died of heat stroke. When I left, it was over 30 degrees Celsius, which in America or Imperial or whatever is in the high 80s, which is inhospitable and makes me regret wearing a bra and then I can’t concentrate and all I can think about is cold beer and getting the hell out of there as soon as possible. A very nice old man on a ladder visited today and installed these solar blinds that are supposed to reflect the heat out, but he might as well have covered the windows in tin foil, for all the good it did, and I’m beginning to think my entire department is the butt of a cruel, cruel joke. It’s hot. And the wall of my pen is right up against the vent, so cold air blows up, up, and away, but never on me. I considered tears. Except that I think they’d come out as steam and that would be terrifying and they already think I’m dumb there.

So I got home and Nick and I were both in terrible moods and he’d finished the beer and I was mad so we decided that we’d go eat a ridiculous amount of meat, because that makes everyone feel better, and they had PBRs on special, so we ate and drank for super cheap, and it was magical. I wore a dress. And we were still hot and uncomfortable, so we got Slurpees and energy drinks on the way home, and Nick bought some beer and a bottle of wine, and then when we got back to our apartment, we discovered that there were goings-on going on, and everyone was going down to the beach to set stuff on fire and be jovial. And then a series of complications arose, and it became clear that I would be bound to the overheating indoors while Nick went to the beach for fun and socializing.

Complication #1: Tomorrow we’re going to my parents’ for a barbecue and I am bringing a salad because I make this caprese salad with roasted beets that’s spectacular, but you have to roast the beets well in advance so they’re cool and easy to work with, so the night before is ideal. We didn’t know about the beach until 10:30 pm, which was right after I put the beets in the oven.

Complication #2: I ate too much meat at Memphis Blues. A certain amount of discomfort ensued.

Complication #3:

Nick – “Everyone’s going to the beach. Wanna ride down?”

Me – “Who’s everyone?”

Nick – “People, you know – everyone.”

Me – “Do I like them all?”

Nick – “Well, I said everyone’s going to be there.”

Me – “Who don’t I like?”

Nick – “You know.”

Me – “Oh. That sucky girl who makes me angry and who I vehemently dislike in the nicest possible way?”

Nick – “You’d have to behave.”

Me – “I have to roast some beets.”

And so I am spending the night in. Which turned out to be a good thing, because I was in the mood for pudding, and I’m the only one here who likes pudding. So I roasted some beets, made some pudding, watched an hour’s worth of wiener dog videos on YouTube, and then set in to catch up on all my favourite blogs. And also to watch this, repeatedly:

But the main thing here is the pudding. It’s a recipe from Gourmet’s February 2009 issue, and I’ve made it several times now, and it always turns out perfect. It’s pretty much a hug you can eat, and it’s as easy to make as that Jello stuff, and takes the same amount of time, but it’s in a realm of its own for taste. It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and we’d get toast with butter and brown sugar on it – like that, but creamy and rich, and you eat it with a spoon.

Gourmet Magazine Butterscotch Pudding.

Butterscotch Pudding

(makes enough to fill four regular-size ramekins)

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp. butter, cut into bits (they say to use unsalted butter, but they would be wrong)
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar and cornstarch. Then, whisk in the milk and cream. When I’m making this for just me, I halve the recipe, and use a single cup of light cream (or coffee cream, or Creamo), because why not?

Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently, and then boil, whisking constantly, for one minute. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the butter and vanilla. Pour out into ramekins, cover with plastic, and then refrigerate until cooled, 60 to 90 minutes. Don’t chill for more than three hours, however, because it will begin to take on a weird, starchy texture. I made this in February, and cooled it on the patio because my fridge was full, and then when I brought it back in it had developed a skin and the cornstarch was very prominent – an undesirable flaw in any pudding.

When I halve the recipe, it makes enough for two ramekins. Which is perfect, because there’s no way you could eat just one serving of this stuff – I’ve already eaten my two, and now I am regretting my decision to not make the full amount. And I feel much better about life, and the fan is going in front of the open window where I’m sitting around in a clean pair of Nick’s underwear, so I’m starting to cool off. Pudding will do that for you. It’s a cure-all, like cough syrup and vodka, but you can serve it to children while their parents are watching.

Pudding!

And so the weekend begins, and I look forward to posting the fascinating details of my upcoming raspberry-picking expedition on Sunday. In the meantime, I’ve got some beets that need prodding and a bottle of wine in the chiller that’s begging for my touch. Cheers!

Moussaka is not a character from the Lion King.

I returned home from Winnipeg to find a clean kitchen and an empty fridge, and a sky full of dark clouds ominous with the threat of rain. It felt like an appropriate time for some comfort food, for the both of us. After too many days of fast food, we both craved vegetables and a meal prepared at home.

And while I was in Winnipeg, I thought about moussaka, though I am not sure why. I don’t really care for much of what I’ve tasted of Greek food – maybe it’s because almost every restaurant is identical out here, and I don’t really like oregano or whatever is done to the rice or that particular colour blue.

I fantasize about Greece, however, and imagine that the food there is fantastic – not like every Taverna along Broadway or on every corner in every small town in the world. I imagine lemons and fresh herbs and sea salt and perfectly roasted lamb and big, fat, meaty olives. Everything with the sheen of fresh olive oil.

So we invited over Steve and Sooin, and Paul, who gets me in Nick’s will if Nick dies, and served up a hot pan of moussaka. And it was good. Except that it was a tad too salty, so I’ve tweaked this recipe some. It’s much better now.

Moussaka

  • 1 Japanese eggplant
  • 2 medium zucchini So you can see what size vegetables you'll be working with.

Meaty filling:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 lb. ground beef or lamb
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 small (5 1/2 oz.) can of tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken stock

White sauce:

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 1 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • zest of 1/2 lemon (or about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup crumbled feta

Topping:

  • 1 cup bread crumbs (preferably panko)
  • 1 cup crumbled feta
  • 1 finely minced clove of garlic
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

Thinly slice your eggplant and zucchini, about 1/4 inch thick. Grease an 9″x13″ pan with olive oil.

In a large skillet, sauté your onions until translucent. Add the ground beef and garlic, and cook until browned. Add your oregano, pepper, thyme, and cinnamon, and tomato paste, and wine or chicken stock, stir until everything’s all mixed together and it smells really good, and then remove from heat.

In a small pot over medium-high heat, melt your butter. Let it get foamy, then add the flour, and stir to blend.

 

This is what the butter and flour should look like before you add the milk.
This is what the butter and flour should look like before you add the milk.

 

Whisk in your milk, and reduce heat to medium. Add your pepper and nutmeg, garlic, lemon zest (not too much!), and stir in the feta. Let this simmer until the feta has melted and the sauce has thickened, three to five minutes. Remove from heat.

Line the bottom of your prepared pan with slices of zucchini and eggplant, not too thick, but until you can’t see the bottom.

Pan with first layer.Drizzle the layer with olive oil, and then add half of the meat mixture over the top, spreading to cover. Drizzle this with about 1/3 of the white sauce. Repeat, adding another layer in this order.

Add the final layer of zucchini and eggplant (there will be three layers of vegetables in total). Drizzle your remaining white sauce over the top layer.

In a small bowl, mix up the panko (or regular bread crumbs), parsley, garlic, and feta. Top the moussaka with the crumb topping, and then drizzle with olive oil, and the juice of the lemon.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and you see bubbling along the sides.

Moussaka!Serve with a salad of cucumber and tomato, tossed with parsley and fresh mint, and topped with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper.

Meal!And bask in the joy of vegetables, even if you are wondering where summer went. It’s still raining, so tonight we are going to eat as if we are elsewhere, like India. Or Mexico. Or both?

Winnipeg … you CAN have too much sky. And never enough pancakes.

After my travels, I was pleased to return home and realize that I have learned a few things.

  1. The sky is very large: This is unnerving. If aliens attack, they have a clear shot from anywhere above Manitoba.
  2. Mountains and large concrete structures make me feel safe.
  3. In Winnipeg, they eat pancakes out on the patio.
  4. I have reached the age where I’d rather eat a vegetable than an entire bag of Cheetos.
  5. My digestive system has reached the age where it won’t even try to cope with excess. It is a crotchety old bugger and won’t think twice about screwing me over to make a point.
  6. Winnipeg is the Slurpee capital of the world. More Slurpees are sold in Winnipeg than anywhere else on Earth.

    This dress is completely unflattering but very comfortable.
    This dress is completely unflattering but very comfortable.
  7. A container full of pancake batter will explode if exposed too long to direct sunlight.
  8. A container full of pancake batter will turn into pancakes along the side of a hot car in the middle of the day.
  9. Mini donuts are really just deep-fried pancakes covered in sugar and served hot in a wax paper bag. They can also be called: “Manna from heaven.”

And so my trip to Winnipeg is over, and I am safely at home. Five pounds heavier.

The wedding was lovely, and my friend Sarah was a beautiful bride. See?

I am allowed to exploit her bridely likeness on the Internet because I don't think she reads this.
I am allowed to exploit her bridely likeness on the Internet because I don't think she reads this.

But this is a food blog, so I’d best get down to business. Sarah and her groom, Kev, and their families were fantastic hosts, showing me around and feeding me practically nonstop. And while the first day, I had some concerns …

This is what they eat for breakfast in Winnipeg.
This is what they eat for breakfast in Winnipeg.
Communist bacon.
Communist bacon.

… by dinner time we ate real food. When I was in high school, I ate a Wunderbar and drank a bottle of Coke for breakfast pretty much every day (and I still have all my own teeth!), and Cheetos were pretty much a staple food. I was flattered that they thought my youth was still intact, and that I could still eat like that, and a little sad that I’ve reached an age where something with flax might have been more desirable after a certain point. (I am not looking forward to the blog post thirty years from now where I talk about how thoughtful Sarah and Kev were for feeding me crudités, but all I really wanted was a bowl of spinach purée, and a glass of Metamucil, so I wouldn’t have to chew.)

The next day, we went to a place called George’s. It’s a greasy spoon somewhere off the highway, and it was pretty much AWESOME. Kev said that the restaurant had been built in parts. That is, at first, it was a tiny little place, and then they added wings, and a “patio.” The burger was fantastic, and the burger platter was epic. I can now state, without hesitation, that the best burgers in the world are in Winnipeg.

George's Burgers & Subs.
George's Burgers & Subs.
Oh, this? Yeah. I know. I want to make sweet passionate love to it also.
Oh, this? Yeah. I know. I want to make sweet passionate love to it also.

As you can see, the fries were some sort of miracle, but the burger! Oh, the burger! It was a cheeseburger, but they put all the delicious melty cheese on the bottom, which is preferable because your taste buds are on the bottom, and my tongue always wants to be hit with cheese first, if it has an option. The sauce that comes on everything at George’s is meaty chili, which is pretty much genius. I have never had a better burger. AND THE BUNS ARE ALL HOMEMADE … from the taste of them, every day.

Later that day, we went to The Forks, because I was all whiny that we hadn’t been to a city yet, even though people kept telling me, “This is the city.” Still full from George’s, we thought it would be a good idea to eat mini donuts, because it’s never been a bad idea to eat mini donuts.

Michelle (other bridesmaid/friend) watches mini donut batter being dropped into hot oil.
Michelle (other bridesmaid/friend) watches mini donut batter being dropped into hot oil.

And that’s when I realized that mini donuts are essentially deep-fried pancake batter, and then I realized that I have never loved anything more.

And speaking of pancakes …

The Original Pancake House.
The Original Pancake House.

In Winnipeg, they make a thing called a Giant Apple Pancake. And in Winnipeg, they eat pancakes out on the patio, the way that regular people drink beer.

Proof that there is a patio at a pancake house in Winnipeg.
Proof that there is a patio at a pancake house in Winnipeg.
The Giant Apple Pancake: A close-up.
The Giant Apple Pancake: A close-up.
My share.
My share.

The great thing about this pancake, aside from it being a pancake, was the sugar. The cinnamony, sugary apple part was sticky and sweet, but in addition to that, there was a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on top, so in addition to the syrupy dissolved sugar, there was the slight crunch of unmelted sugar, but the fantastic thing was, it wasn’t cloying or excessive. It was pancake magic, and I couldn’t stop professing my undying love.

In Winnipeg, I am very annoying.

And Kev bought me a souvenir.

I loved this the way other people love children.
I loved this the way other people love children.

The trouble was, the instructions said to keep the batter chilled. And then we went to the park, and attempted the children’s museum, and then my batter breached. Breached! The hot Manitoba sun caused the baking powder to activate and suddenly there was carbon dioxide bubbling and the batter grew and exploded out the top of the container, and soon it was all over the ground, and my hands, and a picnic table. But I loved my souvenir, and wasn’t prepared to leave it, and we had to go home because the wedding rehearsal was in a few short hours, so Kev said I could keep it but only if I held it out the window of the car in case it kept leaking. And then the lid blew off, whacking Michelle in the face, and the batter began to splatter, coating me and the side of the car in the batter equivalent of a bloodbath. It baked on, and the car smelled like pancakes for the rest of the trip.

At the risk of this post becoming unruly and unreadable for it’s length, I’ll conclude somewhere about here. Winnipeg is a pretty all right place, and I had a good time. There were perogies AND meatballs included in the wedding feast. The cake was all strawberries and whipped cream. And the bar? It was open.

I flew back at 7:00 am the morning after the wedding, dead tired and sick with whatever gross germs were circulating on the plane, so I didn’t feel like writing or cooking yesterday. Tonight though, we will have a vegetable feast, and I will tell you all about it tomorrow. Because it’s been a long time, and I thought of a cool way to riff on moussaka when I was in Winnipeg, fantasizing about vegetables. In the meantime, I’ll sign off with a couple of wedding pictures, because if you can’t exploit your friends on the Internet, then you have to exploit strangers, which isn’t nearly as fun.

Sarah and Kev.

Bridesmaids.

Groomsmen.

Just married!