Friday, August 23, 2013

It Must Be Jelly ‘Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That: Part 2

Today my husband took the kids with him all day, so I took advantage of having free reign over my kitchen to finish the jelly-making process without fear of accidentally scalding one of my children. As you may remember from my previous blog entry, I had finished picking, cleaning, and juicing the grapes, so I was beginning with a large bowl of unfiltered grape juice. The next step, of course, was to filter the juice. I’d forgotten to pick up cheesecloth, but fortunately, I had read that a white pillowcase also works well, and since I happened to have recently accidentally torn a hole in an off-white pillowcase, that’s what I used. I dampened it, draped it over a large rubber measuring cup, and began ladling out my precious nectar.

Drip…drip…drip… I had thought that cleaning the grapes was the most tedious part of the process, but apparently I was wrong. Fortunately, I needed to sterilize my canning jars, so I began working on that project while I waited for the juice to strain. 

Once my giant pot of water came to a boil and I carefully lifted the canning jars in with my tongs, I realized I had slightly miscalculated the depth of the water. I topped up the pot a bit and…waited some more. Who knew that canning involved so much waiting for stuff?

Anyway, eventually the jars were sterilized and the juice was filtered, so I was ready to go on to the next step: boiling the juice and adding the pectin and the sugar. I measured out the proper amount of juice and set it on the stove to boil, emptied in my box of pectin, and then measured out the proper amount of sugar. Wow, does Concord grape jelly require a lot of sugar!

I enjoyed the steamy tartness wafting up from the hot juice while I stirred it, and despite my watching it came to a boil fairly quickly. In fact, it boiled up a bit too quickly and I panicked for a moment, then thanked my stars that I’d used my largest pot, otherwise I’d be wiping a sticky foamy mess off my stovetop. I lowered the heat, stirred in that massive bowl of sugar, and then waited again for it to come to a boil. It was fun to see the pale clots of sugar shrinking and finally dissolving to nothing in the hot liquid, watching the color of the juice darken and the cloudiness of the liquid clarify as I stirred and stirred. As soon as it boiled again, I set my timer for the “EXACTLY one minute” that my recipe threatened was of such critical importance. “Sixty-one seconds shalt thou not count, neither count thou to fifty-nine, excepting that thou then proceed to sixty. Sixty-two is right out.” (Proof that Monty Python quotes are appropriate for any occasion, including the making of grape jelly.)

The next instruction in my recipe was to “skim the foam.” That sounds simple enough, but I’m guessing there is a special foam-skimming technique or tool with which I am not familiar. I opted for the advanced technique of scooping it off with a plastic spoon, dumping it into a glass measuring cup, and then wiping the spoon on a paper towel before going back for more foam, but I must admit that when I was “done,” there were still some flecks of foam on my jelly. But considering how much I started with, I’ll give myself credit for a 97+% recovery. 

And now, the best part (well, if you don’t include the “eating” part): ladling the finished product into the jars. Up until this point, all I had was a big pot of pretty-colored, pleasant-smelling goop. But somehow once you put that same goop into a crystal-cut glass canning jar, it magically becomes jelly. Home-grown, home-made, Concord grape jelly, a delicious creation formed out of almost nothing by the power of my own two lily-white hands (well, with a little help from Miracle-Gro, pectin, and a giant bowl of sugar).
 (Insert sound of angels singing here)

And now comes the REALLY best part of the process: that last little half-ladleful at the bottom of the pot that doesn’t quite fit into that last jar and which has finally cooled enough that it won’t scald your tongue from here till next Tuesday. The real moment of truth. I scooped up a spoonful and hesitantly stuck it in my mouth. Would it be tart? Grainy? Bland? No. It was smooth, richly flavorful, sweet at first but with a powerfully tart kick following close behind. It was an adventure for the taste buds. Before I even realized what I was doing, I had spooned spoonful after spoonful into my mouth, savoring that puckery feeling at the back of my tongue each time the tart wave followed the sweet beginning. I came to myself just in time to remember I hadn’t finished the process.

Ah, “process.” Another culinary word in my recipe that I wasn’t entirely sure of. “Process for 5 minutes.” Wait, what does that mean? A frantic flip through the recipe booklet that came inside the pectin box soon set me straight: “process” simply means to boil the sealed jars. OK, I can do that. That kind of kitchen technique is just about my speed. I even had a sudden memory of my mom throwing a dish towel in the bottom of her canning pot when the bottom rack rusted through. So back into the pot of boiling water went a dish towel and the now-full jars.

But I had one more step left to go before I felt I had really and truly joined the ranks of the Canning World. I had to put official labels on my jars. For this momentous occasion, a simple black pen would not do. So I dug through that drawer that everyone has in their kitchen. You know the one. It has a collection of pens and pencils and markers from sources unknown, half of which don’t write and several of which seem to bear printing in another language. And from the depths of that drawer, I came up with a metallic gold Sharpie. Eight jars, eight carefully printed labels: “Concord Grape Jelly 8/2013”.

Three words and a handful of numbers to represent days of work creating the magic substance inside the jars. Admittedly, it wasn’t quite as much work as I was afraid it would be. And I’m kind of excited that there are enough grapes left on the vine to wait a few more weeks or even months (as suggested by a friend who is an experienced Concord grape grower and jelly-maker) to reap another harvest and take another crack at this. But for now, I’m very happy with my results. So happy, in fact that I might just have to go bake some bread to spread my jelly on. Maybe next year I might even try growing my own peanuts and making home-made peanut butter!! Yeah, maybe not.

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