Friday, June 24, 2011

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Bookshelf: The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook

I am not a traditionalist 
when it comes to preserving, 
but I am a stickler for texture, balance, and appearance. 
The essential question is, 
does a preserve taste and look great? 
The answer to this question 
should always be yes.

~ Rachel Saunders

Ping. Ping. Pop. Ping.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but that’s exactly what I’m after. I’m sitting at the kitchen table listening to jars of marmalade cool. Over on the butcher’s block, as each hot jar’s temperature drops, the air inside contracts and a little vacuum is born, drawing in — ping — the raised center of its lid. A seal is made. Across the room, the oven, its duty now done, adds is own deeper pops and dings as it heaves itself toward room temperature.

I’ve been making booze longer than I've been making preserves, but I've been doing both for more than two decades. In fact, just about any fruit or vegetable that crosses our threshold may well end up in jars with sugar, vinegar, or salt. In the kitchen, there’re preserves pans, cases of jars, strainers, jar tongs, and a battery of spices and herbs. Liquor, too — well, that’s a given. The preserves section of my library is bulging with cookbooks, textbooks, and agriculture bulletins spanning three centuries.

My latest find is Rachel Saunders’ The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. That Saunders draws inspiration from California produce is unmistakable. The white guava-Meyer lemon marmalade, for instance, does not hail from Helsinki. Her aprium jam with green almonds calls for ingredients one rarely sees in Kansas and, while such trees can be found here in San Diego, Sorrento lemons bursting with oil are far from common. Think of these ingredients as the exotica of the book, inspiration for when you get your hands on something more than apples, figs, or oranges.

Saunders formed her jam company, Blue Chair Fruit, after of what sounds like an obsessive ten years learning the ins and outs jam-making working with the stellar produce available to Bay Area cooks. Clearly, she’s done a lot of thinking about the stuff and the book reflects that.

Divided into three broad sections, it covers techniques and gear; jams and jellies by season; and fruit-specific recipes. You won't find pickles, chutneys, compotes, or any of the other usual recipes one finds in other preserves books; just fruit-laden jams, clear jellies, and peel-flecked marmalades (and one candied orange peel recipe; it's a good fit). Ingredients range from commonplace fruits such as cherries, apples, rhubarb, and apricots to a few items that may take some tracking down: orange flowers, rosewater, and liqueurs of elderflower and ginger.

The thing about cookbooks — and this holds true especially for books discussing something as temperamental as preserves — is that recipes don’t always pan out. It’s no fault of the home cook; some recipes simply aren’t tested, are scaled down improperly from large-batch resstaurant recipes, or are written badly. A few weeks ago, I set out to make hot pepper jelly. For quick-cooked jelly like that, I normally research several recipes to get at the heart of proportions and compare techniques. Just reading the first recipe I pulled off the shelf, I realized its volumes and weights were off. Without even trying it, I knew that recipe would not work.

Not so with Saunders’ book. Every recipe I’ve tried works. The ping-ping marmalade on the butcher’s block? Saunders’ recipe. She calls for white grapefruit, so I raided a stash of them that our neighbor Carlo picked from his backyard. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s getting marmalade soon. But it’s not just that one recipe: every single recipe I’ve tried from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook sets. Though yields are sometimes a bit off, I’m less concerned about that than I am of something tasting and looking great. Her stuff does.

If Saunders’ recipes sometimes seem long — well, they are. But they are not confusing. They are long because they go into precise detail while still leaving room for adjustments of ingredients, flavorings, or gear. Know who else had long recipes? Julia Child. Hers worked, too.

Next up? Peach jam. Perhaps with 100-proof Kentucky flavors. As usual, I’ll pull several recipes to cobble together my own, but the first place I’m headed is The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.

Rachel Saunders (2010)
The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook
384 pages (hardback)
Andrews McMeel Publishing
ISBN: 9780740791437

Goes well with:
  • Lucy Norris’ book Pickled — on an array of pickle recipes collected in New York from dills to ducks tongues. 
  • The River Cottage Preserves Book — a pocket-sized book on preserves more broadly. Originally published in the UK, but available in an American edition.

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