Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Ringing the changes - jam and jelly flavours

We've had bumper crops of apples, pears, late figs, and quince this season. That's led me to look up different flavourings for jellies so that I can get a bit of variety.

A garden of flowers or a cup of tea

Floral and tea aromas is one way to go. For instance, a friend gave me a lovely blueberry and lavender jam - she said she thought she'd been rather heavy-handed on the lavender, but the mix of the two flavours was made in heaven. Lavender also has an astringency to it which counterbalances the sugar in the preserve nicely.

Normally, during the summer, I eat the figs that appear on my bushy little fig tree - either as they are, or in a light syrup, or with mascarpone cream, or split, stuffed with Roquefort cheese and rolled in paper-thin ham. But this time of year there are a lot of just-about-ripe figs left that are going to be ruined by the first frost, so it's time to pick them and make jam.

I've just made a fig and earl grey jam, the idea for which came from London Borough of Jam via Eat Hackney. Again, the earl grey is a neat balance for the unctuousness of fig and sugar. Now, remember to take out all the parts of the teabag - bag, string, and label.

(There's a single Twinings label lurking somewhere in one of the three pots of ham, like a sixpence in the Christmas pudding, only not so cute. How did you guess it was there?)

Lapsang Souchong might add an interesting smokiness to some fruits - I wonder if it would work with apricot or peach? And I'm thinking matcha might work nicely with blueberries or apple...

I've also added rosewater (no fresh rose petals this time of year, alas, but any Indian or Arab grocer can help with a bottle of rosewater) to one of my recent jams to see how that turns out.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

But there are also spicier flavours. I've learned to let my experience of eating and cooking Indian food inform my jam making endeavours. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes... not so good.

Chilli is a regular component for all kinds of jams and jellies. Maybe not for a breakfast jam, but certainly for any preserve you might use with cheese or meat. Dried chilli works, but fresh red chillis, with the seeds removed and cut into tiny strips, works best - in a clear jelly, it's beautifully ornamental, as well as tasty.

Perhaps my favourite of the spices is cardamom. I use it a lot in apple or pear jelly. Cinnamon and nutmeg are also great flavours for jam. Methi (fenugreek)... not really; I find it too cloying. Star anise doesn't get much used in English cooking but it's a star of Indonesian cooking and works very well with figs (and also in a lovely 'Rempah Indo' tea that I tasted at a tea shop in Malang, Java). And let's not forget vanilla. A vanilla pod is your best friend!

A spicy jam that has an English rather than Indian origin is my mulled pear jelly. I use all the spices you'd put into a punch or mulled wine - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice. It has a marvellously expansive taste.

In the herb garden

Herbs, on the other hand, impart a sharper flavour. I'm very fond of apple jelly with mint, which is a good alternative to vinegary mint sauce. Rosemary and sage have drier flavours, and again work well with apples and pears.

Don't forget the possibility of adding a separate fruit. Apple and orange jam, for instance, only needs a couple of oranges (zest and juice) for a couple of kilos - the orange flavour really penetrates but the apple still contributes its softness of both flavour and texture. Forest fruit jam uses all kinds of fruit - you can perk up a blackberry jam by adding some frozen raspberries, blueberries or cranberries from the supermarket - and I also find strips of dried apricot or peach can add a bit of exta zing to other jams.

I also found a terrific resource on the internet - North West Edible Life blog has a pdf you can download with 'dry zings' (herb, spice, fruit) and 'wet zings' (alcohol, syrup) for adding extra flavour to your jams, as well as a neat post talking about the concept and offering recipes for a handful of very palatable preserves.


Ring the changes with different textures. For fig jam, for instance, I make some with very thinly sliced figs, others with chunks, others by boiling the fruit whole and then mashing it in the pan. That gives you both a different texture and a different visual experience - translucent circles of purple fig hanging in jelly, or a thick red gloop with little brown fig seeds in it, look very different from each other. An apple jam made with grated apple has a completely different texture from one made with chopped apple matchsticks.

There's really no need to cook huge quantities of a single boring jam. Much more fun to try a kilo of fruit each way - that's three reasonable jars. I generally have one jam boiling while the next one is ready prepared in a bowl, macerating with the sugar and flavourings - leaving it some time with the flavourings in ensures a more intense flavour, and then when I've bottled the first jam, the next one goes straight into the pan. It's a pretty efficient workflow.

So next time you have a glut, don't be frightened - and don't think you have to make a ton of the same jam or jelly. Ring the changes and have fun!