Thursday, September 16, 2010

Daring Cook's Preserving Challenge--Damson Plum Jam and Roasted Apple Butter

This month's Daring Cooks challenge was one part Fail, one part awesome success, and one part something in between.

Here's the blog-checking line:
The September 2010 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by John of Eat4Fun. John chose to challenge The Daring Cooks to learn about food preservation, mainly in the form of canning and freezing. He challenged everyone to make a recipe and preserve it. John’s source for food preservation information was from The National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sooo...Canning. I very vaguely remember canning some strawberry jam when I was bored out of my mind in upstate New York, but that definitely does not mean that canning is anywhere near my comfort zone, although I am good with aseptic technique. So it was kind of nice to have a Daring Cook's challenge that pushed my boundaries and made me try something newish. Will I do it again? I don't think so. I'm pretty okay with some nice, store-bought jam.

My attempt at making jam involved some Damson plums that caught our eye at the farmer's market. They look like big, beautiful blueberries, and I suppose that if I got nothing else out of this little experiment, I got some nice Damson plum pictures.

I don't know if you've ever had Damson plums, but it's also not an experience that I'm likely to repeat. There seem to be a lot of people out there who like them, but to me they were reminiscent of the inedible crab apples that grew in the yard of my childhood home. So obviously, I didn't want to eat them plain, but I didn't want to waste them, either.

The answer was jam, but it was not a simple solution. I won't bore you with the details, but I was initially not too keen on pitting a whole bunch of fruit that were the size of grapes. Nor was I going to peel them, as some plum jam recipes suggest. So there was a food mill involved, and an immersion blender, and lots of frustration.

To top it off, though, I had what I thought might be an edible product, and then I dumped waaaay too much pectin, as well as another powdery substance, into the pot. It turns out that I had bought some sort of super-pectin, so although most recipes instruct you to use a whole package of pectin, I apparently needed only a quarter of this package.

Plus, the box contained a packet of calcium, which I think was supposed to go into the canning water for some reason. I don't think that some calcium is going to hurt anyone, but the overdose of pectin lent the jam an unappealing texture, and on top of the fear of killing a loved one with some botulism, I was now worried about killing them with some calcium.

However, the second part of the challenge involved making some apple butter, which sounded like a great idea. Some of it will go into our Brown Sugar and Bourbon ribs, which will hopefully be posted here at some point, and some of it will be spread on toast.

I didn't want some plain old store-bought bread as a vehicle for this apple butter, so I decided to make the bread recommended by Molly in this beautifully written Orangette post. That's the in-between part of this challenge--I wasn't crazy about it, but it was certainly edible. Plus, the house smelled great while it was baking. At this point, if the apple butter hadn't been such a shining example of awesomeness, I might have just given up and cried.

Most apple butter recipes suggest that you simmer the apple pieces and add a whole lot of sugar to them, much like jam. The Daring Cook's recipe was a low-sugar recipe, as opposed to the normal 1 to 2 cups of sugar called for in other recipes, but I just didn't feel like adding Splenda to my butter. That's why a roasted apple butter recipe from Food and Wine sounded absolutely perfect--it was just apples and apple cider. I added some spices and some lemon juice, but it's still pretty much pure apples.

Perhaps the roasting brought out the natural sweetness of the apples, whereas simmering them might not have done the trick, thus the sugar in the other recipes. This apple butter is sweet, but not cloyingly so, and the apples themselves, as well as the lemon juice, give the butter a nice brightness, which is wrapped in the glowing warmth of the cinnamon and cloves. It's sort of like one of those perfect fall days where the sky is a deep cerulean blue and the air is crisp, and it's just cold enough that it's a pleasure to slip on a sweater or a jacket.

So I would highly recommend that you try this apple butter. It takes almost no active time (although scrubbing the roasting dish kind of sucks), and if you use some high-quality apple cider, you'll have a delicious apple butter. If you're more ambitious than me, you can even can it and enjoy it all year.

One more thing--here's an M.F.K. Fisher essay on canning that I liked. If this link directs you to page 5, go back to page 1.

Roasted Apple Butter
(Inspired by Food and Wine)
  • 3 pounds of your favorite apples, or a combination of apples, peeled, quartered and cored
  • 2 cups high-quality apple cider
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Tiny pinch of cloves
  • The juice of 1/4 of a lemon, plus more to taste
Preheat the oven to 450°. Arrange the apples in a large roasting pan. Pour the apple juice over the apples and bake for 30 minutes, or until tender and browned. Lower the oven to 350°.
Using a fork or potato masher, thoroughly mash the apples in the roasting pan. Bake the apple puree, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours, or until very thick and deeply browned. To test whether your apple butter is done, place a spoonful on a work surface. If liquid escapes and forms a ring around the mound of apple butter, it needs more cooking. The finished product will remain in a mounded spoonful, without slumping, and no liquid will be released.

Scrape into a bowl and let cool. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

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