• Camille

Home Ec for Wayward Girls, Wherein I Make Jam and Refuse to Follow Recipes

November 19, 2012 

Camille Hayes

Fighting for social justice can be so stressful, what with the uphill battles and the long odds, and the apparent inability of humankind to get its act together even slightly. Sometimes, at the end of a long day fighting the foes of righteousness, a girl just wants to go home, put on her slippers and seed 20 pounds of pomegranates. You know, to clear her head.

Canning has been my main hobby (and briefly, even a side-business) for years now, and if you like cooking at all, you should definitely try it.  Right about now you’re probably thinking, “But canning is for grandmas, and I am an exceedingly hip and modern sort of person.” Just hear me out, because homemade preserves are awesome. Look at these lovely little jars of pumpkin butter. Don’t you want to make some of those?

There was a time when I also assumed canning wasn’t for me. I mean, I’m definitely a food person; when I’m not complaining about injustice or reading novels, I’m usually cooking. But I don’t always like recipes that require me to be super-exact with measurements or timing, or with anything, really. Basically, I just don’t like to be told what to do—not even by recipes.

So canning? With the sterilizing and the fussy proportions and the equipment? It always seemed too . . . bossy for me. Until one fateful summer, when I was called in to rescue a friend from the excesses of her Japanese plum tree. I Googled some jam recipes and, finding them all kind of dull, improvised by cutting the sugar by about half, then adding a handful spices. Et voila: the most scrumptious jam, and everyone loved it, and wanted some, and loudly demanded more when it was gone.

It turns out making jam isn’t really that fussy, or at least not the way I do it. It’s true there’s a minimum fruit-to-sugar ratio you need to get that nice, jammy consistency, but other than that it’s just like making a sauce: messy and fun. If you stopped by my place while I was making jam you’d find spices flying everywhere and booze flowing liberally into my bubbling stock pot. (Sidebar: Did you know that pretty much any jam can be improved by the addition of an adult beverage? I totally fixed jam, you guys.) For example, this pumpkin butter got a dose of brandy. Did the recipe call for it? No, but it’s certainly better for it.

After I cut the sugar, added booze, fiddled with the spices and increased the cook time, the recipe (which by that point was a different recipe) turned out beautifully.  It’s delicious, rich and pumpkiny, with hints of those yummy Christmas spices everybody loves, not too sweet, and slightly smoky from the brandy.

This pumpkin butter is a freezer jam (there are food safety reasons you shouldn’t can pumpkin).* That means you get to skip the step in canning people find most daunting—the processing. Just spoon the butter into glass containers and pop them in the fridge or freezer. It’s like pumpkin pie in a jar, and on cream scones this would be the best thing ever. Of course, if you want a decent cream scone in this country, you have to bake it yourself. Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about how I don’t follow scone recipes  . . .

Here’s my pumpkin butter recipe, in case you want to try not following it yourself. Happy Thanksgiving!

Brandied Pumpkin Butter

2 small pumpkins (often called “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins), about 4 lbs. each 2 tbs. melted butter 2 cups sugar 1 cup packed brown sugar (dark or light; I like dark, but with light your butter will stay more orange in color) 1.5 cups apple cider ½ cup brandy (this is a conservative estimate; you can add more to your taste) 3 tsp. ground ginger 3 tsp. cinnamon 2 tsp. nutmeg 1 tsp. ground allspice

Preheat oven to 425. Using a large chef’s knife or cleaver, cut each pumpkin in half, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Discard seeds, unless you want to toast them, in which case you’re on your own with that weird hippie snack.

Brush pumpkin halves with melted butter and arrange on baking sheets, cut sides down. Bake until the flesh can be pierced easily with a knife, around 30 minutes, but start checking at 20. Let cool a bit.

Use a big spoon to scoop out the flesh, then, working batches, puree pumpkin in a food processor.

 {NOTE: you can also just mash this with a fork and skip the processor. It depends on what kind of texture you want. Fork mashing will give you a more vegetal mouth feel, with some of the pumpkins’ strings and lumps remaining. The food processor version is smooth like pumpkin pie.}

Measure out 5 cups and reserve any remaining puree to bake into a sweet bread, which will be delicious.

In a small stockpot or large saucepan, combine pumpkin puree, the two sugars, the apple cider and the spices. Stir to blend ingredients, then bring to a low boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Seriously, you do not want to burn a fruit butter, it’s a mess, so stay with it. When it just comes to a boil, reduce heat immediately to medium-low and cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes, or until it starts to thicken. At this point add the brandy, and cook another 20 minutes, or until it looks thick and spreadable.

Spoon the butter into clean jars, leaving a minimum ¼-inch space between the butter and the top of the jar (this is called the “headspace”). Wipe the jar rims clean and seal with lids. Place into fridge for two months’ storage, or in freezer for up to six months.

Yield: about 6 half-pint jars

*Long story, but unless you have a pressure canner DO NOT process your jars of pumpkin butter, as you will not be able to make them safe for shelf storage with a boiling water canner.

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