Heavenly Preserves

I made two pint jars of strawberry preserves last summer. We opened the first jar Christmas Day to go with our pancake breakfast and only finished the jar midway through February because I was so careful. I didn’t want to go through it too quickly you see. We’re on to our second jar now, and I’m being equally stingy with this last precious jar. Perhaps you think I’m cruel to talk about summer fruit in March. Except that now is the time to wax poetic about the efforts from the summer, lest we don’t appreciate them enough! So let’s talk about these preserves…

I learned early on in life that “preserves” is another word for jam. In Anne of Avonlea, Anne discovers 6-year old Davy in Marilla’s pantry with a spoon, blissfully consuming her famous yellow plum preserves right out of the jar. After being lectured to and feeling duly guilty, Davy observes to Anne: “Anyhow, there will be plenty of jam in heaven, that’s one comfort.” “Perhaps there will, if we want it,” she said. “But what makes you think so?” “Why, it’s in the catechism,” said Davy. “Oh no, there is nothing like that in the catechism, Davy.” “But I tell you there is,” persisted Davy. “It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. ‘Why should we love God?’ It says, ‘Because he makes preserves, and redeems us.’ Preserves is just the holy word for jam.” (chapter 8).

Indeed it is. Despite the grammatical confusion, Davy was on to something here. Many resources will tell you that preserves contain large chunks or pieces of fruit rather than being of a more uniform and smooth texture like jam, or a jelled texture like jelly. However, most of the actual preserve recipes I’ve seen treat preserves much like a jam and with all due respect to the cooks of the past who have canned more than I have, I have to disagree. Preserves should be the fruit itself preserved, not just some jammed or jelled up version of it. There is some use of the word “conserve” as well, but that just seems to confuse the issue. For me, I think of preserves as chunks of fruit in a small amount of syrup, jam as a more broken-down and uniform-textured fruit spread, and jelly as a… jelly.

Now, jam is lovely, especially when homemade from perfect fruit. But I think preserves are my preference on two fronts. First, as an eater – I enjoy getting the hunks of fruit, and maybe it’s warped but as a mom I sort of think James is getting more “fruit” when I ladle preserved strawberries onto his pancakes rather than spooning out strawberry jelly. Weird mom logic for sure, but there it is.

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Second, it takes so much less cooking down! That’s the real bitch of canning fruit, pardon my language. Most of the fruit we want to jam up is ripe and ready at the height of summer, when no on wants to have their stove going for more than ten minutes. I have begged fruit to thicken over a steamy stove-top at 10 o’clock on a July night (and for the record, fruit remains numb to begging, save your dignity and don’t bother trying it). So when I found a recipe for strawberry preserves that required bringing sugared strawberries to a simmer and then letting them sit overnight to thicken, doing that again in the morning and then canning it up, I was signed, sealed, delivered.

Now, if you are a lover of jam, the kind of person who collects different jams at different markets and has 3-4 open jars in the fridge at any one time, I salute you. And I think you should make tea and scones and invite me over. But for those of us who like the chunks of fruit in a thinner jell and who like to can up their own fruit but have no intention of making jam at 5am to prevent heat stroke, preserves are indeed the holy word for jam. So here’s the strawberry preserves recipe that converted me. And I guarantee, when you open the first jar sometime in the fall or early winter, it will smell like heaven.

Strawberry Preserves, from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, p.19

  • 2 lbs fresh strawberries (about 4 cups)
  • 1 pound granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Carefully rinse the berries in a sieve or colander and then let them dry on a clean towel for 15 minutes or so. Stem and quarter them carefully. Place the strawberries in a non-reactive pot (I use an enameled cast-iron pot) and add the sugar and salt, letting them sit for at least 2 hours or overnight until the strawberries release some of their juice. Gently bring the berries to a “lively simmer” over medium heat, shaking rather than stirring the pot. Cook at that lively simmer for 12-15 minutes, just until the fruit is tender. Do not overcook! Do not cover the berries until they are completely cooled, and then let them sit overnight. The next day, bring them back to a full simmer and then ladle into sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4″ at the top. Store the preserves in a cool, dark place.

*Note #1 – I meant to double the batch but only had enough strawberries to 1.5x the batch, but forgot and carelessly added 2x the sugar, then realized my mistake and added a bit of water so the solution wouldn’t be too sugary… you get the idea. Typical, yes. But not fruitless (hee hee) as I learned something valuable. As long as the fruit is not overcooked, having extra syrup at the end of the process does not detract from the deliciousness of the preserves themselves and leaves you with a bit of strawberry syrup. Yum! I mostly used it to make strawberry milk for James, but I did try some in sparkling water for a “strawberry soda” of sorts and loved it. I’m hoping to make several different syrups this year for homemade sodas, including lemon, strawberry, and cranberry.

*Note #2 – they do not say anything about processing in a water bath and I suspect there is enough sugar that they will be fine if you consume them within 6 months. But if you’re overly cautious (and that is reasonable, botulism is worth concern) then process in a full-boil water bath for at least 5 minutes. I knew I wanted to wait until winter to start enjoying these so I canned up and did the water bath.

*Note #3 – Before writing the above with Scott Peacock, Edna Lewis included a plum preserve recipe in her The Taste of Country Cooking. I intend to try this recipe out this summer if I can get my hands on some lovely plums. Perhaps if I find some yellow plums I could make “heavenly Marilla preserves”….

Damson Preserves, from The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, p.157

  • 3 pounds sound, blemish-free plums
  • 2 1/2 pounds sugar

Prepare plums by first washing them off, draining them carefully, and sticking each plum a few times with a stout needle. Place in preserving kettle, sprinkle over with sugar, and leave overnight. In the morning, bring the kettle to a simmer over a medium boil and continue until the plums are tender and the syrup has become thick (note: do not overcook the preserves. Cook only until fruit is tender and syrup is a clear wine plum color. If the syrup turns brown, it is overcooked.) Remove from the burner and leave preserves to rest overnight. Next morning, heat the preserves until just hot and pout them into the sterilized jars, filling the jars to 1/4″ from the top. Then pour on the melted paraffin. When the paraffin becomes set and cold, screw on the tops and place in a cool, dry place. Makes 6 5oz jars.

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