Wine & Food

    The key to jam making is patience

    How to make rhubarb and custard jam

    13 January 2017

    In Alice Through The Looking Glass, the White Queen offers Alice ‘jam tomorrow’:

    ‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
    ‘Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.’
    ‘You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’

    The phrase quickly became a synonym for ‘pie in the sky’, something lovely-sounding but unlikely ever to actually materialise. I sometimes feel that way about jam: a lovely plan I have to use up a glut of gently softening fruits in the fruit bowl, but one that put off until I am ultimately forced to shelve in favour of compost. This jam is the opposite of that jam. It is Jam Today: it is ready in 20 minutes and lives up to all its promises. It also provides a nifty bit of kitchen therapy.

    A lot of the cooking I do is designed to transform my nervous energy, my worries, into buns and breads and biscuits, so a lot of it is very physical: kneading bread, whisking cream and eggs, folding and rolling pastry, then folding and rolling again. Jam is a little different: jam is slow and quiet. Jam demands thought and attention, to the exclusion of everything else.

    This jam is mindfulness for home cooks. It’s a process that once begun, you have to see through, have to focus on. It demands concentration, it needs you to be in the moment. You cannot answer the phone while you’re making jam. You cannot deal with your work emails. You cannot worry about next week’s houseguests. You have to use your judgement, your senses, your common sense. This jam needs you now, it needs you today.

    The key to jam is patience: very slowly bringing it up to setting point, without blasts of heat, stirring always, and watching, waiting. When I need to reset — reset my kitchen, reset my cooking, reset my mind — I make jam. Often, I make this jam: rhubarb and custard, glowing and ruby with forced rhubarb, which turns slowly from its bright pink raw state into a deeper, even more beautiful colour as it simmers, and is speckled black with vanilla.

    Forced rhubarb has just started to hit the shops, and you’d have to sit on my hands to stop me buying it in fat fistfuls. The sharp, bright sweetness of the rhubarb contrasts with the mellow sleepy sweetness of the vanilla. It is, I think, my favourite jam.

    I make this in untraditionally small batches because we live in small house with small cupboards and limited space for kilner jars. But you can make far larger quantities simply by scaling up the below ingredients with the same ratios. The key, really, is equal weights of sugar and fruit. Stick with that and you won’t go far wrong.

    You can, of course, use a jam thermometer, and wait for the jam to reach 105°C. But I struggle with this, especially when I’m making small batches of jam; hot spots or cool spots in the pan can be misleading, and I end up with overset or underset jam. I find myself going back to the old-fashioned way of testing jam: a small spoonful of jam on a very cold plate, pushed gently with a fingernail. If it wrinkles, it’s ready; if it doesn’t, it’s not. I use my hands and my eyes, my nose and a small amount of hope and faith. And it always seems to work better than when I put that faith in a thermometer.

    Rhubarb and Custard Jam

    Makes: 1 500g kilner jar of jam
    Takes: 20 minutes including time on the hob.
    Bakes: 15 minutes

    400g jam sugar
    400g rhubarb
    1 vanilla pod
    1 lemon

    1. Place a couple of small saucers in the freezer.
    2. Trim any scrappy or discoloured bits off your rhubarb, and chop the rest roughly into small chunks, about 3cm. Place this in a pan with the jam sugar and give it a good stir. Cut the vanilla pod down the middle and add that to the pot.
    3. Gently heat the pan until the sugar has dissolved completely, then add the lemon juice and increase the heat. You want to bring the whole mixture to a gentle blipping boil, anything higher risks burning the jam.
    4. Keep it at this boil for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, take a saucer from the freezer and spoon a little onto one of the plates from the freezer. Leave it for just a moment, and then touch it with the nail of your finger. If the surface of the jam wrinkles, it is ready. If not, continue cooking at the same temperature for just a few more minutes, and test again.
    5. Once it satisfies your wrinkle test, remove from the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes. Spoon into sterilised jam jars (I sterilise mine in the dishwasher, but you can also wash them in hot, soapy water and then dry them out on a baking sheet in oven at 140°C) and seal straight away.
    6. Ta Dah!

    Icing on the Cake

    The sharpness of this rhubarb jam works really well with the butteriness of enriched dough and flaky pastry. We ate it piled on scroll buns, and I’ve also been known to sandwich the jam between two Viennese Whirls, where a small amount of the flour has been swapped out for custard powder.