Isn’t funny how we, as humans, gravitate to certain things? Why do we have different likes and dislikes? I’ve always loved to cook, and it started when I was very young. Staring into a pot, stirring with a wooden spoon, or leaning over a cutting board: these are all very natural poses for me. When I am in these poses, it’s like I’ve settled into myself, at center. Even within the huge realm of cooking, there are some things that I like more than others. This is so with the broad category of cooking fruit. Fruit, I feel, is truly a blessing, and if you have ever tried to grown your own fruit, you will know this intrinsically. This is probably stating the obvious, but I especially love making fruit preserves. Something about how they change from thin and watery to gorgeous glossy thickness is, I think, what fascinates me so. I also think it’s such an easy and attainable richness for the every day person. To have jars filled with different fruit mixtures lining my kitchen shelves seems such a luxury!
The essence of making sweet preserves is simply to mix fruit and sugar, plus a touch of acid, depending on the fruit, and then to apply heat. If you can boil water, then surely you can boil fruit. Even if it’s not in line with your natural inclinations, it’s still worthwhile to invest some time in. I recall doing a jam demonstration at a farmer’s market a few years back, trying to convince people walking by to make their own jam. I was making a black current jam and giving out tastes of this complex and mysterious preserve. People loved it and would promptly ask to buy a jar. I wasn’t selling it, I told them, just teaching you how to make it. And they, just as quickly, would say they could never do that. I just want to buy it, one woman said. I think despite the recent trend to DIYism, there is still a huge part of the population who just wants to buy things. I do believe that at this point in time, it is urgent to continue to take back our ability to do these things. This self-reliance is more important than ever, to take the things that make us human back from large corporations, who remove the mystery and intuition from making our own.
That said, I will leave you with a short recipe for a fruit pâte, also referred to as a paste or cheese, that I was so excited to make. Not quite as easy as a jam, and something only a few fruits will do on their own without adding pectin, like quinces or Damson plums, for example. Will anyone ever make this oddball recipe? I don’t know, as its main ingredient is jostaberries, a hybrid of two different gooseberry strains crossed with a black currant. You don’t see them that often, unless you grow them.The thing that makes this a stiff, cut-able “cheese” is the pectin content of this particular fruit, which comes in large part from its gooseberry parents. The subtle taste of the black currant is what makes it taste so spectacular. I guess you could make this with a blend of 2/3 gooseberries mixed with 1/3 black currants. I am still trying to figure out what cheese this would most go with, but I am banking on a complex and creamy cheese, like local favorite Kunik, from Nettle Meadow Farm.
Jostaberry Fruit Pâte
2 pounds jostaberries
2 cups water
1 cup of sugar
Simmer the berries in the water until softened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let it cool a bit, then push the mixture through a fine sieve which will yield about 2 cups of a thick puree. Put the puree in a large wide pot, add the sugar, and bring to a bubble. Cook at this temperature stirring constantly. It will take about twenty minutes to reach the desired consistency. As you constantly stir making sure the mixture doesn’t scorch, you will start to note a brown tinge at the very edges of the puree as you drag your spatula through. The sugar is starting to caramelize, and the water of the mixture is almost completely boiled out. It is ready when your spatula makes a path in the puree that lasts a whole twenty to thirty seconds. Push it to the edge of this without letting it burn. Remove from heat, and pour the fruit puree into a glass container that has been lightly greased with vegetable oil. A small rectangle is good—that way you can cut it into bite sized pieces. Or, use small four-ounce containers, which make a nice shape for a cheese plate. Once removed from the cup they can still be a bit sticky, so invert them and dry them in a dehydrator for about 8 hours.
You can cut and dredge the pieces in sugar, but I like the taste—which has a cranberry-like tartness—to stay true, and sugared pieces won’t work on a cheese plate, which is where I think a fruit preparation like this belongs. Eight year olds might beg to differ.