This morning, at a favourite local restaurant with three girlfriends, a complimentary platter of crisp, buttery cheese blintzes landed on the table with a clatter. Blintzes are delicate yeasted pancakes folded around a tangy cloud of sweetened cottage cheese, and here, they were served with a dollop of créme fraîche and a generous spoonful of strawberry jam.
Coincidentally, the four of us are also amateur gardeners and canning enthusiasts, and we devoured the blintzes while pushing the overly sweet blob of jam to the side of the plate. (No jam is better than bad jam).
Gelatinous textures haven't always been easy for me. I will always struggle with aspic, and no amount of pain following dental work will get me to eat jelly (although the natural version, made with fresh fruit juices, gelatin and fresh fruit isn't half bad). But panna cotta, that dreamy Italian dessert of cream, milk, sugar and gelatin simmered into a barely set custard, is one of the most transcendental foods on earth, and an opera with jujubes would be as unthinkable to some folks as the notion of a dozen doughnuts minus one or two that are jelly-filled. Aside from cereal and oatmeal, jam and jelly have long been a permissible way for us to carb-load for breakfast.
I've often joked about the open tumblers of jam on all the tables at a favoured breakfast joint, referring to them as Petri dishes that contain bigger viral loads than a flu shot. Sugar goes a long way toward keeping jam fresh, but it doesn't work magically, as I learnt one cruel summer's day after opening a jar of generic grape jelly that had been stored on a refrigerator shelf, only to find that it had bloomed a fur coat the colour of mint leaves.
Jams, jellies and preserves were just another class of foods I shunned as a picky child. I coveted tall, frosty Shirley Temples garnished with lurid red maraschino cherries but I was too much of a good girl to break the rules, and I never let one pass between my lips, recreating an imaginary version of a hedonist's heaven using children's book references such as Paddington Bear's marmalade sandwiches and the infamous Bread and Jam for Frances.
Eventually, I developed a fondness for LU Pim's sponge cake biscuits veiled with a wafer-thin disc of dark chocolate to snap with your tongue, whereas I had a harder time warming to Jaffa Cakes, similar to the Pim's biscuits and named after the city to which the sweet orange-scented cakes were native.
I have eaten peanut butter and jelly in more forms than is probably reasonable for any one person to have done, and I even made a short documentary film in college about my obsession. In grad school, I'd toast long slender slices of pecan raisin bread, butter them, then add freshly ground almond butter and sour cherry jam.
American Spoon "Spoon Fruit" preserves were my absolute favourite of preserves, and might still be my benchmark, although I'm also a sucker for any preserves made by June Taylor, particularly her pear and vanilla fruit butter, in which the whole fruit is run through a sieve, then puréed after the heating process to achieve a satiny consistency. Taylor's line of products focuses heavily on heirloom fruits: Silver Lime and Ginger Marmalade; Diamond Princess Peach Conserve. She uses no formula beyond hand-cut fruit, a brief cooking time, and spare amounts of sugar to help make the preserves exceptional. She also uses only the fruits' natural pectin, which is extremely uncommon these days.
Indeed, it's not prepared jams that are my weakness - although I must admit that the lurid green of Rose's lime marmalade calls out to me every time I'm at the store. The best jams and jellies are ones you have to pay for, and pectin doesn't come naturally. Older jam and jelly recipes sometimes suggest extracting pectin from apples for use in other jams and jellies. Aside from certain berries, few fruits have sufficient pectin to jelly themselves.
A few years ago, I began making my own jam, mostly for gifts. I go to the farmer's market in the late morning and buy a case of whatever is in season. My friend Sondra, an artist and berry farmer who grows the best berries I've had and not surprisingly makes the best jams I've ever tasted, has created conserves with a cult following. No fewer than a half-dozen people I know are addicted to green chilli cheddar rolls that have been split, toasted, buttered and spread with a thin layer of one of her punchy berry jams.
It was Sondra's jams that ultimately inspired me to learn to make my own preserves by way of Christine Ferber, and I began scouring markets at the end of the day for the ripest seasonal fruit.
A few weeks ago, this resulted in a brunch of flaky turnovers made with a cream-cheese pastry, filled with a cinnamon fig jam and whipped with sweetened chèvre (for the recipe, visit www.whatwereeating.com).
For anyone not fully committed to learning how to can, there's fridge jam, which is a sort of meeting point between a preserve and a fresh fruit coulis. With less sugar and no cooking involved, it has a brighter, sharper flavour than traditional jam, and can be made by a seven-year-old without a hitch.
Cheese and preserves is a classic combination, and I lived on habanero jelly and goat's cheese on rice crackers after discovering the pepper jelly at an artisan's market. But it was the raspberry red chilli jam from Heidi's Raspberry Farm in Corrales, New Mexico, that ended my search for the perfect store-bought jam. I've since taken to cooking it down with shallots and spices to serve with a cheese course.