Sunday, July 15, 2007

Yet Another Reason I Deserve Apricot Trees

Eight days after picking the underripe apricots, most of them were still underripe. (On the plus side, none of them rotted.) Perhaps I should have kept them in a warmer place. Because of the vagaries of V.'s air conditioning, in order for the upstairs to be habitable, the main floor needs to be on the cool side. Regardless, a week in a brown paper bag should have done the trick and didn't. Since Mother Nature was not forthcoming with a transformation, it fell to me.

The most difficult part of making apricot preserves is selecting a recipe. I'm sure there's a fabulous recipe in Mes Confitures, but it has still not chosen to re-appear. I had great success with the cherry jam recipe/method from the SureJell package, but I didn't like the recipe they had for apricot jam. It had about as high a proportion of sugar as the tart cherry recipe had, but apricots are, obviously a great deal sweeter than tart cherries. Plus, I thought it would be fun to try something without added pectin.

Unsurprisingly, the more I make preserves, the easier and more enjoyable I find it. I no longer fear the process, really. I think that using Christine Ferber's oven sterilization method has been the key for me. I really don't like having to fish empty jars out of boiling water. Instead, I wash the jars, lids, and rings in very hot soapy water, rinse them thoroughly, put them in the oven, set the oven to 250, and after half an hour or so, turn it to 225 until I'm ready to use the jars.

One problem I do have is that a lot of recipes for preserves aren't terribly forthcoming about how much they make. Consequently, I usually end up with significantly more jars than I need. For example, today's recipe ended up making seven cups, which I put in four jars (three pints and one half-pint; I rather despise the term "half-pint" because it's really a cup, but the people who make jams and jellies seem to think that "half-pint" is preferable, so whatever), but I had ten jars (four pints and six of those jars that are half as big as a pint and hold a cup) ready to go. Oh well. I wish I could have filled all the jars, but that would have been rather an expensive amount of apricots. Hence the title of this post. If I had a couple of apricot trees, I could put up enough preserves for myself and all my friends and family over a couple of weekends in July. Truly, the universe is an unfair place.

Anyway, my travels around the net found this post and recipe, which I doubled and adapted slightly for my own purposes. I liked the idea of the small amount of sugar. The writer says that it's "just a bit less sweet" than commercial apricot preserves. Maybe where she is, but preserves in the U.S. are much, much sweeter than her recipe. In fact, I slightly increased the amount of sugar, and I think I still used less than half of the amount of sugar the SureJell recipe calls for.

The results are outstanding. It has none of the cloying sweetness that is so typical of commercial and most homemade preserves. In fact, the taste reminds me of something like marmalade. Of course, I was tasting the couple of ounces that were left over when I'd finished filling my jars, so the taste may be slightly tamer after the hot water processing and some time on the shelf, but I have to believe they'll still be fantastic. I do think that you could add a bit more sugar and they would still be very, very good; in fact, if I can get more apricots next year, I may up the sugar by a small amount. But maybe not. Hey, I have a year to decide, right?

This is not a recipe that you want to rush. You should count on spending at least two (and perhaps three) hours in the kitchen from the time that you start washing your apricots until the time that you pull the finished preserves from the boiling water bath and set them aside to await the ping of the finishing seal. It's a very good thing to do when you have other chores in or near the kitchen to attend to. During the time the apricots were cooking, I'd set my timer to three minutes, turn it on, do some other things, and come back to stir the pot when the timer went off. I got a lot of other stuff done that way. While the preserves are cooking, you want them to be at a very low boil. The cooking phase itself will probably take at least an hour. Your patience will be rewarded. Try to enjoy the aroma during that time. Try to be in a frame of mind where you are enjoying the process rather than hurrying toward the result. If all else fails, grab a good book and a glass of wine. Or send an e-mail to a friend. You can get quite a lot accomplished in three minutes.

I'm not sure how much they add to the unique and superlative flavor of the preserves, but I did put in the kernels of some of the apricots. I'd say about eight, but I'm not quite sure because they were in pieces. Breaking open the apricot pit is not an exercise for the timid. The original recipe recommends wrapping them in cloth before hitting them with a hammer. I kind of forgot the cloth part, so I had pits and parts of pits ricocheting around the kitchen. The original recipe also recommends wrapping the pits in cheesecloth and then removing them. I fished out one or two of the pits, but mostly I just left them in chunks in the preserves. Apricot kernels do contain cyanide but in very small quantities. You would not want to eat a handful of raw kernels, but half a kernel in a jar of jam shouldn't hurt anybody, and they're pretty easy to work around when you open the jar, I reckon. I didn't bother to go down to the basement and root through my toolbox, but if you have a c-clamp handy, I suspect that using it on the pit will enable you to extract the kernels in one piece and without the dangers of pit shrapnel.

Anyway, the recipe:

Apricot Preserves

About 4.5 lbs ripe (and/or semi-ripe) apricots
1/2 cup water
3 cups granulated sugar
4 T. fresh lemon juice

Wash and drain the apricots. Pull them in half with your fingers and remove the pits. Cut apricots into chunks (eight chunks per apricot) until you have about eight cups of chunks. Cut the remainder of the apricots in wedges or slices (eight wedges per apricot). Break open about eight of the seeds and reserve the kernels.

Prepare your jars.

In a large, heavy stockpot, Combine the water and sugar. Stir as well as you can. A heat-resistant silicon spatula will be very useful hear and throughout the process. Put the sugar and water over medium-low heat and cover. Heat, stirring if necessary, until the mixture is clear and comes to a boil. Do your best to avoid crystallization on the sides of the pot, but don't fret over a little bit: when the apricots go in, it'll be easy to pull any crystallized sugar off the side and into the preserves.

Add the apricot chunks to the boiling syrup. Return to a simmer/slow boil and cook, uncovered, until the chunks are mostly disintegrated. Stir thoroughly every few minutes during the cooking to avoid scorching. This phase of cooking will likely take at least half an hour.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil on the stove. Keep at a simmer. You will use this for processing later.

Add the apricot wedges/slices to the pot and continue cooking with regular, thorough stirring, until the wedges are largely dissolved but some pieces remain, another half hour or so. The mixture should be very thick at this point. Stir in the lemon juice and simmer for another five minutes.

Ladle the preserves into the prepared jars, put the lids on, and screw the rings down. Process in the boiling water bath for fifteen minutes. Remove from the water and set aside to cool and to complete the seals.

I don't have any real reason for putting this picture here. I made the last two cherry pies about a week ago. I gave one of them away to a friend, and we kept the other one. The filling was terrific, but the crust was tough. Good flavor, but really tough. Clearly I overhandled it, even though I thought I'd taken precautions. The little crust flowers on top weren't tough, and my friend said that the crust of the pie I'd given him wasn't tough, so who knows? I'll be more careful next time. Clearly, I haven't been making enough pie, and that's a situation I really shouldn't allow to continue.


Blogger Sally Forth said...

I've been putting apricot kernels in with the jam for about 15 years now and I'm still here. They do impart an almondy(almondish?) essence to the jam and I eat them straight from the jar on toast and they taste wonderful.

4:12 AM  

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