“Do you remember the scene from Anna Karenina about making jam?” asked my grandmother as we stood over a pan of raspberries slowly melting into sugar. The passage my grandmother recalled was about a newly wed Kitty introducing a new method to Levin’s household, with somewhat tense results.
“Agafea Mihalovna, to whom the task of jam-making had always been entrusted, considering that what had been done in the Levin household could not be amiss, had nevertheless put water with the strawberries, maintaining that the jam could not be made without it. She had been caught in the act, and was now making jam before everyone, and it was to be proved to her conclusively that jam could be very well made without water….Agafea Mihalovna, her face heated and angry, her hair untidy, and her thin arms bare to the elbows, was turning the preserving-pan over the charcoal stove, looking darkly at the raspberries and devoutly hoping they would stick and not cook properly.”*
In my family making jam is not dramatic, but it’s taken very seriously. “I no longer make much jam, because there is nobody to eat it,” says my grandmother, as she puts up jars of raspberries, plums, apricots, cherries and apples in quantities that could feed an army. If you can imagine, everything was done on an even larger scale when the family was larger. “I came home from work and made 14 jars of dill pickles,” writes my 30 year old grandmother to her parents, before expressing concerns that this might not be enough. This preserving passion must be contagious, because I’ve caught the bug too and whenever I have a free evening in the summer, I can be found in the kitchen pitting cherries and macerating apricots with sugar and brandy.
I love making jam, because more than any other type of food preparation, it involves a kind of alchemy, the ability to capture the evanescent. The summer tastes of honeyed plums, creamy apricots and musky strawberries, and when I open a jar of peach and raspberry marmalade in December, its lush aroma instantly creates a sun-dappled fantasy. It’s not unlike reaching for a bottle of perfume that smells of warm sand and sea breeze.
If you’ve never made jam, the whole idea might seem scarily complicated–sterilizing, pasteurizing and whatnot. But none of that is complicated and homemade jam is so much better than the pectin laden, overcooked store-bought confections. Who knows, you may become as passionate about it as my grandmother and I.
This raspberry jam is one of my favorites. The berries get a kick from cognac, which is enough to unlock the violet and musk aroma of raspberries. It’s instant gratification cooking, because you get a dose of pleasure when you’re standing over a fragrant pot of simmering berries.
In old Russian cookbooks, this jam was called Kiev style because it’s made without any water. That’s exactly what caused distress to Tolstoy’s Agafea Mihalovna. When you’re making a water free jam for the first time, you might also have doubts. But as long as the heat is low, you will eventually have a pool of garnet liquid instead of lumps of sugar. The flavor will be concentrated and the perfume will fill the whole kitchen. Soon the sugar and juices start to froth, and you should be skimming off the thick pink foam.
But don’t think for a moment of throwing the skimmings away–they are delicious. When my cousin and I were children, we jealously fought over our share of penki, foam. Even in our household, jam could inspire minor drama.
Raspberry Cognac Jam
This recipe makes a soft set, runny jam, which is a classical Russian style preserve. Raspberries are low in pectin, but I don’t like the overcooked apple flavor of pectin powders. If you don’t mind it and want a spreadable jam, then use commercial pectin and follow the instructions on the package.
The classical proportions are equal amount of fruit to sugar. This makes for a jam that sets and keeps well, but it’s sweet. The lower sugar version tastes summery and fresh, but it will not keep for as long. You can reduce the sugar even more, but in that case, make a small quantity and eat it quickly.
This jam is wonderful spooned over Greek yogurt and vanilla ice cream. Fresh goat cheese topped with fragrant raspberries becomes the most decadent dessert. You can also dilute jam in water for a quick drink. Or slather it on a piece of buttered bread and brew a cup of Russian caravan tea.
Makes about 3 cups
500g (3 cups) raspberries
1 Tablespoon cognac
350-500g (1 2/3 cup-2 1/2 cups) sugar (see headnote)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Rinse and pat dry raspberries, then transfer to a large pot. Sprinkle berries with cognac and layer with sugar, making sure that the berries are covered completely. Leave for 3 hours (or if it’s more convenient, in the fridge overnight).
An hour before you’re ready to make the jam prepare glass jars by washing them (and lids too) in hot, soapy water. Rinse well. Place jars and lids in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes. If your lids include rubber rings, just scald them with boiling water.
Bring berries to a boil over medium-low heat and cook until sugar has dissolved, about 7 minutes. Shake the pan back and forth to encourage the sugar to melt and stir carefully with a wooden spoon to prevent sugar from sticking.
Simmer, shaking the pan time to time in so as not to crush the berries. Skim any foam that rises to the surface. In about 15-20 minutes, jam should thicken. Add lemon juice and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and check if jam is set.
To test, spoon a bit of hot jam onto a small plate. Transfer it to a freezer for 1 minute. Now, tilt plate and see if the jam “wrinkles.” If so, it’s done. (If you’re using a candy thermometer, the temperature should be around 221F/105C).
Fill each jar with hot jam up to 1⁄2″ from the top. Wipe the rims with a clean towel.** Cover with the lids, screwing them on tightly.
If I use an equal amount of sugar to berries, I end the process right here and simply put the jars upside down to cool them. I check that the seal is tight (the center of the lid shouldn’t move) and store them in a cool, dark place.
For the low-sugar version, you either need to store jam in the fridge or pasteurize the jars. To do this, transfer filled jars to a large pot, cover with water and bring it to a gentle boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Jars should be covered by at least 1″ of water. Carefully lift jars from water with tongs and place on a kitchen towel to cool undisturbed.
Store sealed jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Refrigerate after opening.
*Quote via Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
**At this point, you can follow another jam making advice from Tolstoy. “Do it, please, by my receipt, said the princess; put some paper over the jam, and moisten it with a little rum, and without even ice, it will never go mildewy.” Substitute cognac for rum and use wax paper rounds that fit neatly over the surface of jam.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin