Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Peach, Almond and Black Pepper Jam: Between a Hotel Room and the Emergency Room

Every recipe tells a story.  Once I've followed a recipe, it's forever imprinted with the circumstances of that first baking and any subsequent creations only serve to enrich the tale.  Often, a recipe will remind me of the people I've cooked it with, or for; there's the breakfast sausage casserole my family makes for Christmas morning, the Snickerdoodles I always send to my grandmother, or the perfect, stay-soft chocolate chip cookie recipe I use in care packages for friends serving overseas.

Sometimes, the recipes have a more specific memory attached: like the time I burned my fingers making homemade Thin Mints for Matt (what won't a girl do to impress her guy?), the time I made 'Blackberry Coconut FAILcake' (I may have over-modified a recipe a bit too much during our final days of dwindling ingredients in Oklahoma), or the weekend my college girlfriends and I decided to make a grape pie (which actually turned out tasty - but what a process!). Well, today's recipe is definitely one of those.....

You see, I'd been eyeing the peaches ever since we picked them up at a roadside fruit stand in South Carolina.  So firm, fuzzy, and blushing attractively with the softest oranges and reds. I knew they'd make good jam even before I took the first bite - and that juicy mouthful just confirmed my suspicions. Matt, however, was keen to eat them fresh so I held off - until he was laid low with a terrible ear infection last week and it began to look like I would have to finish off the entire 1/2 peck myself!

As much as I love fresh peaches, I was a little intimidated by the veritable pile of fleshy fruits on our countertop so, since Matt was in no condition to object, I separated out a few lumpy ones and got to work on my jam. Bear in mind that we were still in a hotel room at this point, so my utensils were extremely limited. Our single saucepan did double duty, with a quick wash in between, for blanching the peaches and cooking the jam. Luckily, I'd saved a pasta sauce jar from Matt's dinner the night before and did my best to sterilize it using boiling water (again, in that trusty saucepan!) on the miniature stovetop.

Given the already challenging conditions, I decided to keep things simple with a no-pectin recipe that only required peaches, sugar, and a bit of lemon juice, which we already had on hand.  For sugar, I turned to our complimentary breakfast bar and the coffee-making supplies left in our room. Yes, I actually opened 77 little sugar packets by hand - which is crazy, not least because it illustrates just how much sugar is crammed into the everyday foods we eat. I was too worried about the outcome to cut the sugar (without pectin, there was the risk that the jam wouldn't jell) but I was amazed at just how much was necessary to make such a small amount of jam and, given the sweetness and consistency of the finished product, I'd have no qualms about cutting back in the future.

If you think cooking jam in a hotel room sounds crazy, you'll be even more entertained to know that I did it all in the dark.  The medication for Matt's ear infection made him extremely light sensitive so I'd been stumbling around our crowded room by the light from the microwave (hence the poor picture quality - sadly I don't have the skills to compensate for semi-darkness). I blanched the peaches, removed the skins, and measured the sugar in the near dark and was just combining the ingredients when Matt informed me that his condition had taken a turn for the worse. I threw the ingredients into our trusty saucepan and bundled him into the car for the ride to the local Emergency Room. Fast forward a few hours and Matt is back in bed, more fevered than ever after our fruitless excursion, and I am facing the reality of making peach jam in a hotel room at midnight.

Skin peels easily from a blanches peach
I've used the 'one cup of sugar to one pound of fruit' rule with other jams, but mostly those containing sour fruits (currants, berries, rhubarb etc.) so I was worried that using this formula with peaches would produce too sweet a jam. It didn't take me long to realize that this was certainly the case, but since I'd thrown my ingredients together in my rush to get to the hospital, there was little I could do to remedy the error.

Perhaps it was the dark, or the lateness of the hour, or the craziness of the day that preceded it, but I suddenly thought the answer to my sugary dilemma might be black pepper. (It could also have been the fact that we didn't have any other spices in our hotel room - well, except oregano, but I knew that wouldn't help). I tossed in some black pepper and then some almond extract for good measure (because who doesn't love almond extract?) and when I tasted some of the still-hot jam, it was surprisingly good. Of course, I had to try it again in the morning to be certain that I wasn't judging based on the excitement and sleep deprivation of the night before. Still good. I tried it again today, with a bit of cream (thanks again, hotel coffee bar) and it's still good.

I do think the jam is a bit too sugary, but the basic recipe is sound and I'm even advocating the use of black pepper. To be honest, you can't really taste it unless the jam is warmed (either fresh from cooking, spread over warm toast, or stirred into hot oatmeal) but then it provides a nice little 'heat' all its own and definitely adds a bit of depth to the otherwise syrupy flavor of the peaches. If you're not convinced, you can leave it out all together or substitute some other strange and unusual ingredient (basil, rosemary or cardamom, perhaps?). You can also have fun with your extracts or leave the peaches syrupy sweet and unadorned.

Peach, Almond and Black Pepper Jam
makes about 1 1/2 cups jam

4-5 large, ripe peaches
1 scant cup granulate sugar (reduce this if you're feeling brave!)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

In a large saucepan over high heat, immerse peaches in boiling water for about 30-40 seconds to soften skins. Remove from water to stop cooking and allow peaches to cool. Discard water. Remove skins from peaches by hand - skins should slip off easily once broken.

Slice skinned peaches into a medium saucepan, in small chunks.  Add sugar and lemon juice. Over high heat, bring peach mixture to a boil. Stir continuously (you can use a large spoon or potato masher to smash the softening chunks) to prevent sticking. Stir until mixture thickens and reaches the 'jell point' (about 12-18 minutes). You can test for the jell point using a cold spoon - scoop some jam and tilt to see if it jells or is still runny.

When ready, remove from heat and add black pepper and extract, stirring well. Spoon mixture into heated, sterilized jar.  Tastes delicious warm or cold!

Can you spot the cheeky flecks of black pepper?
A few notes: I didn't bother to seal my jar since the recipe makes so little and I was intending to use it right away, but you could easily scale the quantities up to make a large batch. I imagine it would be delicious over shortcake and drizzled with cream - a bit like am all-American, peach-and-pepper version of English cream tea!

For those of you worried about Matt, he's still fighting the infection but doing much better. He's finally able to keep solid foods down - which is good, because there's jam to eat!

This post has bee linked at:
Sweet as Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday

1 comment:

  1. yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum...this sounds very interesting & i cant wait to make it!!