Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making jam without a recipe -- spiced berry jam with honey

Since I just arrived home from winter break, I'm trying to clean things up in the cottage a bit before the semester becomes truly insanely busy. One thing I'd been putting off for a while is cleaning the freezer. I had a new motivation when I saw that the power had been out during the three weeks I was away, and recently for long enough that my homemade stock in a mason jar in the freezer was mostly liquid. Sadly, many things went right into the garbage, but the butter and fruit looked okay.

But what was I going to do with two pints of organic cranberries I'd intended to make Grandma's cranberry nutloaf with, and with several huge bags of slightly frost-bitten fruit I'd bought at COSTCO for smoothie-making? Make an experimental entree into the world of jam-making, that's what. After poking around on the web a bit, with particular interest in finding out what I could about sugar-free jam, I decided to do it, but my own way, without a recipe.

I was inspired by some of the combinations I saw here, so I dumped the two bags of wild blueberries, some strawberries, and the cranberries into a big pot with a couple sticks of cinnamon, some cloves, and a piece of nutmeg. The fruit was defrosted and quite liquidy, so I didn't even need to add water. Skipping sugar for now, I just started cooking it, and spooned in about a cup's worth of honey that was pretty well crystallized and needed to be used in something baked or cooked or just get tossed out. I simmered it for a long time, probably a couple of hours, until it had cooked down quite a bit and had also thickened a lot. Then I left it for a while with the cover on it and the heat off while I went to the store to buy pectin.

I looked at the various types of pectin that were available here. I was attracted to the low-sugar pectin, but when I saw that dextrose was the first ingredient, I shied away from that, too -- I had a bad reaction once to dextrose candy they eat in Hungary, so I think it's yet another food allergy. I opted for the regular pectin, and figured I'd risk it with a limited sugar allowance, treat it as freezer jam, even though it's cooked, and re-cook it with more pectin and sugar if it doesn't set right.

So, when I came back, I started cooking the fruit mixture again, and I added the two packets of liquid pectin and just one cup of granulated sugar. I cooked it a while longer, continuing to stir, until it had thickened some more, then I ladled it into my newly cleaned, newly purchased jam jars.

So, right now the jam is cooling in the sweet little jars, and I'll check in the morning to see if it's set. I can't wait to eat it on homemade bread and in homemade yogurt. It's lovely, tart and a little sweet, tasting mostly of spiced blueberry with bursts of cranberry here and there.

Everybody says you're supposed to follow the recipe if you want good results with jam, and that it needs to be mostly sugar. Well, we'll see how this works out!!

Photos and update to come tomorrow. :)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Filled date cookies with walnuts, cinnamon, and spiced rum - easy step-by-step recipe with photos

I have updated another family classic from the old town in Minnesota where my ancestors lived and baked. Mom remembers Adeline, the lovely woman who used to play the organ in the community, and whose Date Filled Cookies recipe appeared in the Zion Lutheran cookbook. Unfortunately, the original baker didn't give too many details about preparation, so I winged it and have ended up with a lovely variation that comes out a bit like a jazzed-up snickerdoodle, which I have to hope she would approve of! The addition of spiced rum would probably have raised the eyebrows of many of the Zion ladies . . . even though the alcohol naturally bakes off in the oven. Can we keep this our little secret? :)

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda

Date filling
1 pound dates
water to cover the dates
splash of dark spiced rum (about 1/2 cup)
ground ginger
1 cup chopped walnuts

large walnut pieces, preferably halves (approximately 3 dozen)
ground cinnamon

  1. Cook the pitted dates over medium heat in a little water in a medium saucepan, stirring frequently. When dates have a fairly smooth consistency, cool, then stir in a splash of spiced rum and a little ground cinnamon and ground ginger (to taste), and chopped walnuts. Set aside filling mixture to continue to cool. (You can make this ahead and refrigerate for a couple days until you're ready to make the cookies.)
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. In large bowl, cream the butter with the sugars.
  4. Add the beaten eggs and mix well.
  5. Add the hot water and vanilla.
  6. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients (flour, salt, and soda).
  7. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir well.
  8. Prepare a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  9. Remove dough by the teaspoonful from the bowl, and gently roll into small balls in your hand, placing on cookie sheet with plenty of space (about an inch or so) between the balls.
  10. When you have filled the sheet with cookie dough balls, wash your hands, and using a clean, wet finger, make a small depression in each ball. It's okay if the ball gets a little flattened in the process.
  11. Fill each depression with a small amount of date filling.
  12. Take a walnut half (or large piece of walnut) and press into the date filling in the center of each cookie dough ball. Finish by dusting lightly with ground cinnamon.
  13. Bake for approximately 13 minutes, or until cookies are firm and golden.
  14. Cool for a minute on the cookie sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
This recipe seems to make about 2-3 dozen cookies (depending on their size). The cookies are nicely symmetrical and would be pretty on a holiday cookie & candy plate.
Variations: consider adding raisins, chocolate chips, or shredded coconut to the mixture.