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Dispelling jelly-readiness fears and promoting fruityliciousness, that's what I do

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When folks from the state Department of Agriculture approached me about taking a trip on the Jelly-Making Trails of Oklahoma, my answer was "no way in hell" but the words that came out of my mouth were, "sure that sounds great!"

It wasn't so much a knee-jerk "yes" triggered by the usual fear of displeasing someone. No, this "yes" was strictly out of guilt.

Not Catholic-school guilt, but guilt for not better serving readers. Any dude arrogant enough to write under the banner of a rhyming title had better be able to bring it. The column I write isn't called the (only the) Food (I prefer) Dude.

And canning, preserving, pickling and curing are skills that have loomed unmastered in my subconscious since I started this gig in late 2008.

Maybe I feared learning to make my own jelly would be an admission of my proximity to an AARP card. Maybe I feared making the worst jelly in the history of preserving fruit and/or vegetables in sugar and pectin in a glass jar, which is a really long history.

Maybe I really wasn't ready for this jelly.

But where this sudden courage came from, I don't know. I have no delusions about proving to Beyonce, face-to-face, how wrong she was about where I stood with this whole jelly thing. No, I just thought it was time pump up the jam (pump it up).

But I would have to start from scratch.

My earliest memories of canning and preserving had more to do with my mother’s fear of botulism. She grew up on a cotton farm in Crosby County, Texas, where raising five children through the Great Depression and World War II forced her mother to become an expert in the practice.I always enjoyed trips to my grandmother’s little house on the plains, where my sister Laurie would lead critter-hunting excursions and I first got behind the wheel of a car, at age 8, though seated in my father’s lap.

My grandparents lived in a patch on the plains where time stopped about 1960. All roads leading to the Jones farm were rutted dirt trails flanked by steep ditches where tumbleweeds and stray tufts of unrefined cotton sought respite from the relentless south wind.

At the end of a long, straight gravel driveway, rows of enormous junipers on either side, sat a little yellow house with a covered patio and a pair of towering spruces. By the time I came to McAdoo, Texas, grandmother no longer tended her own chickens, but she still gardened and canned.

Of the many mysterious places I liked to inspect at my grandparents home, my favorite was, of course, the pantry. Though the homes where I grew up dwarfed my mother's ancestral home, the pantry was a different story. This pantry was not only large enough to walk in and study the floor-to-ceiling shelves decked with jars of home-canned foods. As each meal wound down during the week or weekend we visited, grandmother carefully scraped the leftovers into containers to be repurposed in some fashion, usually Sunday Soup – a marriage of all the vegetable and protein scraps she’d collected throughout the visit. Sometimes grandmother stored these scraps in airtight jars she kept in the pantry, which triggered my mother’s phobia of botulism.

But then there were the preserves. My mother never feared those. She’d grown up eating homemade jams, jellies and preserves. She probably didn’t know you could buy them in the store until she was old enough to drive.

My mother’s passion for strawberry preserves shortened her life by a year. She had an uncanny ability to “sleepwalk” her way to a late-night feast of either cinnamon toast or leftover biscuits smeared with butter and preserves.

But she never learned to make them herself. Having grown up on such a meager farm, my mother spent her youth distancing herself from being “country.” As a Navy wife, she lived in globe-trotted from New Orleans to Trinidad to Washington D.C. to San Diego. She expended her energy trying to embrace a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. She was the inverse of Green Acres.

Even though she rejected the idea of doing her own canning and preserving, she never lost her passion for strawberry preserves, plum jelly, and chow chow thanks to her mother's ingenuity.

Her passion for those flavors was passed down to me and expanded to include the techniques and products from cultures around the world. In the race to learn to make kimchi and smoke-cure everything in sight (and the aforementioned irrational fears), jelly-making got pushed further down the list.

To take on the task, I turned to the folks at Ball, who have been making Mason jars since 1913. You can read more in the All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving as well as another great new book on the subject by blogger Rebecca Lindamood here.

Both books offer plenty of beginner-friendly recipes and techniques. The Ball book included some handy charts with tested recipes for virtually anything you might want to preserve. It also taught me the importance of acid to preserving and how to gauge whether or not a specific fruit or vegetable carries enough acid to reach a safe ph level and what to do if it didn't. We shared recipes from both books here.

Trust me, it sounds a little scarier than it actually is. Of course, I was working with freshly picked blackberries from Agape House Farm, which happens to be high-acid fruit that doesn't require supplement.

Then came the equipment. Regular canners/preservers can accumulate an impressive arsenal of tools and implements, but I only had to buy new lids because I had some good Mason jars. I did purchase a heat-proof basket the jars sat in during processing. This made removing the jars from the hot water bath extraordinarily easy.

For my first foray, I kept it pretty simple. I used four pounds of fresh blackberries, which are high enough in acid I didn't have to add any lemon juice to adjust the ph level. Agape House Farm supplied me with a mixture of four varieties or berries. I also used a wire-mesh sieve, some cheesecloth, two 16-ounce jars with new lids and plenty of guidance from the All-New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving, published by Oxmoor House (2016). Also, heat Mason jars in boiling water or the dish washer before filling with hot jelly. It's a precaution against cracking the jar.

All that was left was to choose a playlist to cover a couple hours and get cooking. (And, yes, Destiny's Child and Technotronic made the cut.)

 Oklahoma Blackberry Jelly

4 pounds blackberries

4 tablespoons pectin

3 1/3 cups sugar

Prepare the berries

Rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Working in batches, cover the bottom of a stainless steel bowl with berries and crush with a potato masher.  Repeat until all the berries are crushed.

Strain

Place a sieve over a bowl or stainless steel (or enameled) saucepan. Line the bottom of a wire-mesh sieve with two layers of damp cheesecloth then transfer the prepared berries into the sieve. Let the prepared berries strain until they yield 3 cups of juice. It took about two hours, but plan for up to four. Avoid pressing the berries, which can lead to a cloudy jelly.

Cook

Combine the fruit juice and pectin in stainless steel (or enameled) saucepan and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Stir in the sugar to dissolve. Return to a rolling boil and sustain for one minute while continuing to stir.

Skim

Remove the pan from heat and use spatula to skim the foam off the top and transfer liquid into heated jars, leaving a 1/4-inch head space.

Process

Screw lids on jars, finger-tight. Fill a large stockpot, at least halfway, with water and bring to a boil. Place jelly jars in a canning rack and drop into boiling water. If you don't have a canning rack, which is essentially a basket with a removable handle, put a rack in the bottom of the pot and use tongs and/or silicone oven mitts to place and remove the hot jars. Leave them in water at least 212 degrees for 10 minutes. Once the jars are removed and begin to cool, the vacuum-sealing process is completed.

Adapted by Dave Cathey from The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving (Oxmoor 2016).

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Dave Cathey

The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene. Read more ›

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