As March draws to a close, I start counting the weeks until the farmers market returns. (Ten, thanks.)
After a long winter rounded out by a handful of late snowstorms, I'm really looking forward to the first local salad of mixed greens, the first fresh asparagus, and the chance to restock my garlic stash. Along with the uninhibited indulgence of all those returning delights, I'll also start my annual round of food preservation: filling jars with pickles and jams, drying vegetables and fruits, and tucking bags of blanched produce into the freezer.
Until then, I have an even more daunting task ahead of me: cleaning out the pantry and the freezer to make room for this year's bounty. I never get everything fully cleaned out, of course, because some of those items won't be replenished until later in the summer, but I do need to make a serious dent in the baskets and shelves of jars.
Where to begin? I've opened up large portions of the freezer already, thanks to winter soups, stews, and curries. Almost all of my "cold storage" produce has been used up, save for the last garlic and one lonely sweet potato. I've even made good, steady progress at working through all the tomatoes and sauce I put up last August and September.
But the jars of jam... ah, now there's my weak spot. I happily put away several kinds of homemade jam, even after giving away many jars. And though you might think that a die-hard jam-maker wouldn't deign to stock up on anyone else's preserves, I found several intriguing varieties at the market this past year and simply couldn't resist tucking away the occasional jar of Niagara grape jelly or rose-hip jam.
So how on earth does someone blessed with a full pantry of homemade preserves make room for the next year's jars? It ain't easy...
Bread and bored
The most obvious way to use up jam, of course, is to pile it up on regular helpings of toast. Since I love to bake bread, you might think that would be a no-brainer for me, but I rarely remember to reach for the jam when I make toast — not to mention I rarely indulge in toast.
Instead, I try to remind myself to pull out the jam when I make pancakes. I'll skip pouring maple syrup on top of the cakes because I like to cover them with a tasty apple jam (almost like pie filling) from one of my favorite farmers or with one of my own berry jams. I can easily make pancakes for breakfast even on a work day, so this ends up being one of the most consistent ways for me to clean out jam jars.
On weekends, if I feel inspired to bake biscuits, I'll remind myself to pull out the jam jars then, too — maybe even a sampler of what's open so that each biscuit half gets a different flavor. Of course, that works better when you have company, so cleaning out your jam jars makes an excellent excuse for having a brunch for friends or family.
But all of those ideas only get me through just so many jam jars, and it takes ever so long to clean out a jar when you're only using a spoonful or two at a time.
That's when using jam in recipes comes in handy. Since jam is essentially fruit puree with sweetener, it can easily fit into baked goods that call for cooked fruit, applesauce, yogurt, sour cream, or other thick binding ingredients, and it can help you lower the amount of sweetener you add to the final product. It can take some tinkering to get the consistency right, as thick purees can make baked goods gummy if not balanced well by the dry ingredients, but you can usually find a basic recipe that can be modified without much difficulty.
For example, muffins with jam in the batter (recipe below) offer a simple way to use a small jar of jam in its entirety while giving you a hidden hit of fruit in your morning. And if, like me, you're usually too lazy to scoop batter into individual muffin cups, you can dump it all into a loaf pan and end up with a jam-sweetened quick bread. (Be careful, though. The larger pan used for quick bread may then affect your baking time. Quick breads tend to have the most problems with gumminess, I've found.)
If you'd rather have a definite taste and texture of jam in your baked goods, you might want to consider using it as a layer or a topping. (Think thumbprint cookies!) I often adapt my favorite date bar recipe to incorporate half a pint of jam, spooning it over the shortbread base and adding an oat crumb topping. The jam bar shown here used blueberry-peach jam, and with mini diced candied ginger in the shortbread base and in the topping, it produced a delicious taste of summer on a midwinter's day.
Jam can replace even whole fruit in such desserts as tarts. One summer I made a jam and cheese tart (recipe in the link) with a cream cheese filling, a layer of finely grated dark chocolate, and a layer of berry jam under a lattice top. A smaller version of these tarts (recipe included) could be made in mini muffin tins, or — if you have leftover tart or pie crust dough from another recipe — you could simply cut out squares of dough, drop a dollop of jam on top, fold or pinch the edges together, and end up with a messy but satisfying snack.
Because I tend to leave pectin out of my jam recipes, preferring a runny preserve that spreads more easily, I can also use them as sauces straight from the jar. (Jams and jellies containing pectin may need to be heated to become fluid enough to spread in a thin layer or to drizzle as sauce.) That means I can spoon a brightly fruity jam over such creamy, neutral-tasting desserts as pudding or custard, cheesecake, or even a dish of yogurt.
But why not go a step further and make a jam sauce serve as an interior layer to a more complex dessert? That was my thinking behind a recent creation of raspberry truffle squares (recipe included), where a half-pint of raspberry jam fit neatly between dark chocolate shortbread and brownie layers for a rich, crowd-pleasing treat.
And if you're really confident of your baking skills, a thin layer of jam sandwiched between cake layers and a creamy frosting adds an elegant touch. (I've seen and enjoyed this in the walnut torte served at the local Hungarian pastry shop, but I have yet to work up the courage to make such a cake myself.)
I haven't counted the number of jam jars remaining in my pantry at this point, but I'm sure there are still way more than I can use up before it's time to make more. I can't say that I don't have ways to deal with the surplus, though, given all the options outlined here, and some I haven't even tried yet.
And if all else fails and I turn desperate, my friends and family might end up getting jars of jam for their birthdays — because it's always good to have people you can rely on to get you out of a jam.
Jam and Streusel Muffins
Based on the sour cream muffin recipe found in "King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking"; you may want to vary the spices depending on the kind of jam you use. Makes 18 muffins.
2 c whole wheat pastry or spelt flour
1/2 c unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
4 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c sugar (I used cane juice crystals)
1/4 c maple sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 c strained plain yogurt
1 c peach jam
1/4 c chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 c maple sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease muffin tins and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar and maple sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and almond extract and beat well. Add yogurt, mixing until batter becomes creamy. Add dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just until incorporated. Add jam and stir until well distributed throughout the batter.
Combine nuts, maple sugar, and spices for streusel in small bowl. Add melted butter and mix with your (clean!) fingers for even distribution.
Scoop batter into prepared tins, filling cups only 3/4 full. Sprinkle streusel on top and press lightly into batter. Bake muffins for 20-23 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove tins from oven and set aside for 5 minutes before removing muffins to wire cooling rack.