I seem to have had a long affinity with strawberry jam. As a child, I had a terrible speech impediment – not only was I late to speaking but, when I did start, most of my words were unintelligible at worst and laughable at best. I am still reminded by my family that as a child I would ask for “boodible orbidy dam”. The inability to say “s” and “t” meant that was the best I could do with “beautiful strawberry jam”. I take great comfort in the fact that from a young age I was using positive descriptors for food, even if they were a little mangled.
Slide on a few years and I had gone from eating strawberry jam to making it. First, I think it is imperative to point out that homemade jam is a far cry from commercial jam. For a start the ratio of fruit to sugar is often better, and there are no setters or fillers. Homemade jam spreads better. Jam should spread, not be a solid entity that needs to be levered out of the jar. It should slide over buttered toast, spread neatly over layers of sponge and ooze out of doughnuts.
My jam making has not always been without issue, however. A bit like my initial attempts at communication, my early efforts needed a little understanding. I should have started with something foolproof, such as raspberry jam, but no, the first jam I ever made was strawberry.
And my first attempts were very, very spreadable. In fact, my jam did not set at all.
This was because I didn’t have a grasp on the role of pectin. This description puts it in a nutshell: “In nature, it functions as the structural ‘cement’ that helps hold cell walls together. In solution, pectin has the ability to form a mesh that traps liquid, sets as it cools, and, in the case of jam, cradles suspended pieces of fruit. Pectin needs partners, namely acid and sugar, to do the job of gelling properly.” I discovered that strawberries are a fruit very low in pectin, and they need a lot of lemon juice and often a little sachet of jam setter for better results.
These days I rarely make straight strawberry jam. Instead, I tend to add equal parts of rhubarb to the mix. I now find strawberry jam more overwhelmingly sweet than “boodible” and enjoy the acidity the rhubarb brings. It also tends to set better. But fear not, if your first attempts are a little runny, fold the jam through ice-cream as a ripple or use it in slices that require jam.
Strawberry and rhubarb jam
– 500g ripe strawberries
– 500g rhubarb stalks, ends trimmed
– 1 lemon, juiced
– 1kg sugar
Hull the strawberries and cut in half if large. Wash and cut the trimmed rhubarb into one-centimetre pieces. Place the strawberries and the rhubarb in a wide-mouthed pot with the lemon juice.
Heat gently until the fruit is loosened and comes to the boil. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the jam reaches 104ºC or setting point. This can be checked by placing a small amount on a chilled saucer, letting it cool for a moment and then running a finger through to see if it “puckers”.
Pour the jam into sterilised jars.
– 10g instant yeast
– 40g castor sugar
– 250ml full cream milk, warmed to blood temperature
– 500g plain flour
– 7g fine sea salt
– 2 large eggs
– 60g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
– extra white sugar for rolling
Place the yeast and sugar in a bowl and add the milk. Stir and leave to rest for five minutes.
Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the eggs to the milk mix and then mix this into the flour. If using a stand mixer, use the paddle. Once combined start adding the butter little by little. Once it is all added, give the mixture a really good knead. Place the ball of dough in a clean bowl, cover, and leave in a warm spot to prove until doubled in size (about an hour).
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently fold it onto itself. Form into a sausage and cut into pieces about 60 grams each. Roll the pieces into balls and place on a greased tray. When all the dough is rolled, cover the tray with a floured tea towel and allow to prove until doubled in size (about 30 minutes).
While the dough is proving, preheat a deep-fryer to 180ºC. When the doughnuts have risen fry batches for four minutes, turn and fry for a further three minutes. Remove and drain. Roll in white sugar, then break into each doughnut and spoon in some jam.
(If you don’t want fried doughnuts, the balls of the dough can be baked in an oven preheated to 200ºC for 10-15 minutes and treated as cream buns at the end.)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Jam sessions". Subscribe here.