Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam. I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them. I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.
There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.
We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something: The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.
But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.
Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!) All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.
“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.
It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone. I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.
“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”
Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.
It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.
That, my dear readers, is little old me.
I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.
Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore. Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.
Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.
It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade. It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.
I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.
Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.
I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.
Did I know?
Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times. I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I developed a brilliant sleight of hand. I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it, separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz. of readied product in just under an hour.
I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.
Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.
My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies
Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.
3 1/2 lbs pitted damson
5 cups granulated white sugar
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest
1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.
Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.
Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min.
Plum Easy Cake
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums
¼ granulated sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.
Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.
In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.
Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.
Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.
Serve warm or at room temperature.