All about eggs

It wasn’t until I was 18 and had declared myself a vegetarian that I learned to love eggs. They were cheap and they were easy. Besides, my mother had gifted me a handy little omelette pan with a Teflon surface and a hinge down the middle. With a little butter, a bowlful of beaten eggs and some grated cheddar, I became a master omelette maker.  You couldn’t really screw up.  I’d cook both sides of the pan until the eggs set, grab the handle and flip right over left to create a covered semi-circle pan with a perfect omelette hidden inside. Voila!

Once I moved to a real omelette pan, without the help of my hinged pan crutch, I discovered the complexity of omelette making. It was the fillings and my overwhelming greed for them, that was my ruin. The more onions, bacon, sausage, veggies and cheese I piled inside, the harder it became to make The Flip.

IMG_2092Truth be told, my problem was the eggs.  I really didn’t like them plain. If I’d practiced with a bowlful of very frothy, very beaten eggs, and had let them slide into a buttery, perfectly heated cast iron pan, they might have had a chance. They just needed time and singularity, so their eggy selves could focus on setting rather than accommodating all those interlopers.

But no.  I wasn’t liking that.

So I moved on to the frittata, which requires no flip and invites a lot of flavour pairings. Tomatoes, basil and goat cheese. Onions, potatoes and gruyere.  Spinach and feta.  Chorizo, sage and fingerling potatoes. The list is endless.  But still, we’re talking eggs which are either perfectly cooked or instantly ruined. The time between the two is a millisecond. I’ve made many a loaded frittata enwrapped in dry, rubbery, unappealing eggs. Ick.

IMG_2088So I moved over to poaching. Again, I was saved by a gizmo.  This time it was my grandmother Nonnie’s poaching pan, a lovely deep, copper bottom saucepan fitted with a rack in which four egg saucers nestle inside.  One fills the pan with water, covers with the egg rack and follows with a lid. Once the water comes to a boil, the hot little saucers are ready to be buttered and loaded with a freshly cracked egg.

Sensible cooks turn off the heat to manage this feat, but I preferred to dab a bit of butter inside each poaching, steaming cup, pick it up and swirl. I’d burnt my fingers doing this for serial years, swearing profuse profanities, believing all short order cookers made similar sacrifices.

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

Then a plumber set me straight.

He had just repaired a toilet upstairs and was passing through my kitchen during a particularly raucous swearing and poaching event. He shook his head and asked,  “You don’t like to use a fork, huh?”

I shot him such a mean look of incomprehension, I’m not sure why he bothered… but he did.

“Here’s how ya do it,” he said, taking a fork and placing the middle two tines into the slot above each flat lifting surface. Woa, the fork became a handle. This mechanical feature had eluded me my entire poaching career with this pan!

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

“I like my  yolks well done,” he said as he waved the hot poaching cup perilously close   to my face.

I, too, used to like my yolks dry and thoroughly cooked, encased by a jiggly, gelatinous white. But real egg lovers like their yolks runny, seduced by that golden, buttery elixir as it spreads over toast, rice or potatoes.

Thus, the hash.  Nick told me about his recipe the other day. It’s a hearty start to the day and makes great leftovers.  Besides, the pan is loaded with everything but eggs until the last five minutes.  Nick’s Hash needs a big, oven-safe skillet to take on all the ingredients. It must include potatoes to get dubbed a hash and doesn’t have to rely on sausage, bacon or ham. Plus, it stars black beans which call out for other southwest flavours like hot peppers, cilantro and even avocado.

Best of all, the egg cooking portion is a no-brainer. Make room in this hash for eggs by making little wells that can contain their roundness but are forgiving if it’s a bad break.  The eggs will commence cooking the minute they nestle into their wells but they will all come to the finish line at the same time thanks to your preheated oven. Just three to five minutes at 400 F promotes even egg cooking as the cheese bubbles up and turns golden brown.  Because it’s not all about the eggs, is it?

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Nick's Hash

It’s always a challenge to cook eggs for a crowd. Here’s a filling take on brunch that’s easy to assemble and finish in the oven. Sliced avocados are nice on the side.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 roasted Yukon gold organic potatoes, skins on, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

10 grape tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp each ground roasted cumin, smoked paprika

1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar

2 cups black beans

4-6 eggs

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh coriander, finely chopped

Avocado, sliced or cubed

Preheat oven 400 F.

In a cast iron or oven-safe skillet heat oil, sauté onions, bell pepper, potatoes, jalapeno, cumin and smoked paprika for 5 min. or until potatoes are browned. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomato juices release. Turn off heat. Distribute  cheese and black beans evenly over the surface. With a spoon, create a well for eggs and crack them in. Bake in oven for 5 minutes or until eggs have set.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve garnished with fresh coriander and sliced avocado.

Heavenly Thai lamb curry

There are certain foods that just have to be cooked in coconut milk and spiked with chillies.  Lamb is one of them.  It’s a meat that not every carnivore adores, but those who do, wax rhapsodic when imagining lamb braised slowly alongside coconut milk infused with Thai curry paste.  I choose a yellow oneIMG_6523 for this because it contains lamb-loving turmeric and other warm spices like cinnamon and cloves.  This is a curry that must include potatoes and I was happy to toss in three different organic varieties, starring a dark, red-skinned beauty with deep purple flesh. Lots of green herbs should swim through every Thai curry.  I always keep a stash of lime leaves in my freezer and wished I had fresh Thai basil to toss in, too.  I improvised with half a frozen cube of homemade basil pesto and was happy with the results.

I like to braise this curry slowly in my enamelled, cast iron Cuisinart Dutch oven with a IMG_6522layer of parchment paper tucked over the curry before it is lidded.  The parchment paper layer prevents any drop of fragrant moisture from leaving this slow-cooked beauty. Just before serving, I brighten these heavy flavours  with tamarind paste, fresh mint and coriander.  Cooking time varies depending on the cut of lamb and whether it contains bones or not. Don’t stop braising until the meat is fork tender.  Enjoy!

 

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Thai Lamb and Potato Yellow Curry

This is a rich and unctuous curry with lamb swimming in a turmeric-tinged sea of coconut milk and potato chunks.

2 tbsp canola oil

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red onion, chopped

1/4 cup Thai yellow curry paste

2 jalapeno peppers (seeds included) , chopped

2 lbs boneless lamb shoulder

1 can coconut milk

1 sprig fresh basil or 1 tbsp basil pesto, frozen

3 tbsp fish sauce

6 kaffir lime leaves

5-6 medium organic potatoes, red, yellow and purple, sliced in half, skin on

2 red bell peppers, sliced

¼ cup tamarind paste

¼ cup chopped mint

¼ cup chopped coriander

In a large dutch oven  heat oil on high. Cook garlic and onion 2-3 minutes or until softened, add curry paste and stir fry until oil starts to exude from the paste.  Add jalapenos and lamb and stir-fry until browned, add coconut milk, basil/pesto, fish sauce, and 6 kaffir lime leaves.  Bring to simmer.  Cover with parchment and lid and braise in 300 F oven for 1 hr, add potatoes and red bell peppers, cook another hour with parchment and lid or until meat is tender and juicy.

 

Bakers, get equipped!

Like any profession, bakers rely on good tools to get the job done right.

Oven: Choose electric over gas for reliable heat with less temperature fluctuation.

56002807935__20AF0A01-FB77-4879-BA5B-3C96AC0E91F6Dutch ovens or Lodge Pan combo cookers: When Jim Lahey of Sullivan St Bakery published his no knead bread recipe it was a revelation to the baking world. What, you don’t need to knead? But what you do need is the right pot for artisanal dough: one that is small enough to create its own steam at the beginning of the bake and is heavy-duty enough to retain really high heat. I love my Lodge combo cookers. You can’t beat the crust, crumb and lift of a loaf baked in a combo cooker. Put it in the oven, preheat to 500F and wait about 30 minutes before loading the dough into these cast iron cookers. They will be VERY hot and extra caution is needed when working with these pots. Most ovens can fit two combo cookers on a single rack at the bottom of the stove.  What makes a combo cooker perfect for baking bread is its shallow bottom and tall lid, making it easy to slide delicate risen dough on to its surface and a lid large enough to allow a full rise. My only complaint is that is does not accommodate large oval loaves.

Parchment paper: I started my bread career with pizza dough. Every cookbook and instructor called for cornmeal.  “Dust your bread paddle with ample cornmeal and that sticky dough will quickly slide off and into a hot oven” was the refrain. But it didn’t exactly slide and too often the cornmeal burnt in the oven and ruined the aroma and underside of the crust.

Enter parchment paper also called “bakers’ paper”.  Things don’t stick to it. I use a small amount to line a paddle or baking sheet and never experience the horror of dough not moving in one whole, shaped piece into the oven. I leave my loaves on parchment for the entire bake and it does not harm or affect the crust negatively.

img_6314.jpgBannetons and baker’s linen: Artisanal bread dough is risen in baskets to preserve the shape and to create a pretty swirling flour pattern on the finished crust. You plunk the shaped loaf in bottom-side-up, let it rise, then place a parchment-paper-lined paddle or rimless baking sheet over it and flip the loaf back over, right side up. I dust my bannetons liberally with rice flour which prevents sticking and also creates nice, white contrasting lines on the finished crust. I never wash my bannetons, because moisture encourages mildew. I use a natural bristle brush to clean the bannetons and store them in a dry, airy cupboard. Round bannetons should be no wider than eight to nine inches in diameter or your loaf will be too big for the combo cooker. Another option is baker’s linen liners that can be fit over medium sized bowls.

Shower caps: I used to put my rising banneton dough in closed plastic bags to prevent the dough from drying out until my friend Dushka suggested hotel shower caps. They fit snugly over the top of a banneton or linen-lined bowl and you can look inside to gauge the progress of your rise without having to take the shower cap off.  Brilliant! Never leave a hotel without taking one home.

IMG_6437Razor blades and lamés: Just before your risen dough goes into the oven, it is time to score. A score allows hot air to emit during the bake without tearing open the crust. Bakers traditionally scored loaves in distinct patterns but nowadays it has become an art. The angle and depth of a score will affect the final shape of the loaf. I like to hold a slightly curved sharp blade between my thumb and index finger but others like to use a handle for the razor called a lamé. A sharp, serrated knife can do the trick, too.

Oven gloves: While the underside of my arms are littered with burn scars, I actually use and highly recommend oven gloves.  Heavy duty, extra-long gloves are the best protectors but hard to find.

56071585550__DC3B82DE-6B7F-4052-B2F4-EF322A7717ECDigital scale: I cannot bake without a scale, I am so used to weighing versus measuring flour, starter and water.  You need a scale that can “tare” back to zero so that you can put an empty bowl on the scale, tare to zero, add a pound of flour and tare back to zero, add 8 ounces of water and tare back to zero and so on. Zyliss makes a light, flat scale about the size of an Ipad.

IMG_0312Just three ingredients: Flour, water and salt: Organic flour makes a big difference.  I buy unbleached organic hard white flour by the 10 kg bag and am happiest when it is locally milled and has a date stamp to guarantee freshness. Locally grown, freshly milled whole rye, kamut, spelt and red fife all make incredible sourdough bread.

IMG_6472Salt.  Avoid iodized salt and choose sea salt. I like the big bags of coarse grey French salt from Ile de Noirmoutier that I found at Thrifty’s.

Water.  If your local tap water tastes great, use it.  In Toronto I bake all my bread with spring water.

Creating steam: Professional bread ovens have built-in steam injection. Bakers want steam during the first 10 minutes of baking for good crust development. If your oven does not supply steam, you can supply it yourself with a spray bottle or ice cubes. Sprayed water may crack oven tiles or pizza stones. Ice cubes won’t.  Heat a small aluminum baking pan in the bottom of the stove and toss in two or three cubes after you load the dough into the oven.

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A marmalade is born

I was starting to lose hope that I’d ever make a good jelly. All those loose and liquid results with fresh-from-the-orchard plums and cherries were getting me down. That is, until the Pilates Girls started to talk about marmalade – in the heat of summer, no less.  They started to swoon over tales of Seville marmalade, rolling their eyes in ecstasy remembering every slurp and mouthful, every stolen spoonful.

IMG_6465So very British of them, I thought in disdain, but their marmalade reverie was so very infectious, slipping deep into my flavour brain.

I took another look at the big fragrant box of Sungold cherry tomatoes I had ripening in the cellar under layers of paper bags. I’d harvested them on the vine – neon green – a good month ago. Now, their colour was like a pale sunrise, a little yellow, a little orange. They just weren’t their seductive, deep pumpkin orange selves, so sweet-as-sin in the heat of summer.

IMG_5723Here they were, half-ripened in my dark, unfinished basement and I could not ignore them. Nor could I forget that bag of organic lemons I’d bought recently…

I scanned the internet and was smitten with the cinnamon and saffron one author had added to her ridiculously difficult and multi-stepped recipe.  I stole the flavour combination and started to pluck the green stem ends clinging to every SunGold.

I had to make this easy. I reached for my  heavy, turquoise Cuisinart enamelled cast-iron pot that has braised heavenly concoctions all spring and summer in my oven, closed shut with the extra guarantee of a sheet of parchment paper.

I sensed this beast was up for the task. No lid. It had one hell of a thick base and a wide rim perfect for boiling off fruit into gelled perfection.

IMG_6274I had three and a half pounds of SunGolds the size of marbles. They looked so dainty and pretty  as they tumbled into the pot alongside cups of sliced lemons. I cranked the gas up high. In just a minute, liquid started to form in the base. After a short, five minutes the mixture was sloshing about. I dumped in the organic sugar and all that fruity sweetness shimmered to a gloss.

Promising, dared I hope.

I brought it to a boil and the skins made an orange line around the perimeter. I stirred occasionally, not continuously, and it wasn’t sticking or burning to the bottom. It made quick work of the liquid, reducing it down by a third. The orange line was a full inch above the liquid’s surface and it thickened and hardened.  I slid a knife under it and realized the line had gelled.

At first my wooden spoon dripped like fast falling rain when I tipped a maiden spoonful out and over the surface.  But in 20 minutes it was starting to cling, clump and sheet. All the little drops left in my spoon-resting dish started to sparkle and reflect.

IMG_6469I ventured into this recipe carrying the baggage of a failed gel-maker. After the first ten minutes, I pulled out the Pomona’s Universal Pectin. I even filled a small bowl with sugar, ready to mix with the pectin powder to prevent that nasty clumping and frothing. I started to calculate, figuring this batch would need four teaspoons each of Pomona’s calcium water and pectin.

But just as carrying an umbrella stops the rain from falling, so did the appearance of that pectin box. It started up the natural gelling – instantly. Turning the spoon through this golden elixir took the push of oatmeal porridge. It was thick.  It would gel.

And, it smelt exotic. The earthy tomatoes had collapsed into skins swirling in a shiny syrup littered with tomato seeds. Lemon skins turned translucent, limping seductively on the spoon.  The cinnamon stick I’d cracked in half was swelling up like a wine cork. I waited for the final moment to gingerly tap the saffron bottle and let a few strands fall into the mixture to bleed their gorgeous tint. A marmalade was born.

Whether you pair this with cheese or slather on toast, this savoury-sweet marmalade will dance on your tongue. The lemon cuts the sweetness and the saffron slightly perfumes. A dollop on grilled fish offers delicious contrast and just a smidgen is the right condiment for dhal and rice.  With any luck and lots of gelling, this marmalade will make you swoon just like those Pilates Girls.

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SunGold Tomato Saffron Marmalade

  • Servings: 7.5 250 ml jars
  • Print

3 ½ lbs green sungold cherry tomatoes, ripened in basement in paper to a yellow-orange OR ripe red grape tomatoes

2 lbs organic lemons, seeded, quartered and sliced thinly

4 ½ cups organic white sugar

1 stick cinnamon, broken in half

Pinch saffron

In large, very wide and heavy enamelled caste iron pot heat tomatoes and lemons (without any liquid) until they sweat and emit liquid.  Add sugar and cinnamon and cook on high, stirring for 40 min.  Add saffron, check for gelling point. Process in sterilized jars with ¼ inch headspace for 10 minutes.

Time to get started. Sourdough!

I get asked about sourdough starters a lot and am happy to give some of my starter away to any aspiring baker. Often these people look really anxious when they take their baby starter away from my kitchen. They know this is a big step in their Bread Life and for many, a challenging one.

Not everyone is as obsessed with sourdough bread as I am. But I’m always willing to share my passion and grow more sourdough bakers.   IMG_4946

Last week it was my friend Alana from Food Bloggers Canada.  She asked for a starter recipe in a simple text and had no idea I would send back a two-page email.  But she’s going to give it a go and I hope you, dear reader, might try making your own starter, from ground zero, following these instructions.

Why have a starter? Well, without one you simply can’t make sourdough bread and  taste all of its deliciousness made with your own two hands. Like any living ingredient, if you starve or neglect it, it will die. It needs your nurturing to start your bread.

Why do you want to eat sourdough? Bread made slowly over the course of a few days has rich, layered flavours, tastes completely better than industrial, high-yeast, high-gluten bread and is often easier to digest.

If you follow my Instagram feed, you may want to bake sourdough because it’s such a looker  with its scored golden crust and large open crumb. But practice makes perfect.  I still get excited each and every time I open up my oven and see a well-risen loaf.  I still make mistakes, too. I love the mystery of bread-baking and its complexity. Good baked bread depends on many variables: timing, flour quality, temperature and the ripeness of your starter—to name a few.  The only way to get to know these principles is to dive in and flour up your hands.IMG_4302

Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipesis my bible. Here’s his five-day “liquid levain culture” – bakers’ speak for sourdough starter.  I recommend that you go the extra mile and stretch this out to an eight-day process for best results.  Once you have this basic culture or starter, you can keep it alive for many years… but not decades!

When I attended the San Francisco Baking Institute in 2015, master baker Didier Rosada laughed in disdain when I bragged about the number of years I’d kept my starter alive.  After attending the course, I made a new starter to replace my teenaged one and did not regret the flavour-filled results.  Now, three years later, it is time for me to start afresh again.

Before you make your initial starter mix, consider what time works best to refresh (a.k.a. nurture) morning and night.  I like the 7pm/7am time frame.

Day One: Initial Mix

4.8 oz              organic whole rye flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

.2 oz                honey

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 24 hrs. (This will look stiff and hard with very tiny bubbles on the underside after the first 12 hrs.)

Day Two: Two Feedings

5.5 oz              Initial mix (use half of Day One and throw out the remainder)

1.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

1.2 oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 90F spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. Yes, you will have to throw out half of each mixture when you refresh. (After each feeding, you will watch it transform and grow, doubling, even tripling in size and smelling very sour.)

Day Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven : Two Feedings per day, every 12 hrs

5.5 oz              Initial mix (half of your last batch, throwing out the remainder)

2.4  oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. This white starter will bubble up and grow faster every day and night and should be ready to bake with by Day Seven.

Okay, now you’ve got your starter, but how are you going to keep it alive?  You’ve got to feed it,   once a week. Here’s how:

3.5 oz initial mix/mature starter

3.5 oz organic, unbleached hard white flour

3.5 oz spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Refrigerate and refresh once a week.IMG_4753

How do serious bakers keep their sourdough starter alive?  They bake every day.  After they build a bread’s initial levain, they remove about an ounce and use that to start the next dough. All you need is an ounce or two to kick-start a bread! The most powerful, active and flavourful starters are those that are refreshed or used every day or two.

Before you get started, make sure you have a scale because serious bakers weigh all their ingredients. I like to use this Zyliss version found at Canadian Tire for $20 or less. You need a scale that can “tare”. That means you can put an empty bowl on the scale, reset to “O” (or tare) then weigh your rye flour, tare again to 0 then pour in and weigh the right amount of water. Tare away!

Local Sourdough

Whether you call it  Herd Rd Sourdough, Toronto Sourdough or Katmandu Sourdough,  its flavours and ingredients will entirely depend on where you bake it. (Adapted from page 153 of Bread: A baker’s book of technique and recipe)

Levain Build

4.8 oz              organic, unbleached, hard white flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

1.3 oz              ripe, mature starter (refreshed in the past 24 hrs)

Combine in a medium glass bowl 12-16 hrs before you make the final dough. Make sure the bowl is large enough for the levain to triple in size as it grows and bubbles up. Keep covered at room temperature. (I like to make this late at night, right before I fall asleep.)

Final Dough

1 lb 8 oz           organic, unbleached, hard white flour

3.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

14.8 oz            spring or distilled water

Levain Build minus 1.3 ounceto be reserved in fridge for tomorrow or the next day’s bread

Step one: Autolyse

Add all the final dough ingredients to the mixing bowl and mix on first speed until it forms a shaggy mass.  Cover with plastic and let stand 20-60 min.

Step two

Add .6 ounce/1 tbsp sea salt to the autolyzed dough and mix 1-2 minutes with a dough hook

Step three:  Bulk Fermentation at room temperatureIMG_3401

Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl or oiled tub and cover for 1 hr 15 min

Stretch and fold the dough four times, lifting the dough to its longest extension, folding and pressing it back down,  repeat three times, turning it by a quarter each time.

Cover and leave at room temp for 1 hr 15 min

Step four: Shape two loaves, place in well-floured bannetons and cover with shower caps.  Refrigerate 12-24 hrs. Gently flip each loaf on to a parchment paper-covered tray, score and slide into preheated  Lodge pans or Dutch ovens.  Bake covered at 500 F for 20 min, carefully remove lids, reduce heat to 460 F and bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.

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An ode to damson plums

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.

IMG_6115Tony 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.

IMG_6113Did 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.

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My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
  • Print

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. 

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Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

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.

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