Mulled Pears

Mulled pears...

Last year when I was making cider, you couldn’t move in the orchard without crushing pears with each footstep. Not so this year, with hardly any fruit on the trees, so when I found some pears I grabbed them with both hands. Rather than using the paltry amount to boost the perceived sweetness of my cider, I decided to try mulling them, using the instructions in Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2.

I appeared to have collected two different varietals of pear, so decided to make two batches, one with each. The first batch was the step into the unknown, do I quarter or just half these small pears, how many cloves to stuff into each one, how full do I fill the kilner jar with syrup, the usual kind of stuff. As it turned out, the process was quite simple, although I ballsed it up at the end by inverting one of the Kilner jars when it had just come out of the oven.

I didn’t know that Kilner jars allowed the steam to escape, even when closed, so imagine my surprise to find a load of boiling syrup ejected round the seal when I turned the jar the right way round again. Unsurprisingly, this jar didn’t seal. It also didn’t seal when I tried to reprocess it in the oven the following day. So it’s currently in the fridge and the kids and I are enjoying eating the contents.

I thought the second batch would go slightly smoother, especially as I now know why you don’t touch a newly sealed Kilner jar. The second batch of pears were slightly bigger though, so even with them all being quartered, it was quite a tight fit to get them all in the two jars. Because of this, I’m not sure I managed to get all the air pockets out when add the the syrup, so when they cooled, the level of syrup was far, far too low. Also, one of the jar again failed to seal. So both of those will be reprocessed after having some light sugar syrup added to them.

Apple, Pear and Ginger Mincemeat

Apple, Pear and Ginger Mincemeat

I decided that we didn’t have enough mincemeat to make it through the Christmas period. As we had some pears left over, I decided to use them to make Apple, Pear and Ginger Mincemeat.

The recipe for this was in the variations section, at the bottom of the page detailing the Plum and Russet Mincemeat recipe in Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2. The method for producing it was exactly the same, so I wont go into details of that, just a couple of things.

I didn’t have any crystallised stem ginger to hand, just a jar of Chinese stem ginger in syrup, so I used that. I also didn’t bake it for quite as long, about half an hour less and I remembered to add the brandy. It did froth and steam at bit when I added it, as per the recipe, which leaves me wondering if all the alcohol was burnt off or not. It’s supposed to be required to aid in the preserving, so you’d hope some of it survived.

Sloe Jelly

Sloe jelly boiling away...

You can do more with the humble sloe than use it to flavour gin. As there was such a glut of them this year, I decided to have a bash at making some sloe jelly.

I ended up making two batches, I didn’t feel the first was particularly good, but the second seemed to turn out much better. The first batch barely set, even though it was easily past setting temperature and took on a sort of gelatinous quality. The second batch was more straight forward and set like most of my hedgerow jellies do and wasn’t in the least bit gelatinous. Sloe jelly on toast... I’m not sure what I did differently between the two, maybe I boiled the second one a bit harder and for longer, but they both passed the various setting tests that I used.

I think the thing I noticed most while making both batches, was the colour. It was mega, a really intense deep purpley red and it looked like the contents of some sort of witches cauldron while it was boiling away. Taste wise, you could tell it was made from sloes, it had a touch of that mouth drying thing they do. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad a sucking on one straight off the bush, but it was there and made for an interesting taste experience. I think if you cut down on the sugar a bit more, it would be even more intense, which is maybe something to try next year.

Quince Cheese

Putting the softened quince through a sieve...

I attempted quince cheese last year, but it turned out more like quince concrete, as I massively over cooked it. I had to have another attempt, as I’m sure that if such a place as paradise actually existed, it would smell of ripe quince.

When I attempted to make quince cheese last year, I ran into the same problem that befell the green tomato chutney. I was so focused on following the recipe instructions that common sense went out the window. Since I couldn’t see the base of the pan for a couple of seconds after drawing a spoon through it, I kept on cooking and cooking and cooking. When I finally gave up cooking it, I stupidly put it into jars, rather than into a loaf tin. It set so hard, that it was impossible to get out, and the entire batch, jars and all, ended up in the bin.

Chopped quince, ready for softening...I was determined not to make the same mistake this year, but to just use my judgement about when it was ready. I also decided to forgo the jars and put it all into loaf tins, mainly so that if I did over cook it, we’d at least be able to turn it into a sweetmeat; cubed and rolled in icing sugar to turn it into a quince Turkish delight kind of thing.

My main issue this year though, was getting hold of some quince. My source of quince last year has moved house and since she got them from her old neighbour, I figured I wouldn’t be getting any. Luckily for me, my boss at work has a mature quince tree in his garden, so after a quick pretty please, I was handed bag, after bag, after bag. The kitchen has smelt amazing all Autumn.

Heating the pulp before adding the sugar...Quince are quite hard and I find that if I use any of my Global knives to chop them, I get blisters on my index finger. I totally forgot to bandage it up, so naturally I got a big blister. I’m not sure what it is about the knives, but my right index finger does suffer if I have to do a lot of chopping, or chop something hard. One day I’ll invest in some really posh knives, but I have the nagging feeling it’s more a problem of my crappy skin, than the knives.

In a similar fashion to last year, the chopped quince were simmered till soft and then left to sit for a few hours to extract the flavour. After that, the real ball ache of the whole operation commenced, putting the softened quince through a sieve. I really, really need to invest in a mouli, as putting two kilos of softened quince through a sieve is soul, arm and sieve destroying.

Reduced and almost ready...I brought the resultant paste up to boiling point and instantly regretted it, as it turned into a pot of hissing and spitting lava. I quickly took it off the heat and added all the sugar, before putting it back onto a heat that was just short of it spitting everywhere. I tried not to stir it too much, but it does have a tendency to catch on the bottom of the pan, so it did get stood next to and stirred occasionally.

So the big question was, when is it done? I knew I wasn’t going to cook it for as long as last year, but when should I stop, I didn’t want it to be too jelly like, firm, with just a bit of wiggle was the aim. I’ve seen quince paste for sale in Gog Magog Farm Shop before and I’ve been bought some quince cheese in a jar, so I knew roughly what the colour and texture should be like. So after some length of cooking, I didn’t note exactly how long, I decided it looked about right and took it off the heat.

Left to set... As I mentioned earlier, I’d decided not to put it into jars this year, just in case, so the whole lot went into a couple of greaseproof paper lined loaf tins. There was so much, there wasn’t a lot of room to spare. I let it set overnight, then chopped it up into slices, wrapped each slice in it’s own bit of greaseproof and wrapped them all in cling film and put them in the fridge. Next year, I might do a loaf tin and some jars, as the jars would be ideal to give away.

It would appear to have gone down well with the rest of the family. I asked my daughter what her favorite cheese was the other day and she replied quince cheese. My wife has also been scoffing it most lunchtimes and has even made her own batch with some of the quince we had left over. A definite winner!

Sloe Gin and Damson Gin

Sloe Gin and Damson Gin

There appears to be the same number of ways of making Sloe Gin, as there are people making it. It certainly seems to be one of those things where pretty much anything goes, with most instructions featuring a healthy dose of myth and nonsense.

I thought about making some last year, and even collected some sloes, but just never quite got round to buying any gin. I’d chatted extensively with Ed from the Bacchanalia, about what gin to use and we came to the conclusion that it should be Tanqueray London Dry, which just so happens to be what my father in law uses.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t justify the cost of a couple of bottles of Tanqueray, when I could get a 1.5 litre bottle of Sainsbury’s own label for less money. Sainsbury’s appear to do four different types of gin, Basics (£10 for 70cl), Dry London Gin (clear bottle, £11.50 for 70cl or £22.50 for 1.5L), Green bottle Dry London Gin (£14 for 70cl) and finally Taste the Difference (£16.50 for 70cl), but the clear bottle Dry London Gin was the only one in the large 1.5 Litre size. To be honest though, I could have gone to Aldi and bought a couple of bottles of their Silver Medal winning gin for even less, which I may do next year.

Getting ready to introduce the sloes to the gin...Sloes aren’t the only thing you can soak in your gin and since I’ve never done this before, I quite fancied making a Damson Gin too. I can get tons of sloes locally, but I was a bit stuck for damsons, until I noticed some while out scrumping. I think I’d left it a bit late, as there was only a few left on the tree and I wasn’t sure they’d be enough.

Fully prepared with sloes, damsons and a big bottle of gin, I decided that rather than chucking everything together with a load of sugar, I’d try and be a bit more scientific. Mainly as that’s how I am, but also so, if it’s any good, I’ll be wanting to try and reproduce it next year. So the first thing I did was pop the sloes and damsons into the freezer for a couple of days.

There are so many conflicting instructions about how to make your sloe or damson gin on the internet. Plus myths like having to wait for the first frost before picking the fruit, or having to pricking each berry with a fork or pin, are repeated everywhere. If you wait for the first frost, the chances are the birds will have already eaten most of the sloes and there certainly won’t be any damsons left.

The whole reasons for the first frost thing, is so that the fruit has frozen and then thawed. This has the effect of breaking down the cell walls of the flesh and splitting the outer skin, which can be replicated very easily by popping the fruit into your freezer for a couple of days. You should pick your fruit when it’s ripe, not when the weather randomly decides to provide you with a freezing cold night.

The whole freezing thing means that you don’t have to do the pricking thing either. I honestly couldn’t imagine having to prick each individual sloe with a fork, pin or spike from a Blackthorn bush; it would be beyond tedious.

Colouring up nicely...Most recipes online just say, fill the jar half full, which is a total cop out. One persons half full, it anothers three fifths and what not, so I decided to weigh mine. I’d bought a couple of 1 litre Kilner jars and filled each roughly half way, then emptied the fruit out and weighed it. The half a jar of frozen sloes weighed 350g, while the damsons weighed 365g. This means that if I’m not happy with the intensity of the fruit flavour, I can either use slightly more, or less fruit and know that from weight, rather than from trying to remember what a roughly half filled jar looks like.

The final issue is how much sugar to add. Fruit is a seasonal thing and thus various from season to season, which means that the sugar content of sloes and damsons will be slightly different each year. Why would you then add exactly the same amount of sugar each year? You may need more or less than previous years, depending on what this years crop of fruit is like. So I’m with Sipsmith on this one, leave the sugar out, until you come to bottle it up, then you can add exactly the right amount, so I didn’t add any.

I managed to fit in 700ml of gin to each Kilner jar, with not a lot of head space left over. I gave it a shake a couple of times a day for the first few days and now it get shaken when I remember. It took a few days for the colour to start to change, but as you can see from the photo, they’ve both taken on a lovely reddish hue.

Even though I’m not a gin drinker, I’m really quite looking forward to trying these. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to age them, as evidently it’s supposed to get better after a few years. I’ll update the blog once I’ve added the sugar.

Rowanberry Jelly

Rowanberry jelly on toast.

Is it Rowanberry or Rowan Berry? Either Way, they make a gorgeous jelly, which is quite possibly my favorite of the Autumnal preserves that I make.

I made my first batch about three years ago, but there were so few berries left on the tree in the front garden, that it only made three 227g jars. Each year since, I managed to make a bit more, but I’ve always had to mix the red and yellow berries that our tree produces, to make the weight up. This year was different though, as the tree, or trees, as there must be two coming out the ground at the same point to get two different berries, was absolutely dripping with them. I popped out one evening and picked in the region of 5Kg, without having to get my ladder out to reach those higher up in the tree. This meant that for the first time, I had enough berries to make a batch solely from each of the red and yellow berries.

As I’d picked more yellow berries than red, I decided to start off with a batch of those. I was pleasantly surprised to find it passing the crinkle test at the first time of asking; it felt like I’d only been boiling it for about five minutes. So obviously this meant it was slightly overdone and set pretty hard; not quite as hard as the first ever batch I ever made, but hard enough to not really wobble. Batches 1, 2 & 3... I wasn’t overly impressed with the colour either, I thought it wasn’t quite what it should have been.

The next two batches, one of just red berries and another of just yellow berries, passed without incident. Both took about the expected time to reach setting point and had a nice wobble about them. The colour of each wasn’t bad either, especially when held up to a bright light; really showing off the colour of the berries used nicely. I’m quite looking forward to trying them all, to see what the difference is, if any, between the red and yellow berries.

Homemade Tomato Ketchup

Two batches on the go...

After chutney, the next logical thing to do with a load of tomatoes, is to make homemade tomato ketchup. As some of the green tomatoes had ripened in storage, I decided to do two batches, one with the now ripe tomatoes and one with the still unripe, green tomatoes.

The recipe came from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie at Home and is pretty simple; chuck everything into a pan, cook, blitz, add the vinegar and sugar, reduce further, bottle. It’s pretty simple stuff.

A hissing, spitting pan of molten ketchup...I was hoping that the green tomatoes would result in a green coloured ketchup, but alas, it’s turned out beige. Yes, beige ketchup. I’m not really sure what to make of that and I think it might have a bit of an image problem with the rest of the family, even though it tastes great. The ripe tomatoes have resulted in a ketchup that isn’t quite red either, it’s more of a pasta sauce orange, but again it’s really tasty.

We had some friends round one day the other week after school and as we’d run out of normal ketchup, my wife fed the four kids mine. One thought it was the best thing ever, another liked it, but two though it was minging. Since it was the older two who liked it, I’m putting it down to age, younger kids might not like the sweet and sour nature of it. I like it, even though it’s nothing like the shop bought stuff.

Ripe and unripe tomato ketchups...The only thing I’d add to the recipe though, is when it says reduce by half in the first part where you’re softening all the veg. Really reduce it at this point, as once you’ve blitzed it all to a purée and added the vinegar and sugar, it’ll hiss and spit something terrible as you reduce it to the consistency you want. So you really want it to be near the final volume, so you don’t get third degree burns from the molten hot contents of your pan.

Finally, like most things, once you’ve opened it and stored it in the fridge, it’ll thicken up. So unless you’ve used wide necked ketchup jars, you may struggle to get it out. I used old passata jars and they’ve worked well so far. If I’d made it any thicker, I would have been tempted to put it in normal jam jars, so I could spoon it out.

Green Tomato Chutney

Bread, cheddar and chutney...

I grew twenty four tomato plants this year, hoping for a bumper crop with which to make roasted tomato passata. Only four tomatoes ripened on the plants, which left me with an absolute glut of unripe green ones, which meant only one thing, lots of green tomato chutney.

I made some last year, following the recipe in the River Cottage Preserves Handbook and while it wasn’t a complete disaster, I was so focused on following the recipe that I over cooked it badly. This is the bit that I came unstuck over:

It is thick enough if, when you draw a wooden spoon through it, the chutney parts to reveal the base of the pan for a few seconds.

It took over four hours of cooking to get it anywhere near to this point, by which time it was just a thick dark brown paste; not really what you’re looking for in a chutney. This year I decided to go with the:

Let the mixture simmer, uncovered, for two and a half, to three hours — maybe even a bit more.

As a reference, rather than the being able to see the bottom of the pan. Green tomatoes... In the end I made three different batches, which I cooked for different lengths of time. It was interesting to see the difference only fifteen extra or fewer minutes cooking made to the final amount and how it looked.

Making chutney is a pretty simple process, chop up a load of veg, mix with some dried fruit, sugar, vinegar and a spice bag, then cook. The art would appear to be in selecting the fruit and veg to use and manipulating the spice bag to suit. It’s one of those things you can make at practically anytime of year, with whatever you have a load of. While I quite fancy trying Gingered Rhubarb and Fig, wrong time of year; or Pumpkin and Quince, right time of year; with so many green tomatoes and courgettes/marrows, there really was only one choice.

At the start of cooking...The problem I have with this kind of recipe, is that one mans simmer, is another mans boil. How hard am I suppose to simmer it…? Just a bit of a blip every now and again, or just short of an all out boil? This kind of thing really makes a difference with the cooking times, as not one of the three batches was anywhere near ready after two and a half hours, so does this mean I wasn’t cooking it hard enough? Any harder and I’d have been burning it to the bottom of the pan, which very nearly happened with the second batch anyway, as I wasn’t concentrating.

Given the above, I cooked all three batches on the same setting on the hob, just with fifteen minutes difference between each of them. So the first batch was cooked for three hours, the second batch for three and a half and the final batch for three and a quarter. In retrospect, I didn’t think that the first batch had been cooked for long enough. It wasn’t dark enough in colour and it was a bit watery. After two hours of blipping... The second batch I felt was maybe a touch over, while it still had good colour and clearly identifiable chunks in it, I just felt that the optimal was slightly less. Hence splitting the difference with the third and final batch.

I’ve no idea what the second and third batches taste like, as there was none left over after potting up. The first batch made five big jars (454g or 1lb if you prefer), one small jar (227g or 8oz), with a bit left over in a ramekin. The second batch made four and a half jars exactly, while the third batch made five jars exactly. So for each fifteen minutes, I was losing about a 227g jar’s worth of chutney. As the recipe says it makes ten to eleven 340g jars, there is obviously a bit of a mismatch between it and my experience. As five 454g jars (2,270g) is way short in volume terms, of ten 340g jars (3,400g).

The only thing I can think of, that could possibly be causing the mismatch, is the pan I use. As much as I want one, I don’t own a jelly pan, so make do with my five litre stock pot. From the left, batch 1, 2 and 3... As a jelly pan is purpose built to aid evaporation with its sloping sides, I can only think that using the stock pot requires more time, as the straight sides inhibit evaporation. Maybe I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and buy a proper jelly pan for next year; I already have it on a list of things I’d like to buy, along with a tamis, tart rings, dariole moulds and a larger jelly bag setup.

I had some of last years chutney at lunch yesterday and know that all three of these batches are better. So while I know that I’ll be giving away most of the sixteen jars that I’ve produced, I’m really quite looking forward to cracking into whatever I keep in a few months time.

Plum and Russet Mincemeat

Plums softening in orange juice...

When we made mince pies last Christmas, I wanted to make some Plum and Russet Mincemeat, but I didn’t realise that it’s suppose to mature for a couple of months. When we were offered some plums and apples last month by a friend, I knew exactly what to use them for.

While the apples we were given weren’t russets, I didn’t think it would make that much difference, so didn’t bother trying to hunt some down. We also hummed and hawed about buying ginger wine and brandy, as neither is something that we have in the house. Plum and (not) Russet Mincemeat melding overnight... In the end we decided to buy both, as if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it properly.

You start by softening the halved plums in orange juice, before either blending the lot, or passing it through a sieve. As I have a Vitamix though, I wasn’t going to bother with the arm ache of passing it all though a sieve. The recipe says that you should end up with around 700ml of purée, I got waaaaaaaay more than that, so I’m not sure if my plums were extra juice or not. I added a bit of icing sugar to the remaining purée to turn it into a kind of plum coulis, it went quite nicely with some apple and bramble crumble.

Once you have your purée, you add everything else to it, bar the brandy and leave it overnight to meld. The following day, it’s into the oven to bake for two to two and a half hours. I decided to go for the full two and a half hours, I can’t remember why now, but I should only have baked it for two, as it was a bit too reduced and cooked for my liking. Plum and (not) Russet Mincemeat after being baked in the oven for too long... All that was left to do was add the brandy and pot it up, so I totally forgot about the brandy and shoveled it into recycled pasata jars and left it too cool.

I have no idea why I forgot the brandy, but as the alcohol is required as part of the preserving process and the fact that I actually went to the trouble of buying some, I’m quite annoyed with myself. Only time will tell if this was a fatal mistake or not. Only time will tell if using pasata jars was the right thing too, as I have not idea how I’m going to get all the mincemeat out of those when the time comes. I might have to buy a really long handled teaspoon or something; I’m not sure what I was thinking when I pulled those from the cupboard.

Jam Jars

Jam jars, only 22p each...

Don’t buy empty jam jars.

There’s one perennial problem I have with making preserves, I never seem to have enough jars. I save all the jam jars we use, the pesto jars and all the passata and vinegar bottles, but even so, I never have enough. I could go into Lakeland and spend a tenner on 12 jars and lids, or I could buy 56 via Amazon and I could even run the gauntlet of eBay and buy 112 jars and lids; these would work out at about 96p, 52p and 44p each respectively.

It was while searching online to try and find the cheapest, that I stumbled upon a thread one of the money saving forums. This reminded me that it is in fact, cheaper to pop into your local supermarket and buy some of their value jam and ditch the contents. So in my lunch break, I popped into Tesco and had a look. Everyday Value Jam was 29p a jar, Everyday Value Marmalade was 27p and Everyday Value Lemon Curd a miserly 22p; it’s just a shame they changed from a white lid to that luminous orange.

I’m sure that if I really tried, I could find some jam jars that are even cheaper; Asda, Aldi, or somewhere like that is bound to do a really cheap jam, chutney or mincemeat. So the only problem I have now, is figuring out what to do with all this lemon curd, as putting it in the bin seems like a bit of a waste!

Update:

It turns out that Asda and Sainsbury’s both sell jars of basic jams, marmalade and lemon curd for the same price as Tesco. I can’t remember what colour the lids are in Asda, but the Sainsbury’s lemon curd jars have white lids, so might be preferable to the Tesco ones, if the fluro orange bothers you.

Update:

I happened to pop into a local Aldi the other week, just for research purposes, it happens to be next to the swimming pool where the kids have swimming lessons. They also have jam and marmalade at the same price as everyone else, but they didn’t have any cheap lemon curd. So you’re better off going to one of the bigger chains for your cheap jars.