Monday, 28 December 2009

Pop-top jars for jam and preserves (for Americans - 'canning')

Pop-top jars are great and I collect them wherever I find them.  As long as the lids are still in good shape they will reseal time and again.   They make the whole process of making jam and preserves relatively simple and hassle-free.  I do encourage readers to have a go using this method which I found far easier than others.  In this article I explain how the jars can be re-used.  In other articles I share all my recipes.  To find them refer to the index tags at the end of this article.  Once you get the hang of it you'll very likely wonder why you haven't been doing it for years!

This photograph shows a sample of what I've used pop top jars for:
Preserves: nectarines, apricots, apples, pears, black boy peaches and gooseberries.
Jam: plum, apricot and gooseberry; also red currant syrup.

Some years ago when I was first learning about jam and preserves I puzzled at length over what seemed like the complicated business of sterilizing boiling hot jars and fiddling about with various seals and bands.  I did my best but tied myself in knots in the process, got lots of sticky juice over most surfaces in the kitchen, and cracked more than one jar!  I got hot, bothered and rather cross.  I subsequently discovered that none of this was necessary.  Using pop-top jars makes the process easy.

This is an example of what the lids look like.  Note the raised dome in the middle of the lid.  If the dome is sucked down the jar is sealed; if the dome is raised the seal is broken.  If you're still not sure, push the dome down with your finger.  If it moves at all the jar isn't sealed.

I'll write about the process of preparing and cooking fruit and tomatoes elsewhere as the requirements vary from one sort to another.  In this item my focus is on the aspect to do with the jars and getting them to seal.  This process is the same for anything you want to seal in a glass jar.

If opened carefully pop-tops can be re-used many times, so you can gradually build up your own collection for free from any food you happen to buy which has this sort of lid.

If you get serious about it you'll need plenty: think how many pots of jam and tins of fruit you buy a week, then multiply it for the duration of a year and you'll find you'll have plenty of use for a large number!  And if, after all that, you're up to making pickles and relishes as well, you'll need even more!  So far I haven't been quite that energetic.  Even so, I have about 150 which isn't enough.

Most people don't know how to easily open these jars, which is the key to getting a good supply.  And most people who have ever saved them for me wreck the lids in the process - and in any case usually forget they said they would do so after about a week!  Take heart - here is how it can be done - easily.  I've included photographs so you can't be mistaken:
  • Firstly, you need a kitchen implement or any kind of metal tool which has a flat edge about a centimetre long such as you can see on the topmost edge of this tin opener.  Any shorter edge is unlikely to work.

  • You then place that flat edge in the groove between the lid and the adjacent screw-edge of your nice glass jar thus:

    •  ...and rotate it slightly.  This lets just enough air into the jar to relax the seal, and that's it!  No hot water and towels, no banging on the bench, just a little twist and you're done!

    The next requirement for this method is plenty of really hot water and detergent and a fresh kitchen sponge - clean your bench, sink, dish-rack and most of all your jars and lids, really thoroughly. 

    I could not do any of this without a pair of flock-lined rubber kitchen gloves so that I can manage the hot water and handle the jars which get even hotter as the hot liquids are ladled into them.

    Go through the usual process of cooking up whatever it is you are bottling. I have two large stock-pots, one is stainless steel and the other has a non-stick surface; both are easy to use and to clean.

    For cooking and storing food I always use stainless steel and glass where possible. 

    Have the sink filled with really hot water - what you can get from the kitchen tap will probably be hot enough, and lay as many jars as you think you will need in it so that they are fully immersed.

    Place the lids in a heat-proof pot or bowl, and when the fruit is nearly ready, pour boiling water over them.

    At this point, re-fill the sink with the hottest water the tap will produce so that your jars are also really hot.  You don't want them to crack from too great a change of temperature, or to cool the fruit before the lid is on.  If you are preserving fruit as opposed to making jam, have your kettle near the boil so you can top up your jars if you don't have quite enough syrup to reach the very top of the rim. This shouldn't be necessary if you have enough syrup in the pot, which is why it's better to have a little too much syrup than not enough.

    I have a dinner plate next to my pot of boiling fruit and on it a heat-proof bowl partially filled with hot water.  This is so that I can stand my jar in it while I'm ladling fruit into it if I want to, without getting syrup everywhere.
    • When making preserved fruit (which Americans call 'canning') I slightly overfill the jars so that I can be sure that there is no air space in the top of the jar.  When you've filled your jar right to the top, fish a matching lid out of the bowl they are in, quickly flick your gloved finger tip around the rim of the jar to make sure it's clear of pieces of fruit, and carefully screw the lid into place.  If you've overfilled it with syrup as I do, screwing the lid down will force a little excess syrup out.  
    • When filling jars with jam it is not necessary to fill them right to the brim - you can leave a bit of space at the top.
    That's it !!!

    Within five to ten minutes each pop-top will give a loud click as the seal sucks down showing it's successful and you know it's fine.  All you have to do after that is wash the jar and label it.  If you have the occasional jar which doesn't click it means either that the lid is no good, or that it hasn't been screwed into place properly.  Because the sealing becomes evident so quickly, fruit can easily be decanted either back into the pot for re-heating and then re-bottling, or, if you are lucky, simply poured briskly into a waiting very hot jar.  I've got away with that a few times!

    In the five or so years I've been doing this I've had no jars at all go 'off', so the sterilization of the jars as described has been perfectly adequate.  Good luck with yours!

    Later note (22nd Oct 2010): I can see a query on the web about jars that are not actual pop-tops and wondering if these can also be made to seal.  The answer is that if the jar you have has been sealed for supermarket sale you will be able to see a thin rubber seal where the lid fits against the rim of the glass jar.  If the lid has been opened carefully and not wrecked these can be used similarly - it's just that you can't be so sure that they have fully sealed.  The success of the seal can be fairly accurately gauged by the centre having sucked down a little.  I have heaps of these jars and use them for jam if I run out of the others as sealing isn't as crucial as it is for preserves.  As it's turned out I've had no problem with them.  Good luck!

    My method of jam-making can be found in the article:
    My method of making preserves can be found in the article:

    Further instructions for how to make a wide range of jams and preserves can be found via the following link:

    Sunday, 27 December 2009

    Dearest Frank - Rest in Peace

    One sunny afternoon early in 2005 when Anna, Frank and I were sitting in their garden I asked Frank if he had a favourite poet or poem. He considered this thoughtfully for a minute or so, then quietly recited this poem by Francis Thompson. It is:
    "In no strange land: the kingdom of God is within you".
    Those of you who knew him will remember his deep, well modulated voice and careful speech.

    O world invisible, we view thee,
    O world intangible, we touch thee,
    O world unknowable, we know thee,
    Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

    Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
    The eagle plunge to find the air -
    That we ask of the stars in motion
    If they have rumour of thee there?

    Not where the wheeling systems darken,
    And our benumbed conceiving soars!
    The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
    Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

    The angels keep their ancient places; -
    Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
    Tis ye, ‘tis your estrang├Ęd faces,
    That miss the many-splendoured thing.

    But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
    Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
    Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
    Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

    Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
    Cry, - clinging Heaven by the hems;
    And lo, Christ walking on the water,
    Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

    Frank, we weep for our loss, and offer our gratitude for your friendship, generosity, sensitivity and love.

    Other tributes can be found at:

    Later Note:
    Grace's tribute photograph of the delicately pink lotus reminds me of an occasion when Frank invited me to visit so that I could see the blossom on their flowering cherry trees. Naturally the invitation was accepted immediately. When he opened the front door, the first thing he did after greeting me was to lead the way to where I could best see them.  The two trees were exquisite, with their white and pale pink blossom seeming to be luminous, even in the sunshine.

    I enjoyed a leisurely visit of some hours, and then when I was saying my good-byes, Frank said "Come and see the blossom one more time" and led me back for one last look.  I was touched that he appreciated their beauty so particularly and also that he wanted me to see them too.  It is a very fond memory.

    These photographs are of a different tree but it is perhaps a little similar.

    Zoe's fruit loaf ~ made with tea

    Here is a favourite recipe given to me by a dear friend many years ago:

    Overnight soak:
    1 pound of mixed fruit (500 grams)
    2 cups of cold tea
    1/2 cup of brown sugar
    Then add:
    2 cups of self-raising flour (if using standard flour add 2 tsp baking powder)
    1 well beaten egg.
    Mix well, pour into a well-greased loaf tin. 

    The original recipe says to bake for up to 2 hours in a moderate oven (300 degrees Fahrenheit or 150 degrees Celcius). Oven's vary, and I've found this to be too long for mine.  I suggest you check progress after an hour and possibly leave it in for another ten or twenty minutes or so.  A well-cooked loaf is likely to be a deep golden brown and have a good firm crust. 

    Once baked to your satisfaction take it out and leave it until the following day before cutting - if possible - it isn't!  The years have proved this to be so! 

    I've found that packs of mixed fruit vary in moisture content, and that the amount of tea needed varies.  The main thing is to be sure that whatever fruit you have has enough tea in which to soak so that it can absorb as much as it will hold, so starting the soaking process with enough tea to cover the fruit works well.

    Once combined with other ingredients the mixture should drop off the spoon easily, so it pays to have some additional cold tea to hand in case it seems too stiff. 

    If using double the amount of fruit the mixture can easily be adapted to make three loaves.  They freeze well.  When serving you'll find loaves moist and not in need of butter.

    'Gooseberry-licious' ~ a little like a sorbet

    The name of this recipe is my own as its original name has been lost for the moment.  It's a contraction of Gooseberry-delicious, of course! Althought it can be served by itself, it's the perfect foil for red currant fool - or fruit loaf. The flavour is tangy so a little goes a long way.

    Take any quantity of fruit and about half its weight in sugar. Put it in a cooking pot and add enough water to just about cover it. Add some generously sized sprigs of mint - yes, that's right, mint! Cook until tender, which isn't long. Check the flavour for sweetness, and add a little more sugar if required. Take it off the heat, pick out the mint, then remove the skins by pushing the mixture through a fairly fine sieve over a bowl. Allow to cool, then pour into a flat dish or container and put it in the freezer. Once frozen it's ready to serve. Remove it from the dish by scratching it up with a turned over fork which breaks it up nicely. Serve it in party glasses with pretty teaspoons if you have them. The mint somehow makes the gooseberry flavour more gooseberry-ish!  :-)

    Thanks to Penelope for the recipe - if you remember the name let me know!

    Red Currant Fool - or Gooseberry Fool, if you choose

    The richness of this dessert is offset by the tang of the fruit   The only variation in the recipe for the different fruit may be the amount of sugar required - adjust according to taste. 

    The basic method is simplicity itself: take any quantity of red currants or gooseberries and simmer with a little water along with about a third of the weight of fruit in sugar.  Gooseberries may require more than currants.  When the fruit is mushy take it off the heat and strain into a bowl by pushing the mixture through a fairly fine sieve to remove the skins and stalks.  In the bowl underneath you'll now have a delicious syrup - very simple!  Chill it and then fold in a little whipped cream.  Serve in party glasses with pretty teaspoons if you have them.  It's scrumptious!

    When I made this for four of us I used about 500 grams of currants and about 160 grams of sugar.  Once these were in the pot I added enough water so that I could see it but it didn't cover the fruit.   The fruit is so juicy that it rapidly contributes a lot of its own liquid!  I might have whipped about a cup of cream.  The important thing is to fold the cream into the fruit, rather than the fruit into the cream as you don't want to overwhelm the flavour of the fruit.  Surprisingly, the cream seems to bring out the flavour of the fruit, so that one gets more of its delicate piquancy in the 'fool' than in the syrup by itself.  Both are delicious however. 

    I liked this so much I preserved some of the syrup so that I could enjoy it during the winter months.

    Following further experimentation I find I prefer the chilled syrup served just as is with the whipped cream on top rather than mixed in.   

    These summery delights are the perfect accompaniment for fruit loaf, Christmas cake or fruit mince pies.

    Other fool recipes: 
    In a favourite book entitled "Miss Mapp" by E F Benson, red currant fool is a prominent feature at the bridge parties of a rather stuffy set of middle aged Edwardian characters, and on one memorable occasion we see the appearance of a very different version.  This extract is from page 43:
    'I believe I was wrong,' she said. 'There is something in it beyond egg and cream. Oh, there's Boon; he will tell us.'
    She made a seductive face at Boon, and beckoned to him.
    'Boon, will you think it very inquisitive of me,' she asked archly, 'if I ask you whether you have put a teeny drop of champagne into this delicious red-currant fool?'
    'A bottle and a half, Miss,' said Boon morosely, 'and half a pint of old brandy. Will you have some more, Miss?'
    Miss Mapp curbed her indignation at this vulgar squandering of precious liquids, so characteristic of Poppits. She gave a shrill little laugh.
    'Oh, no, thank you, Boon!' she said. 'I mustn't have any more. Delicious though.'
    Major Flint let Boon fill up his cup while he was not looking....

    I've written more about red currants in my later article:
    And more about gooseberries, most of which can be found here:
    Leigh in the kitchen ~ click here to find all my recipes and food articles

    Berry fruit and summer tea parties

    In New Zealand Christmas coincides with the beginning of summer and the bounty of berry fruit.  I'm particularly fond of red currants and gooseberries, and recently made a very nice festive morning tea which included both along with a tasty fruit loaf.  Each recipe is the simplest thing imaginable so I'd like to share them. They are for red currant fool, 'gooseberry-licious' and Zoe's fruit loaf. I'll write them as individual 'posts' so that they are easy to find and refer to.

    Wednesday, 9 December 2009

    Iris delight

    The irises in my garden are a source of much pleasure:

    It must be at least ten years since these last flowered which was before we packed up our Auckland home and moved south.  They originally came from my childhood home in the South Island so were valuable enough firstly to take to Auckland, and then to pluck up once more when I moved back.  Before being planted here a couple of years ago they had most unfairly been wedged into a single pot with a bare covering of earth - watered, yes; fed, no!  They survived - what tenacity that shows! And now they are blooming fit to bust.  I'm pleased to have this connection and continuity from the garden that nurtured me as I grew up.  It reassures me of the goodness in life.

    The colours are enchanting.  To the golden-brown, mauve-blue and purple from home I have already added one of buttercup yellow and have arranged to exchange some of my purple with a some of a friend's who has a grove of them in royal blue.

    Their petals are tissue thin and delicately shaped.  We've had a lot of wind lately and as I've sat looking out on my garden I have watched them being battered relentlessly.  To my surprise most of their petals survived intact with few signs of bruising.

    Dividing and planting irises is described here in very simple and easy-to-follow terms:


    The rest of the garden is coming on well.   My runner beans are climbing their framework and the silver beet seedlings get bigger every day.  The tomatoes are romping away.   I'm ever reluctant to trim things back, so have missed taking off some of the laterals which I should have done at least a fortnight or so ago.  I love so much to see things grow, it seems a shame to pick things back when they are doing so well - I know I'm being (a bit) impractical!

    My nettles have gained height, and each day I look among them for the caterpillars of the Admiral butterflies.   The Admirals have been about so the eggs should be hatching soon if they haven't already.

    My main job just now is to get the gooseberries in jars - some as preserves, and some as jam.  Gooseberries provide one of the many glorious nectars of summer.

    The garden is an enduring source of well-being and pleasure: when I look out on it and especially when I'm out in it I breathe in its beauty and vitality and bless its bounty.   I give thanks to the Good Earth - how fortunate we are.

    ...I've just been outside and noticed again that the hedge by the front door is humming with bees. They've been very busy there lately.  They're all over it, along with many other insects. It's a rather untidy hedge but covered with flowers at present, hence the bees.  We need these bees, make no mistake, and the butterflies and other insects.  They all participate in the vast web of life which makes our lives possible, some pollinating our fruit and vegetables, and others breaking down dead matter.  At one time our landlord suggested pulling out the hedge in favour of a fence.  Now, although I know that fences have their uses, in my view a hedge is almost always a better choice: a fence is made of dead wood, whereas a hedge is alive and supports other life.  Choose life, I say.

    Click on the link below to find my other articles about gardening:

    Monday, 7 December 2009

    Ice cream recipe ~ an easy treat

    Ice cream is a pleasant summer treat which I've discovered is very easy to make - thanks to Pete of the "Kai time on the road" television show for mouthwatering inspiration and the Edmonds recipe book for getting me going!

    I'm still experimenting with the ingredients. When I first made it I did three samples: one with cream and no yoghurt, one with yoghurt and no cream, and one with a mixture of both.

    This one was made with all cream and no yoghurt. It was deliciously, well, creamy!

    A number of people enjoyed sampling the three and the most popular flavour was combination of the two. The yoghurt gives it a mild tang. I expect it could be made with less sugar. Readers will no doubt enjoy arriving at their own favourite version!

    The basic recipe I arrived at is scrumptious, easy to make and requires only five ingredients. It's comparable in price to shop-bought ice cream depending on which yoghurt you buy. Cyclops is fairly costly but has the advantage not only of being delicious but also seems to be one of the few available in New Zealand supermarkets which exclude gelatin. It is also distinguished by being made from organic milk and containing the beneficial bacteria acidophilus. The low fat variety is fine.

    The following ingredients make a bit over two litres of ice cream. 
    If you want to make less the quantities are easily divisible by either two or three.
    Cream - 300 ml / half an imperial pint / a cup and a half
    Yoghurt, unsweetened - 500 gms / a cup and a half
    Castor sugar - a cup and a half
    Vanilla essence - a teaspoon and a half
    6 eggs - separated.

    For an even simpler version using a third of the ingredients use: 
    1 cup or cream (no yoghurt)
    Half a cup of castor sugar
    Half a teaspoon of vanilla essence and
    Two eggs.
    This is a great way to use up the last cream in the bottle which might otherwise go to waste.  Then you can have a bit in the fridge to scoop out when you feel like something a bit special to have with a slice of cake or a little preserved fruit.
    It makes enough to mostly fill three 250 gram cottage cheese containers!

    The method: 
    This requires that all ingredients are beaten thoroughly so an electric beater may be helpful. However an ordinary egg beater would be fine, just require a bit more effort!

    In addition to the egg beater I use three large mixing bowls and a couple of spoons. Also required is a metal or plastic container with a lid in which to freeze the ice cream.

    The following method works well:
    Separate the egg yolks and put the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another. Pour the cream into the third bowl and add the vanilla essence to it.

    Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until stiff. Add half the sugar and beat until the whites turn glossy.

    Beat the cream until it's nicely 'whipped'.

    To the egg yolks in the third bowl add the remaining sugar and beat until the mixture turns pale and resembles creamed butter and sugar. Add the yoghurt to it and beat it in well. The idea is not just to combine it thoroughly but to aerate it as much as possible. Add the whipped cream and continue beating. Add the egg white mixture and beat until everything is evenly combined and smooth.

    Your mixture is now ready to freeze.

    If you want to add further flavouring fold in additional syrup and or fruit at this point.

    Pour into your container, cover it and place it in the freezer. It will freeze fully in about twenty four hours. Yum!!!!!!!!!!

    Later Notes:
    I've been experimenting with this recipe and have found out a number of things:
    1. Whole pieces of fruit, either fresh or preserved, really aren't suitable for inclusion - they freeze along with the mixture and are then encountered as hard lumps which aren't all that flavoursome.  
    2. Syrup made from blended or mashed fruit is fine - yummy in fact. Last time I made it I used two thirds of the quantities given here and added in a cup of pulp from preserved apricots. It set just as usual and had a good texture and a delicate flavour, so the other ingredients can perfectly well accommodate that much fruit pulp. 
    3. It tends to get a little icicly on keeping, which I suspect is due to exposure to air, and / or changes in temperature from going in and out of the freezer, however briefly. Whatever the reason, it works best to freeze it in smallish containers.
    4. In any case, a little goes a long way - for example, a third of the quantity given above, ie: 2 eggs, half a cup each of cream, yoghurt and castor sugar and half a teaspoon of vanilla essence makes a generous amount for up to two to four people, depending on your appetites and whatever else you serve with it. 
    5. The aeration which comes from the whipped egg-whites, etc, does contribute quite a bit of volumn - if you re-blend the mixture after freezing it - or allow it to melt completely (but why waste it!) you'll find it reduces in volume to about half the size.  So, if you have a nice sized helping and imagine that half of it is cream.... it isn't!  :-)
    My purpose in sharing this recipe, along with others, isn't to present the perfect formula, but to pass on what I have enjoyed (and found remarkably easy) in the hope that it will encourage others to experiment and also enjoy!

    An even later note (March 2010):
    I have amended my notes at the beginning of the recipe to recommend only the one variety of yoghurt which I know is suitable, rather than the two which were there previously.  I experimented with the second brand and found it wasn't suitable at all: although perfectly delicious by itself or on porridge, the texture and flavour it gave the ice cream seemed somewhat starchy and tasted all wrong. This surprised me. I mention this in case you find that your ice cream isn't as pleasing as I have led you to believe it should be - it might be worth trying a different brand of yoghurt. I'm sure there will be other brands which I haven't yet tried which will be fine.