Sunday, September 23, 2012

Adventures with Jelly

Any kitchen experiment that ends with me having to 409 my shoes to stop myself from making sticky sounds when I walk should probably be considered a failure.

Last year I was introduced to a wonderful substance…fruit pepper jelly.  My friend, Janet Tyson Prosser owns a little wine store and she gets in neat little gifts and gourmet snack-y things.  You can check her out at:!/pages/Tyson-Fine-Wines-and-Things/110813115687199.  She has a wine tasting event every Thursday from 5:30-7:30, and I try to go as often as I can.  It’s a great opportunity to sample wines I’d never have the guts to buy for myself and she always has some of her gourmet treats out for us to snack on.  Last year, she started carrying a line of pepper jellies: pineapple pepper jelly, apple-walnut pepper jelly, blueberry pepper jelly…and my all-time favorite, scuppernong pepper jelly.  For those of you who don’t know what a scuppernong is, it’s a type of domesticated muscadine.  For those of you who don’t know what a muscadine is…it’s a subspecies of grape found in the Southeast.  Here’s a picture:
The golden/green ones are scuppernongs.  The purple are muscadines.  ANYWAY, after sampling some of the pepper jellies at Janet’s store, I bought some of the scuppernong.  For $8.99 a half-pint.  It was DELICIOUS…but it seemed to me to be one of those things that I could just make myself.  After all, my Dad has a cultivated scuppernong vine in his back yard (he makes some kick-ass scuppernong wine that is always in high demand in the community.)  I figured that when fall got close and the scuppernongs got ripe, I’d make my own.  So I called my Daddy (he’s still Daddy when I want something) and asked if I could have some scuppernongs…he went a step further and told me that as long as he was juicing for his wine…he’d just set me aside some of the juice.  “Woohoo!!!  This is looking easier and easier!” I thought to myself.


Back in the day, I remember my Granny and Me-maw and Aunts preparing to make jelly with a grim determination of an army unit preparing to go off to war.  I remember them strategizing who was to do what, who was buying or bringing what, who was manning which station.  And they made jelly in an all-out, all-day campaign. In my ignorance, I assumed it was because of the sheer quantities of jelly they prepared.  Now I know that if you’re going to make jelly, you need to make a BUNCH just to make it worth your while.

I went by my dad’s this week and picked up my juice.  He had it in a white, opaque orange juice gallon jug.  Not even bothering to look at it, I brought it home & stuck it in the refrigerator to await the weekend when I could make my jelly.  I went to the store & got jelly jars, lids and rings ($15 for a dozen).  I also picked up a jelly making equipment kit at my friend Leslie’s insistence that the jar-picker-upper was a must-have (kit=$16). Then I got some Sure Jell ($3) and some sugar ($2).  The peppers were free, as a co-worker had brought some to work from his garden.  I had a variety of jalapenos, pablano and banana peppers to work with.

Okie-dokie, then.  All set for jelly-makin time!  I had my recipe…I had my equipment…I had my juice.  Oh, wait.  I open the container of “juice” to find that it was really sort of pulp.  No matter!  I’d just go back to the Sure Jell recipe and use the grape jelly recommendations of cooking it off & then straining it through cheesecloth.  Wait, no cheesecloth.  I send Jeff to the store for cheesecloth (two packets, $9/each=$18).  By this time, I have my scuppernong/pepper pulp simmering nicely and I look through the recipe again.  Crap.  I need some lemon juice and vinegar (lemons are 3/$1…so add another dollar to the running total, plus another buck for the vinegar.)  I’ve now spent $56 ($61.60 after tax).

I start to strain my pulp into my really big Pampered Chef mixing/measuring bowl, and some of the (scalding hot) juice gets all over the counter because slow-pouring it from my pan makes it go all down the side.  Fine.  I get a ladle and (slowly) ladle it into the strainer that I’ve lined with cheesecloth.  I finally get it all strained but it still looks really cloudy, so I get out a bowl, open the second packet of cheesecloth and re-strain.  I had thought that since the Pampered Chef mixing bowl had a handle and spout, I could just pour it back through the strainer and skip the ladling.  I’m still pouring too fast or too slow or something and hot liquid flows onto the counter and into the floor as I’m getting it in the strainer.  Also onto my flip-flop clad foot.  Shit!  That’s hot!  But the juice looks much clearer.  So okay!  I discard the steamy, drippy, gross cheesecloth/pulp mass and move on to the next step…putting the sugar and Sure Jell (this is just fruit pectin) into my scuppernong/pepper juice.  I get the juice up to a rolling boil and take a portion of the sugar and mix it in with the pectin in a bowl and add it to the juice.  It immediately forms into gooey clumps.  I don’t know if I had the juice too hot or too cold or what…but I stir and stir and stir and mash the clumps to the side of the pot with my spoon until I get all of the clumps worked out.  I get it back up to a boil and add the rest of the sugar.  More stirring.  It needs to get to a rolling boil & stay that way for EXACTLY one minute.  I get the mixture boiling and start moving my jars close.  Oh, and I need to rinse my sticky ladle.  I turn my back for ONE SECOND and everything is boiling out everywhere.  Crap, crap, crap.  I get it back under control, but the stovetop is a disaster area.  I remove the pot of liquid magma from the heat and start ladling it into jars.  I can’t decide if I’m filling the jars too full, or not full enough…so I go back to the Sure Jell instructions…and knock a half-full jar of hot jelly-crap over.  It runs down the cabinet facing, onto the floor and into the floor vent.  I can’t stop to do anything about it because the instructions stressed that successful jelly-setting and jar-sealing depended on getting this last part done QUICKLY.  I throw some paper-towels down to hopefully contain the spread and continue to fill jelly jars.  I have enough for eight.

I hurriedly put lids and rings on, screw down tight and transfer the jars to the hot, almost-boiling water bath I have prepared.  I consult the directions again. “…should have one to two inches of water covering the tops of the jars…” Shit.  My water barely covers the jars and I’m out of room in the pan I’ve chosen.  I go to my pan cabinet, and start slinging things out of it to get to my big stock-pot waaaaaayyy in the back.  I lift the jars out of their bath (Leslie’s right, this would have been a bitch without the jar-lifting-thingy), transfer the water into my stockpot and start running hot water to add to it momentarily.  I put the jars back in, add scalding hot water from the sink (I get my right hand this time) and check the instructions for time in the bath.  “Bring to a gentle boil for 5 minutes.”  Whew.  I can start cleaning up the spreading jelly catastrophe on the cabinet/floor while it’s doing that.  I get the bulk of the congealed mass in the floor up with paper towels, and head for the garage for my Wet-Jet Swiffer.  “Smooch, smooch, smoosh….” That’s the sound I’m making with every footstep.  I stop, take my flip-flops off & get the Swiffer.  I start over by the juice-spill counter when I realize that nothing is coming out of my Wet-Jet and I’m basically just pushing juice around. Crap again!  The Swiffer is out of cleaner!  I go back to the garage, get a refill and clean that area.  I change out the Swiffer pad and start on the area of the jelly spill…not gonna work.  This mess is too much for a Swiffer, so I get a roll of paper towels, 409 and get on my hands and knees to start to clean that up.  I’ve about got that done when the timer goes off.  “Jeff!!!! Will you throw me down a towel???” Because, you know, I wouldn’t want to drip water anywhere when I pull the jars out of the water bath.  I get the jars out, set them on the towel and turn off the stove.  I finally get a chance to spray and clean the bottom of my shoes and put them back on (I’ve been barefoot for the last half-hour).  I get all of the pots, pans, dishes, cutting board, chopper, measuring cups, mixing bowls and utensils into the dish washer and begin to wipe down the counters and cabinet fronts, where they’ve been polluted with juice, pulp and/or jelly.

Here’s what I’ve got to show for it:

And I don’t even know if they are all gonna seal correctly.  I’ll have to wait ‘til they cool to see if the tops still “pop” when you push on them.  I ended up with eight jars of pepper jelly (I hope…if they all set and if they all seal). I spent $61.60 (which, BTW, is $7.70 a jar) and three hours of my life getting to this point.  This had better be some damn good jelly.  Otherwise, Janet is gonna have a heyday teasing me everytime I come crawling back to buy pepper jelly at her store. (Word of advice...just go see Janet for pepper jelly.  Mine doesn't even have labels.)

P.S. My daughter just came through the kitchen to see what I was typing and asked, “Why’s the whole floor in there sticky?” So I guess I’m going to need to revisit with another Swiffer pass.

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