strawberry jam forever

Oh sweet sweetness.

I have just arrived home from an excursion, an adventure, an undertaking in jam making.  I’m a bath-robed loveseat potato, hunkering down to write after having a long shower and a much needed Lakefront Summer Weiss.  I want to get this out before I forget all the wonderful things that happened today.

So… Brandon and I decided it would be cool to give out jars of homemade jam as favors to our wedding guests this summer.  My ever-optimistic mom was all on board, so she contacted her friend, jam-making maven and saint of strawberries, Sherry.  Truth be told this project would have never arose from the “cute idea” ether if it weren’t for this lady.

Let me tell you about Sherry.  Before today I’d never met her.  We had merely exchanged a few emails, through my mom, concerning quantity/brands of pectin – but I had insta-good vibes from the smiley-faced sunshine that accompanied her e-signature.

And now I know it, I am blessed to know Sherry.  She not only put this whole jammy affair together, from the picking of the fruit to the canning of the jam, but also opened her home to us, patiently taught us all the steps of the process, prepared us a comforting lunch, and gave me a beautiful apron she sewed herself(!).  I am overwhelmed by her kindness, and both her and my mom’s ardent determination in getting this thing done.

I am not yet proficient at getting the ball rolling on mondo projects.  I sometimes find them intimidating and tiring to even think about.  Sherry was the ball roller; Brandon and I were the marbles. Rolling commenced.  And before we knew it there were 144 garnet-colored quarter-pint jars of strawberry jam in the trunk of our car.

Yesterday was my birthday – but this year there was no gin-filled evening spent traipsing the streets of Milwaukee.  We turned in pre-midnight knowing we were expected out in the strawberry fields at 8 am.

Today was the first you-pick-‘em weekend for strawberries at Barthel Fruit Farm and we were there.  With the help of Sherry, my mom, her boyfriend John and his son Jack, (and Brandon of course), we filled seven crates with “Summer Dawn” strawberries in just over two hours.

The whole field wafted the juicy fragrance of the berries and their aroma hung in the air around us all day long, changing with each step in the process.  First it was light, sweet and clean as we crouched in the fields and pushed back leaves in search of clusters of the first ripe fruits.  Plenty of tiny white flowers and hard green berries promised that pickers in the coming weeks would too gather sweet bounties.

Our cars soaked up the scent as we transported our goods to Sherry’s for the next steps of stemming, washing, and cutting – which we performed while sitting on her breezy back porch with tall, sweating glasses of ice water at hand.  A couple of hours into prepping the berries, Sherry brought us plates with Italian beef sandwiches, creamy potato salad, and crispy kettle cooked chips.   Thoroughly fortified, I headed into the house to learn to make jam while mom and Brandon soldiered on with berry preparation.

Sherry’s charming, sunny kitchen was shortly glazed with a saccharine vapor as we boiled down the fruit in a thick-bottomed pot, incorporating sugar, pectin, lemon juice and a little butter into our syrupy brew.  Next we ladled the ruby sap into squat quilt-patterned jars, capped and lowered them into a speckled enamel jacuzzi for a few minutes, then removed them to a sheet pan for cooling.  Sherry has always turned her jars upside down to encourage the seal, so that’s what we did.  We repeated the process six times; each batch somehow seemed to get a little easier until all the jars were full.  (bonus: a hearty supply  of leftover berries is now nestled in our freezer for future snacking, smoothies, and all of manner of strawberry desserts!)

Waving and shouting our final thanks out the car window, we headed for home around five o’clock.  The whole project, from plucking the first berry to stashing twelve boxes of 144 jars into the trunk, took just 9 hours, including time out for lunch and a dessert break: a slice of skillet chocolate chip cookie nestled between two scoops of Blue Bunny “I Do! I Do! Wedding Cake.”  (Stupid name, awesome ice cream)

At some point in the day, we decided to dip our spoons into the steaming pot of nearly-finished jam and taste the fruits of our labor.  Oh lordy-pie! First, a wave of pure, clean sugar, curtained by a hint of buttery richness. Then, biting a piece of berry brings fresh, juicy red tartness, and as it slides away – you’re left with candied sunshine lingering on your tongue.  For me it recalled a quintessential taste of childhood and also a new flavor I’ll remember simply as LOVE.

Today’s jam-a-thon was a labor of love.  Together we created something bigger than the sum of its parts – a whole bunch of little jars filled with prettiest shade of red jam you could hope for –something to share with our wedding guests, the ones who’ll be present to witness our marriage, those crazy fools who’ll be dancing around with us on a very epic day in our lives.

Thank you Sherry, Mom, Brandon, John, Jack, and Terry for being part of this day and this project.  You guys made my maiden jam-making voyage a roaring success.

The recipe we used was quite traditional – very similar to this one from the Ball website, with the addition of 3 tablespoons of butter per batch to keep the “foaming” to a minimum and add an unexpected yum factor like only butter can.