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Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Can Can, Can You?

Canning is always something I relish having done (no pun intended) but rarely look forward to at the time it needs doing.

For the uninitiated, potting up preserves, relishes, sauces, pie fillings and the like means a delicate dance between boiling/preparing the food itself, while simultaneously sterilizing the jars and lids — separately, of course, I mean, why make it easier, right? — and boiling the water in the canner so it's ready to pop the jars in, as well as orchestrating the transfer of the product to the jars with minimum mess and contamination, then placing the jars on a rack in the canner with sufficient boiling water to submerge the jars at least an inch so you can boil them 20 minutes or so before carefully extracting them, all the while praying that the seal is intact; otherwise you're relegated to dozens of jars taking up precious freezer space ...

Actually, my number one complaint used to be the heat, because maximum harvest always falls during maximum ambient temperatures. And, although I bought a pressure cooker for canning to save myself from that, I've never figured out how to make it work so it defaults as a boiling water canner which means lots of steam heat. 

This summer has been deliciously temperate, with spells of temps in the 80s being flanked by low 70s and nights in the 50s — great sleeping weather but my tomatoes didn't even start to ripen until about a week ago. And here it is September already. So heating up the kitchen when it's in the upper 90s outside and my a/c is cranking away at max isn't an issue like it was in New Jersey and Connecticut. Heck, I don't even have a/c here and often when I'm working I have to dash outside every couple of hours just to shed my sweater and thaw my stiffening fingers.

Here, in France, my biggest hassles are the lack of kitchen space (technically, a lack of kitchen, period) and the fact that my burners are too small on my wimpy electric apartment-sized range for the canning kettle, so it's a tremendous effort to even get a sustained boil, which is critical. 

Well, okay, perhaps it's not the biggest hassle. Arguably, that is the unanticipated arrival of neighbors bearing bushels of fruit and veg most mornings around 10am. I can't say no in fear of stopping the gravy train but I also abhor waste. Even if it's stuff I don't really eat very often (fruit), I feel compelled to keep it from going to waste. I swear I have enough jams and chutneys to last me a couple of years ... although admittedly they do make good hostess gifts. But sometimes the arrival of this stuff calls for dropping everything in order to spend four or five hours cooking and canning. Like I did today. And that's not always easy, or even possible. (Let's hope a certain publishing client who's been patiently waiting for a book to be edited isn't reading this.)


However, when I see all those jars lined up on the draining board, well, maybe it's like having a baby — once you see the final product, all the sweat, tears and pain are immediately forgotten and you're practically ready to start all over again. (Admittedly, I can only guess. If it came down to it, I'd likely choose canning.) Here I've got 3 quarts of peach pie filling followed by 6 pints of apple pie filling. 

I ended up with the perfect amount of syrup (how often does that happen?) for all 6 quarts. I combined 10 cups (80 oz.) of water, 4 cups of sugar, 3/4 cups of cornstarch, 3 Tbsp. lemon juice, 2 generous teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice (because I was too lazy to grate the nutmeg--you can only buy it whole here in France because, let's be honest, the pre-grated stuff just isn't anywhere near as good)  and half a teaspoon of ground cloves, along with a vanilla bean sliced in half with the seeds scraped out. It's my adaptation of three different recipes I'd found online, none of which had all the spices I felt I wanted, this being my first attempt at canning pie filling. I boiled that all up and poured it atop the fresh fruit that was packed inside the hot jars. I had maybe four tablespoons of syrup left over so I was pretty pleased with that. So now I'm set to fill five or six pies.

Now I've just got to get into the habit of baking pies ...

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