Sweet Violets for Jelly

IMG_0024As everybody knows, violets are blue—except when they are pink, or white, or mauve, or white tinged with lavender. This is what I learned after tilling the seven-foot-wide planting strip stretching the width of our city lot between the sidewalk and the curb.

I don’t know how many decades the seeds of Viola odorata had lain dormant under the grass and moss that covered this strip, but after brief exposure to the sun the seeds sprouted through several inches of bark mulch, and soon mounds of dark green, heart-shaped leaves formed a ground cover around the shrubs and larger perennials that I had planted.

IMG_0027That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago the violets began blooming, and now I have only to open the front door to fill my head with their unique sweet scent.

But few of my violet plants produce blue flowers. Shades of pink predominate in the parking strip, and where I’ve torn up parts of the shaded, mossy back lawn I’m finding white and blue-white violets.

In Europe and Asia, the homeland of the sweet violet, odd colors apparently arose spontaneously. Beginning in the nineteenth century, breeders named and propagated selections they particularly liked. The seeds must have sold widely. I imagine a long-ago resident of my house tearing open a packet of mixed-color violet seeds, sprinkling them up and down the planting strip, and tossing the leftovers into the backyard. The plants would have spread by seed and by rhizome until someone tore them up and planted lawn in their place. In recent decades, broad-leaf herbicides probably kept the violets from returning.

Seeds of ordinary blue violets are still available from many sources, but only a few suppliers sell seeds of old cultivars—Reine de Neiges (white, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds), Queen Charlotte (blue and white, from Hazzard’s Seeds), and the Czar (blue, from both Swallowtail and Hazzard’s). At least one nursery, Valleybrook Gardens of British Columbia, is still breeding violets; Valleybrook sells its Classy Pink, Intense Blue, and Bridewhite violets as potted plants to garden centers in Canada and along both U.S. coasts.

Maybe you wonder who would pay for a potted weed. Violets, after all, can be invasive. But even today some people take their violets so seriously that they join organizations to study, celebrate, and promote the little plants. The U.S. has its American Violet Society, and France Les Amis de la Violette. There is even an International Violet Conference.

I suspect that these violet aficionados fuss mainly over the appearance of the blossoms. I focus instead on the plant’s uses. Not only are violets among the earliest garden flowers to bloom, and not only are they fragrant. Since they don’t much object to mowing, they are an attractive addition to a shady lawn. The fresh blossoms are lovely in a salad, and they can be crystallized for decorating desserts. The dried blossoms and leaves, in a tisane, are said to soothe headaches and relieve insomnia. Violet liqueur is essential for cocktails such as the Aviator, and violet syrup can be a pleasant coloring and flavoring for white or sparkling wine, meringues, and ices.

A modern use for violets—because it requires added pectin—is violet jelly. High-methoxyl pectin, the regular kind, requires acid for gelling, and the acid I add comes from lemon juice.* Lemon juice also enhances the flavor of the jelly, and it has another effect, one that might impress your children: A little lemon transforms violet “juice” from the deep blue of blue violets to a pinker shade, nearly as pink as some of my pink violets.

IMG_0033Last week I decided to make violet jelly using only blue violets and to leave all the pink blooms alone. I don’t know what color jelly pink violets would make.I will try that experiment one of these days.

Much of the violet aroma is sadly lost in cooking, but if you start out with plenty of blossoms you will produce a jelly that is intensely flavorful as well as gorgeous.

violet flowersViolet Jelly

When you pick your violets, you needn’t remove the green calyx at the base of each flower. Even a bit of stem here and there won’t hurt your jelly.

In this recipe I’ve used Ball’s “Classic” pectin because I had some on hand, not because I favor it. You can substitute another brand, but you may need to adjust the method according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Note that when you strain your violet “juice” you can safely squeeze the jelly bag without making the juice cloudy.

4 cups blue violets
2 cups water, boiled and then left to cool for about 2 minutes
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
3 tablespoons Ball “Classic” pectin
1½ cups sugar

Put the violets into a bowl (I use a quart glass measure), and pour the water over them. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature overnight.

In the morning, strain the liquid through a jelly bag. Squeeze the bag to extract the last of the blue liquid. Add a little water, if needed, to equal 2 cups.

Stir the lemon juice into the violet liquid. The liquid will turn a pinker shade. Pour the liquid into a preserving pan. Gradually sprinkle the pectin over, and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a full boil, and immediately add the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Boil it for 1 minute.

Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the syrup into sterilized ½- or ¼-pint mason jars. Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1¼ pints

 

*Low-methoxyl pectin requires no acid for gelling, but in my experience this pectin produces cloudy jelly. Also, low-methoxyl pectin is usually used to produce low-sugar products (you can identify it in stores by phrases like “for low- or no-sugar jam”). Keep in mind that if your jelly is low in both sugar and acid it is not safe to eat.

Finally: A Good Thermometer for Home Preserving

 

javelin-proWhen home preservers have asked me what sort of thermometer they should use, I’ve never had good advice for them. I teach people to assess the readiness of their jams, jellies, and preserves by various tests: Does the liquid “sheet” off the spoon? Does the jam mound in a chilled dish or show wrinkles when you disturb its cooling surface? Does the syrup “spin a thread” in a glass of cold water?

Yet I often specify temperature goals for verifying these visual tests. Knowing the temperature really helps, for example, in the case of fruits whose juices gel slowly and so fail to “sheet” when they have reached gelling temperature. But how can you know that your boiling liquid has reached gelling temperature when your thermometer simply does not work?

Thermometers fail us in many ways. The glass capillary tube of an old-fashioned candy thermometer slips up or down in relation to the scale. The paint wears off the scale. Thermometers that must be left in the pot get in the way of the spoon and fall in the jam. Dial thermometers must be calibrated when you buy them and frequently thereafter. For an “instant-read” thermometer, the “instant” may last ten seconds or more—long enough to burn your fingers. Digital thermometers often flip out a few degrees beyond boiling. My husband bought an expensive, long-probed thermometer that measured some 30 degrees off and could not be calibrated. He bought another that showed wildly fluctuating temperatures over about 215 degrees F. Even my little digital CDN, the most reliable thermometer I ever had until now, goes blank when the temperature nears 220 degrees; when I remove the thermometer from the heat, the display reappears in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. And thermometers of all kinds fog up and become unreadable.

So I am extremely happy with my Christmas present: a little digital thermometer called the Javelin Pro. It’s made in the style of the expensive Thermapen: With the probe folded against the handle, these thermometers are small enough to fit in a breast pocket, but when the probe is fully extended the thermometer is long enough—10.5 inches, in the case of the Javelin Pro—to keep your hand well away from the heat. I like to extend the probe just 90 to 120 degrees, so my hand is outside the rim of the pot while I take the temperature of my jam.

Many manufacturers are now making Thermapen-type thermometers, which start at about twenty dollars. All have large, easy-to-read screens, and some of the screens, including mine, have backlighting, which enhances readability even when you’re not working in the dark. And these thermometers tend to be fast and accurate. My Javelin Pro responds in only 3 to 4 seconds, and it’s accurate to 0.9 degrees F. You can’t calibrate these thermometers, but you shouldn’t need to; the Javelin Pro is supposed to retain its accuracy through the three-year warranty period. High temperatures don’t upset my thermometer; I’ve used it successfully for jams and jellies already, and the manufacturer claims that it is accurate all the way to 482 degrees F. The big display does not fog up.

I see only two general disadvantages to Thermapen-type thermometers. First, you can’t switch the readout between Fahrenheit and Celsius. Instead you must buy either a Fahrenheit or a Celsius thermometer, although you may be able to change the setting by fiddling with the thermometer’s insides. Second, you must replace the battery when it wears out—but fortunately that battery is likely to be long-lived. My Javelin Pro takes a CR2032 battery that is expected to last 3,500 hours.

The Javelin Pro has a couple of special features that made me choose it over similar models for my Christmas list. A hidden magnet lets it magically stick to the refrigerator. If you have a non-magnetic refrigerator, no problem: The Javelin Pro also has a hole at the handle end through which you can loop a cord, to hang on a hook or around your neck. No more fishing through a drawer every time you need a thermometer.

If you’re feeling wealthy, however, you might want to bypass the Javelin Pro for a genuine Thermapen. All the competition from imitators has pushed its maker, Thermoworks, to continually improve its thermometer. The latest model, the Super-Fast Thermapen, responds in only 2 to 3 seconds and is accurate to 0.7 degrees F. You can set the thermometer to show you tenths of a degree, if you prefer, instead of whole degrees, and the display will turn among four directions depending on how you hold the instrument. The battery is an AAA, so it’s easy to find a replacement. Best of all, this newest Thermapen is not just water-resistant; it is waterproof.

The Thermapen is on sale now for $87 at www.thermoworks.com. The Javelin Pro costs $58 at lavatools.co.

 

Late-Harvest Treat: Haw Jelly

Haws left after harvest. These are for the birds.

A couple of weeks ago I gazed out my back door at a Washington hawthorn, its fruit beginning to drop following a cold snap, and considered the comment that Jan Grover made in this blog in October: “A friend who teaches told me about an abandoned orchard behind her school building, and I went there, intent on foraging the apples she described—and I discovered haws! There were two small, gnarled hawthorns smothered in bright-red haws, and I picked several pounds, brought them home, and turned them into what proved to be a Kool-Aid-red/pink jelly. . . .  The taste is slightly, ummmm, feral, and goes beautifully with autumn braises. Sugar, lemon juice, water—that was all it took: Haws are evidently crammed with pectin.”

If I wanted to try making haw jelly this year, I had to act fast. So I fetched an orchard ladder and sampled a haw. The tiny, orange-red fruit had only a bit of mealy flesh wrapped around five seeds.*  The fruit was neither tart nor bitter but had a sweet, spicy flavor similar to that of rosehips and medlar fruits. This was no surprise, since the hawthorn is cousin to the rose and the medlar both. The haws ought to make good jelly indeed, I figured.

As I picked them, most of the fruits came free of their stems. In fifteen minutes I had enough haws, I figured, to make a small batch of jelly. I rinsed them, shook them in the strainer to separate the remaining stems, and picked out the stems before cooking the haws in enough water to cover them.

The juice turned out a cloudy pink but clarified when I combined it with sugar. I added plenty of lemon juice, since the haws seemed low in acid. The syrup jelled quickly and firmly.

haw jellyThe finished jelly looks much like quince jelly—almost as clear and bright, in fact, as red currant jelly. You must put your nose close to to catch the warm, spicy aroma, but the flavor blooms in the mouth. It reminds Robert of tropical fruit—passion fruit, he thinks, or guava. But I think haw jelly puts guava jelly to shame. In flavor, only rosehip jelly compares.

Here’s my recipe for—

Haw Jelly

2 ½ pounds stemmed haws
2 cups sugar
½ cup strained lemon juice

cooking hawsPut the haws into a pot, and barely cover them with water (you’ll need about 6 cups). Simmer the haws, uncovered, for about an hour, mashing them with a potato masher or spoon every 20 minutes or so.

cooked hawsDrain off the haw juice through a coarse strainer, and then let it drip through a jelly bag for at least several hours or as long as overnight. Don’t worry if the juice looks cloudy. You should end up with 2¼ cups.

In a preserving pan, combine the haw juice with the sugar and lemon juice. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Raise the heat to high, and boil the syrup until it sheets from a spoon or reaches 221 degrees F. Pour the hot syrup into two sterilized half-pint jars, and add lids and rings. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath. 

Makes 2 half-pints

 

* The fruits of the Washington hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum, have three to five seeds; the haws of other species come in red, yellow, black, or purple and have as few as one seed per fruit. C. phaenopyrum is a native of the Eastern states that’s widely planted elsewhere in landscapes, though I don’t know why; its thorny branches shoot randomly in every direction. But the many other species of hawthorn grow in a similar fashion, and for that reason they are most appreciated as the stuff of impenetrable hedges; the word haw, in fact, means “hedge.” The genus has other virtues besides: The wood is very hard and therefore useful for making tools, and the leaves, flowers, and fruits have been used since ancient times in treating heart disease (recent medical studies are proving their efficacy). The hawthorn species most used in jelly making is C. monogyna, a native of Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia that has become an invasive weed in Oregon and elsewhere. Native here is the Douglas hawthorn, C. douglasii. Next year I’ll have to try making jelly from the little black Douglas haws.

Oregon Grape Jam

Oregon grapesJelly isn’t much in style these days, I’ve noticed. Many people consider it too sweet, otherwise bland, and nearly devoid of nutritional value. I feel that way about many kinds of jelly myself. Who would choose strawberry jelly over strawberry jam, raspberry jelly over raspberry jam? Why throw out all of the fruit’s fiber and sacrifice the appealing texture that fiber provides?

Some fruits, though, are too fibrous or seedy for a mashed jam. When they also have high levels of pectin and acid, they are perfect for jelly. Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is one of these fruits.* I love the dark, tart, spicy jelly I make from the Oregon grapes growing beneath the bigleaf maple near our chicken house.

Still, some people would always choose a jar labeled jam over one labeled jelly. So, last summer, for the first time, I decided to try making Oregon grape jam. Because Oregon grapes are seedy—a quarter of the weight of each berry is in its three seeds—I decided I would strain out the seeds, but I would still include some of the fiber that distinguishes a jam from a jelly. Because Oregon grapes are so rich in pectin, I would add a little liquor to soften the jam. Here is my recipe.

Seedless Oregon Grape Jam

 3 pounds (about 9 cups) stemmed Oregon grapes
About 1 quart water
5 to 6 cups sugar
2 tablespoons brandy or orange liqueur

In a large saucepan, combine the Oregon grapes and enough water to cover them. Cover the pan, and boil the berries gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Crush the berries with a potato masher or other tool, and then boil them gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes more.      

Oregon grape seedsPress the berries and their liquid through the fine screen of a food mill or through a strainer, leaving the seeds behind. Measure the purée; you should have 5 to 6 cups. Put the purée into a preserving pan along with the same volume of sugar. Heat the mixture, stirring, over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium-high. Boil the mixture until it “sheets” from a spoon or until the temperature reaches 218 degrees F. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the brandy or liqueur.

Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Makes about 4 pints

Making Oregon grape jam is slightly more work than making Oregon grape jelly, since the latter requires only dripping, not pressing. The result really isn’t much different; both the jelly and the jam turn out opaque, smooth, and richly flavored.

You could vary this recipe by adding spices—a stick of cinnamon, for example—or using another sort of liquor (I used my sister’s homemade liqueur of rosemary and Meyer lemon). If it’s a truly rough texture you want, you could include some or all of the seeds.

 

*Mahonia nervosa, also known as Oregon grape, is a related, shorter species with similar berries that can be used in the same ways as those of Mahonia aquifolia—in jellies, jams, pies, and wine.

Quince Jelly Candy

Here’s another, rather extravagant way to use the last of the season’s quinces. I devised this recipe because I wanted something similar to quince paste but prettier and more delicate. Quince jelly candy makes a lovely addition to a holiday sweetmeat platter.

If you don’t like cardamon, leave it out; you might use a cinnamon stick instead. If you really like cardamom, use six pods instead of four.

2 1/2 pounds quinces, with cores and skins, sliced fine
4 cardamon pods
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon strained lemon juice
Extra-fine sugar, for coating the jelly

Combine the quinces, cardamom, and water in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Simmer the quinces, covered, until the fruit and juice turn pink, or about 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Stir occasionally during the cooking, and take care to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching. Add a little more water if necessary.

Strain the juice through a coarsely woven jelly bag. You should get about 1 cup juice.

Combine the quince juice with the sugar and lemon juice in a 10-inch skillet. Heat the mixture slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, and then bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. When the syrup “sheets,” or when a drop hangs stubbornly from a raised metal spoon, quickly empty the pan into a 5-by-7-inch mold (I use a small Pyrex casserole dish), leaving any foam behind on the side of the pan. Reaching the gel point should take no more than a few minutes; it may happen, in fact, before the syrup even comes to a full boil. (If you’re not sure that the syrup is jelling; remove the pan from the heat briefly before emptying it into the mold. If the syrup is jelling, the cooling surface will wrinkle slightly when you tip the pan.)

Let the jelly cool and dry in the mold until the jelly is fully set; you’ll know it is if the lower edge fails to swell when you tip the mold. I let my jelly sit in the mold at cool room temperature for about two days. In a warm, dry place, you might allow for less drying time. To speed the process, put the mold into a food dehydrator or oven at a temperature of about 150 degrees F.

Sprinkle a board or plate with about 1 tablespoon of extra-fine sugar. With a table knife or small spatula, loosen the edges of the jelly from the dish. With your fingers, carefully lift the sheet of jelly from the mold and lay the jelly on the sugared plate or board. Turn the jelly over to coat the other side with sugar. Slice the jelly into 1-inch squares, sprinkle them with more extra-fine sugar, and store them in an airtight tin lined with waxed paper.

Makes about 1 cup jelly candies

The Oregon Grape

Wild Fruit for a Tart and Tasty Jelly

In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.

If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.

In either its tall or short form, Oregon grape, Mahonia, is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.

In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.

It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.

 

Oregon Grape Jelly

3 cups Oregon grape juice
2 ¼ cups sugar

Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.

Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.

Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.