There are chocolate people, and there are fruit people. Rachel Saunders is clearly a fruit-obsessed sort, as evident by her hefty new book, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. How many more great books on marmalade and such do we really need? One more, apparently.
Saunders, the owner and founder of Blue Chair Fruit Company in Oakland, tackles the familiar topic by starting with the fruit itself. And why you really should be making marmalade over three days rather than one to get the best flavor (Surely you're not giving those Seville oranges only one day, are you?). How to achieve that perfect marmalade texture by first studying the physical characteristics of the peel (thickness, toughness, stringiness) to decide how many times the fruit should be cooked; what level of dice you really want (Fine, medium, thick cut or perhaps even a hybrid marmalade incorporating some of the fruit's flesh?), along with photos showing various stages of the finished product (when it's not quite set, when it's just right). All before you get to the recipes.
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The point that Saunders is trying to make in those first 50 pages? Following a recipe for jams and marmalade is inherently problematic. More so, perhaps, even than other recipes, as each batch of fruit is going to have more extreme levels of fructose variation, than say, different brands of chocolate chips for your standard cookie recipes. Herein lies the problem with most jam and marmalade recipes (How can you specify a sugar amount if you don't know how sweet those strawberries are?). That jams and marmalade are often based on historic recipes that tend to be sweeter than our modern palettes prefer (or at least tongues not numbed by high fructose corn syrup), complicates the sugar issue.
But you want to know about the recipes. Yes, they're great. Saunders takes an ingredient -- here, fruit -- and plays with it differently every time. She pairs that strawberry jam with aged balsamic and black pepper one day, rosemary and plums another, or maybe Meyer lemons and rose geranium. But as this is a cookbook, she also talks you through how she arrived at that pear jam with vanilla and elderflower combination, and why you really should take a second look at chestnut honey as a jam ingredient.
This woman is so fruit-obsessed that she has even turned the standard glossary at the end of the book into its own chapter (a fruit glossary, of course). And so if you happen to stumble upon quirky ridged lemon-like orbs at the farmers' market (etrog) and are curious how to slice, dice and use the citrus fruit that Saunders says has an "overwhelmingly strong citronella-like aroma... [and] almost soap-like" flavor, she recommends tempering its flavor with "multiple blanching in order to be palatable enough to eat." Yum.
And yet prepared properly, she says, that etrog becomes the loveliest jam imaginable, "a golden jelly with filaments of citron swirling throughout." Is Saunders a manic-obsessive jam cook? Absolutely. So much so that we actually want to try that pear jam with green cardamom recipe, even though we don't have a single single sterilized jar in our kitchen.