How lucky can we be?—our recent heat and humidity pale when late August brings damsons to Mississippi Market from Jim Barnard in Michigan, as they have this week.
Damsons are right up there with unicorns for their rarity, yet almost every year, Jim manages to bring us a small quantity of these exceptional and rare gifts. For those of you who enjoy making jam or who aspire to make jam, there’s no better fruit than damsons, for they’re very rich in pectin and therefore gell readily. Though small and unprepossessing—they’re round, blue-purple on the outside, a shaded chartreuse within—they produce a shockingly magenta jam.
Damsons are the wee European descendants of wild plums from Damascus, Syria (hence their name). They have a very short harvest season, and because they aren’t eating plums—they’re very tart (mouthpuckering might be a more apt description)—they’re grown only for preserving. We are lucky to offer them at Mississippi Market—they are available to very few American and Canadian cooks!
Here’s how to make damson jam. If you’re already an experienced jam maker but haven’t worked with damsons, all you need to know is that their pits are deeply embedded, so it’s best to soften the fruit before attempting to remove the pits. You probably want to include their beautifully, luridly colored skins, despite most recipes’ recommendation that you discard them, but be sure to allow the skins to soften up fully before you add sugar; otherwise, the skins will stiffen and refuse to soften.The jam will gell almost immediately after the sugar has dissolved, so be vigilant in observing and testing it.
This could not be simpler. Damsons are packed with pectin, so don’t even consider using commercial pectin as an additive. Some recipes will tell you to peel your Damsons, or pit them before you cook them but that’s daft: the skins are where the color (and much of the flavor) dwells.
The instructions below are for anyone who hasn’t jammed before. Damsons are the kindliest and most accommodating of fruits for jam making, so your first effort should be a success.
5 1/2-pint jars
5 bands and new lids
small bowl in which to soak the bands and lids
large, lightweight pot big enough to accommodate 5 1/2-pint jars with 1 inch between
them and equipped with either a folded towel or a trivet on which you can place
heavy, preferably broad pot for making the jam
food mill, food processor, or bowl and potato masher for homogenizing the cooked plums
4–6-cup glass measure
stainless-steel canning funnel
2½ pounds of Damsons
1/4 cup of water
2/3 cup of white sugar per 1 cup of prepared plums (see below)
Makes about 4 half pints.
1. Place a saucer in your freezer to cool.
2. Before you heat up your jars, lids, and bands, stop for a minute and put a lid atop one of the jars. Then screw on the lid, but not as tightly as it can go: just firmly enough that you would need to use three fingers to unscrew it. Now take a look at the center of the lid: you’ll see that it’s slightly raised, like a little out-y belly button. Push a finger down on it: you’ll see and hear that it flexes. That’s how an unsealed lid looks, feels, and sounds. Make a note of it, because after you’ve canned one or two batches, you may discover that one of your jars fails to seal, and you now know how to identify an unsealed lid. Now put your uncovered jars on a trivet or a towel in the large, thin pot and cover with 2 inches of water above the jars; set on high heat and cover. Once the water comes to a vigorous, rolling boil, set a timer for 10 minutes to sterilize your jars. Or simply get the potful of water very hot, including the jars, without bringing them to a rolling boil.
3. Put the lids and bands in a bowl and cover them with hot water (tap water is fine). You aren’t trying to sterilize the lids and bands; all you’re doing is softening up the rubber seal on the lids.
4. Put the plums in the heavy pot and add about ¼ c. water. Cover and and simmer on MEDIUM-LOW, for about 15–20 minutes. When you lift up the lid, you’ll receive quite a shock: those rather dull-colored little plums have turned a shocking magenta. Continue simmering them with the lid off until the skins become very soft and burst open, another 10 minutes or so. (If you do not have a heavy pot for this part of the operation, you’ll need to keep the heat very low and stir often so your plums do not stick to the bottom.)
5. You will soon have a batch of soft whole plums, pulp, skins, and pits. Ladle this mixture into a food mill equipped with its coarsest disc and grind away over a 6-cup measure, stopping occasionally to scrape the milled mixture from the underside of the disc. If you don’t have a food mill, you can scrape everything into a food processor and buzz it for 2 seconds several times. Then, sad to say, you must remove all of the pits by hand (if you had used a food mill, the mill would have taken care of this for you). Or you put everything into a meshed sieve over a mixing bowl and press the pulp through with a potato masher. Then scrape any liquid (it will already have thickened!) from the heavy pot into the measure, give everything a stir, and read the volume on the side of the cup. You will probably have about 4 cups.
6. Put the pulp and its liquid back into the heavy pot, turn the heat back to MEDIUM-LOW, and gradually add 2/3 c. of white sugar for each cup of pulp. Pour each sugar measure into the center of the pot, stir it in, and wait for it to completely dissolve before adding the next one.
7. Once all of the sugar has dissolved completely, turn the heat to MEDIUM or MEDIUM-HIGH, whatever brings the plum mass up to a gentle boil. Bring the plums to a boil, and as soon as the mixture looks as if it’s cohering, test it for gelling. To do this, remove the pot from the heat, lest you overcook it. Please understand that gelling is reached while the mixture is still liquid.
8. Test for gelling by taking a tiny drop of the jam—no larger than the head of a thumb tack—out of the pot with a spoon and placing it on the saucer you’ve kept in the freezer. If the drop mounds and doesn’t run after you’ve allowed it to sit on the plate for about 15 seconds, your jam has gelled, despite the fact that it still looks very liquid. It will thicken up considerably while it cools, so please make the leap of faith and believe it will thicken up without further cooking. If you keep cooking it, you will end up with Damson marmelada, a paste akin to membrillo, not a limpid, juicy Damson spoon jam.
9. Once your jam has gelled, remove the preserving pan from the heat. Empty the jars, two or three at a time, and move them from the canning pot to your wooden cutting board or a countertop covered by a double thickness of kitchen towel. Move the towel or board as close to the potful of jam as you can get it.
10. Place your canning funnel in the first jar and use a ladle to load jam into it to 1/4 inch from the top. (¼ inch is the top embossed band on the outside of the canning jar.) Use a cloth or paper towel dipped in water to wipe the top and sides of the jar’s lip clean.
11. Place a hot, wet lid atop the filled jar. Then screw a band onto the jar, tightening it with only three fingers—the aim here is not to tighten the band as much as possible but to keep the lid firmly in place while the vacuum is being formed. If you feel compelled to tighten the band all the way, then back it off about 20°.
12. Fill all of the the jars. If the last jar isn’t full, cover it with a plastic lid, place it in the fridge, and use it first—that’s your cook’s privilege! (You need a full jar to form a vacuum. Partial jars are yours to enjoy right away.)
13. Using the jar lifter, place the jars in your canning pot, making sure that they are covered by at least 2 inches of water with at least 1 inch of space between them. Turn the heat up to HIGH and cover the canner.
14. When the water starts boiling vigorously, turn the heat down just a bit—it should still boil—and start the timer: boil the jars for 10 minutes if you heated but did not sterilize them first, or for 5 minutes if you sterilized them first.
15. At the end of the time, use your jar lifter to lift out each jar and move it to the wooden or towel-covered surface. Do not tilt the jars to sluice off the water when you remove them from the canning pot—simply lift them straight up. Yes, it’s very tempting to tilt them to get rid of that water, but by doing so, you may break the seal. The water and the contents of the jar are so hot that the water will evaporate within a couple of minutes. You will probably hear most of the jars immediately ring forth with a piiiing!—the audible sign that a vacuum has formed and the jar has sealed. Seals can take up to 12 hours to form, so don’t worry if you don’t hear all of them at once; for that matter, you may miss hearing them entirely.
16. The sound is less importance than the appearance. You already know what an unsealed lid looks like: its center is slightly convex and fairly elastic. When a vacuum forms, the center of the lid is pulled downward by the absence of air and becomes taut. Don’t press down on the center of the lid to test it. Simply compare the appearance of the lids on jars that have pinged and look taut, and you’ll know if you have one that hasn’t sealed.
17. If one or more of your jars does not form a seal within 12 hours, you have two choices: you can refrigerate your jam and use it from the fridge, or you can put it back in a boiling water bath for another 10 minutes.
Your jam will be somewhat loose and syrup-y for about 24 hours; thereafter, it will become firmer. This recipe is designed to produce a spoon jam, meaning that it will have a fairly loose texture equally good on bread/toast or spooned over ice cream or custard. Or directly into your grateful mouth!
If you have questions about using damsons, email me at email@example.com.