In the summer of 2013 I visited a friend in Dusseldorf. We both gravitate toward food and our conversations start, end, and are about food. Of course this makes sense if you are the guest of an artist that works mainly with food, people, and memory.
Back in the fall of 2011 I met Arpad Dobriban and Stephanie Junge at the Headlands Center for the Arts. They both were artists in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, just as I had been the year before. It was a chance encounter that would turn into a wonderful friendship.
At the time Arpad was working on a long term project. The project involved finding people who had a memory of a dish from their childhood and no way to (re)create it. Many reasons lead to the recipes being lost, but usually it was because the person who prepared the dish had long ago passed away without sharing the recipe.
Arpad's work started with interviewing potential candidates, looking for a challenging dish, something unique. From these interviews he would pick a dozen people and invite them to help him cook his way back to that dish. I would later refer to his process as forensic cooking, a odd name but to the point.
During this one-on-one time Arpad would only have someone else's memory, and taste buds, to work with. He would meticulously work though the flavors, breaking down the possible ingredients, plumping the depths of his vast knowledge of food and culture. I remember talking with one of the lucky people that had spent the day cooking with Arpad. Of Philippine descent, her grandmother made a dish that she longed to make for herself. At the end of the day she was beside herself, Arpad had worked his way through the ingredients that he assumed he would need and cooked his way back to the flavors she so longed to taste again. One of the comments she made, which still makes me smile, "I remember vividly the exact moment when his [Arpad's] strange kitchen, half way across the world, started to smell exactly like my grandmother's kitchen. It was then that I knew we would get there."
Let's return to the seedless red currant jam. During the summer visit in 2013 Arpad spoke of the seedless currant jam his grandmother made when he was a young boy. He was planning on experimenting with the recipe until he reached his own childhood memory, but lacked the correct tool to remove the seeds from the fruit. If you've ever seen a red current then you'll know that most of the inside of the fruit is tiny seeds. Arpad had assembled on the kitchen table all types of odd instruments and had tried, with various success, to remove the seeds of the red currant.
A little research revealed that red currant seeds were traditionally removed with a goose quill. We didn't have access to a goose or its feather. After a bit of pondering I wondered, out loud, if a plastic straw could stand in for a goose quill. Moments later Arpad and I were on our way to a restaurant supply store. We purchased 3 different diameters of straws and went back to Arpad's kitchen to experiment.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with step one....
(All the photos in this post were taken by Jennifer Berry.)
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Step 1: Getting Your Red Currants
The season for red currants is late July through August. It will vary depending on where you live*. Try to buy them directly from the producer as you will get the freshest fruit. Get them the morning they are picked or if you can pick them yourself.
Here's the USDA's listing for red currants.
*Arpad mentioned that the season in Europe was end of June to mid July.
Step 2: Washing the Fruit
Regardless of where you bought your currants, it's good to wash them. I fill a big bowl, usually from my salad spinner, with fresh water. I dump a large batch of red currants into the water and gently stir them with my hands. You don't want to damage the fruit. After a few minutes I'll pour out the water while holding back the fruit. I usually do this in the garden and water the plants with the washing water. Note the color of the water as you wash the fruit. After 2-4 times of washing the water will appear as clear as when you filled the bowl. Don't toss the last wash water as you can use it to start the next batch.
Step 3: Stemming and Sorting
Pick the fruit off the stems and keep the best fruit for your jam. The obsessed should use a small pair of scissors to clip the fruit off the stem. You'll snip right at the junction of the stem as pulling the fruit off the stem often tears the fruit skin. If you're going for the perfect jam you'll be digging around for your sewing kit for your thread scissors.
Step 4: Shaping Your Quill
As I mentioned in the introduction we'll be using plastic straws in place of a goose quill. If you happen to have a goose quill laying around feel free to use it.
The shape of the quill is personal preference but I'll give you a place to start. Oddly enough the starting shape is quite close to that of a fountain pen.
Use a sharp kitchen knife to shape your straw quill. Feel free to experiment with the shape until you have something that works for you.
Step 5: Seeding the Fruit
I like to use the tip of the straw quill to make a small incision opposite of where the stem was attached. Then I pinch the fruit gently to reveal the seeds. Using the v-notch I remove the seeds. If you do it just right the seeds will be on the tip of your quill and as you release the pinch the fruit body will go back into the skin. This will make for the best looking jam.
Step 6: Sterilizing the Jars
If you gone this far you don't want anything to eat your jam before you do. It hard to believe that germ theory happened so late in human history and there's no reason for you to return to the dark ages.
Grab your largest pot, fill it with water*, and get it boiling. From here on out what you do to, and how you handle, the jars will make all the difference in the shelf life of your jam.
Place the first group of jars in the boiling water, allow the water to come back to a boil, then boil them for 10 minutes.
Remove the jars and place them face down on a sterile surface or face up, for easy filling, but covered with a freshly washed (with bleach) kitchen towel.
Repeat the process until all your jars are sterilized.
*Arpad recommends a little vinegar if you have a high mineral content in your water.
Step 7: Cooking the Red Currants
Here's Arpad's recipe.
Weigh your fruit. We'll be making a sugar syrup and adding the fruit to the sugar syrup. You'll need 1/3 the weight of the fruit in sugar. If you have 1 pound of fruit you'll need 1/3 of a pound of sugar.
In a pot large enough to hold your fruit heat equal parts sugar and water to 125°C (250°F). Arpad recommends stirring the sugar/water as little as possible. He's noticed that heavily stirred syrups produce sugar crystal in jams.
Next, add the berries and stir until 104°C (220°F)
You shouldn't need to add gelatin, fight the urge to do so. Remember it's a jam not a jelly.
Step 8: Into the Jars
From here on you'll want to work quick, you don't have to rush but it's not a good time to answer a phone call.
Fill your jars. If you drip here and there don't worry about it, you want to get all that goodness in the jars quickly.
Step 9: Into the Oven
You'll want your jam to keep so you'll need to add a little more heat.
Pre-heat your oven to 80°C (175°F)
Pack your jars in the oven and let them soak in the heat for 20-30 minutes.
Pull them out of the oven and put the lids on them then wrap them in as many blankets as you have. The goal is to keep them as warm as possible for a few more hours without having to waste gas/electricity.