Christmas is Coming – Red Wine Jelly

I like preparing for Christmas. There’s something about the smells of cooking festive goodies that add to the delicious anticipation of 25 December. This year, I made red wine jelly for gifts. Reducing the red wine created a juicy berry and rather alcoholic fug that lingered about the house for a few hours. It’s a very simple because there’s no faffing around with peeling and chopping fruit. I just bought the cheapest bottle of varietal wine I could find – this meaning no anonymous “red table wine”. The supermarket had a shiraz and a merlot on sale for $16, so that was it. Here’s what the final results look like sitting in the fridge. Don’t they look adorable all dressed up with Christmas ribbon?

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I based my recipe on one from America’s Test Kitchen (log in required to see their recipe). Not having liquid pectin available, I substituted the powdered type. That first batch was far too sweet, although I liked the concentrated berry flavours from reducing about a third of the wine separately.

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The rest of the bottle goes into the actual jelly part, with pectin and sugar added, as is lemon juice for a punch of acidity. I added a drop of flavourless oil (in my case sunflower) to stop excessive foaming. This doesn’t mean that the mixture won’t bubble like mad. It simply means that the foam will go away, very important for a smooth top on your jelly.

If you’re not interested in preserving and want to use the jelly quickly, like in the week or so, then jump straight to the recipe at the bottom. The rest is about how to preserve in sterilised glass bottles.

One thing that people may not realise is that making preserves in Singapore isn’t easy because it’s hard to come by the right jars. The general advice is not to reuse them, or at least use new lids each time. Good luck on finding new lids for old jar. I ended up buying new ones. Proper jars with metal lids I got from Isetan ($2.50 or so per 150ml jar, more for the 300ml ones), with cheaper reinforcements from Ikea (4 for about $4). The problem with the Ikea ones are that the lids are plastic with metal paint on the top. Don’t diss them for being cheap, they’re still very smart all gussied up with Christmas ribbon.

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The second step to making preserves is to start sterilising your jars before you make the jam. There are various methods for doing it and I chose was I felt was most hassle free – using my oven. First I lined the base of a wire rack with some newspaper and put the freshly washed jars right side up, then set the oven to 150ºC. The metal lids I put in a pan of water and set it to boil. The plastic ones I left alone because I wasn’t sure if they would be able to withstand the heat of sterilisation. I just popped them on and hope the jelly still keeps. Once you’ve got your jars and lids going, get started on the jelly.

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Once the jelly is ready, cover a surface with a tea towel on which to set the jars down, and get out your funnel (or just be ultra careful when pouring) some spare tea towels and your oven mitts. Then carefully extract your bottles one by one from the oven with your mitts and place on the tea towel. Be careful, they are incredibly hot and it’s not obvious at all. Carefully transfer the jelly mixture into each bottle just up to the next. If your funnel is plastic, hold it carefully so it doesn’t touch the sides of the bottle. The jelly mixture will bubble, showing that the bottles really are hot! When the bottles are all filled, carefully use a damp cloth to wipe away any stray jelly mixture on the screw threads. Fish out your lids one by one from the hot water, dry with a clean tea towel and screw on gingerly till fairly tight but don’t force it all the way. (If using the Ikea bottles, forget about inverting. Just make sure the bottles are as clean as you can make them and finish the contents quickly. I’d say keep in the fridge and consume within a month.)

Now carefully turn each bottle over – this is to ensure that the lids are screwed on correctly. Then leave to cool. If not screwed right, quickly turn right way up and sort out the mess if this happens (yup – been there, done that). Rinse and reboil the lid, top up with whatever jelly you may have left, screw on the lid tightly. Then put this stray bottle back in the hot oven and leave for about 20 minutes. Remove and screw the cap on tightly, then invert and allow to cool with the rest.

It’s not as hard as it sounds from the above passage. Just read through carefully and take your time for the first attempt. Ready for the recipe?

Ingredients:

1 750ml bottle of red wine (merlot or shiraz both work well)
500g sugar
50g powdered pectin
3 tbsp lemon juice
drop of unflavoured oil

Method:

  1. Sterilise your bottles and caps (see preceding paragraphs).
  2. Reduce about a third of the wine (200ml if you’re measuring) in a small pan over medium heat till reduced to about 50ml or so. It takes about 20 minutes.
  3. In the mean time, heat the remaining wine on high, then mix the sugar and powdered pectin thoroughly in a bowl. Add the sugar-pectin mixture to the hot wine and bring to a rapid bowl. Add the drop of oil.
  4. Reduce the heat so it bubbles but not threaten to boil over. Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes or till you don’t see anymore pectin granules.
  5. Stir in reduced wine and turn off the heat.
  6. Pour into sterilised jars, cap, and allow to cool.

Makes 4 150ml jars.

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Semi-Authentic Bolognese Ragu

I was looking for an old bolognese recipe from Delia Smith that involved chicken livers (love them!) but came across an even more authentic version from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. Sadly, it involved very expensive ingredients, like pancetta in large proportions, and impossible to find ones, like triple concentrated tomato paste. Everything else, however, was relatively easy to find, and was surprisingly simple. I was surprised to find that there isn’t any garlic in true-blue bolognese, neither is there bay leaf or other herb. I substituted bacon for pancetta and passata (sieved tomato puree) for the tomato paste. The hint of tomato adds to the flavour backdrop and the surprise ingredient was milk, which added richness and unctuousness to the sauce. The only embellishment allowed was porcini mushrooms. I was delighted because I have a giant bulk bottle of dried ones bought at a very reasonable price at the gourmet store. This, together with the bacon, tomato and red wine added melded wonderfully with the beef to give an unbelievably rich and complex sauce, better than anything at even the most “authentic” Italian restaurant in Singapore.

It freezes really well and I now make it in bulk. Check out the quantities I used for 1kg of minced beef! First I minced all the solid ingredients as finely as possible. Onion, carrot and celery went into my mini electric chopper and came out in tiny bits. I unsuccessfully asked for my bacon to be minced at the butchers, but the Culina counter doesn’t do it! My electric chopper didn’t do very well chopping up the bacon, so much of it was done by hand. Will try to partially freeze the bacon next time, or get a better chopper.

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It was then a simple, but rather laborious task of first browning and releasing the fat from the bacon and then sweating the vegetables in the rendered bacon fat (mmm… bacon!). Then add the meat and keep stirring, followed by the rest of the ingredients. It makes so much that my giant wok can barely take all of it, and gets quite watery at the beginning especially when I couldn’t get triple concentrated tomato paste and had to substitute passata instead. But bubbling it for about four hours and stirring every now and then yields a thick brown sauce that clings easily to noodles.

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I like my spaghetti bolognese, as inauthentic as it is, and served it with a hurried grating of parmesan cheese and blanched green vegetables. When I defrost a portion for dinner, I tend to cook the pasta (sometimes using linguine or penne) till bordering al dente, and fry the noodles in the sauce, adding a bit of pre-salted cooking water from the pasta till it’s al dente. It’s a wonderful post-work dinner when you can’t imagine doing any laborious cooking yet want something comforting. Plus, it’s fairly healthy considering that it’s about 50:50 meat to vegetable content.

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Ingredients

3 big handfuls dried porcini or as much as you can spare
5 onions
5 carrots
8 stalks celery
500 g bacon
1 tbsp oil
1 kg minced beef
200ml passata
200ml red wine, white wine or vermouth
200ml milk

Method:

  1. Rinse the porcini briefly and soak in a little water to soften.
  2. Chop finely the onions, carrots, celery and bacon.
  3. In the biggest pan you can find, heat the oil gently and add the bacon, frying till most of the fat is rendered and the bacon bits are golden brown.
  4. Add the chopped vegetables and sweat for about 10 minutes or till vegetables are translucent.
  5. Turn up the heat slightly to about medium-high. Add the minced beef and break up any chunks. Keep doing it till the meat is browned in parts and you’re having trouble keeping the mixture from burning.
  6. Add the passata, wine and milk. Stir till all the stuck on bit at the bottom of the pan are scraped up.
  7. Strain the porcini, keeping the soaking liquid. Cut up any large bits and add both porcini. Filter the liquid to remove grit (I normally use a paper stock bag as a filter) and add the liquid to the pan.
  8. Turn down the heat to the lowest possible and simmer for four hours, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add salt and pepper to taste before serving on hot pasta. Or let cool completely and freeze in single or double serving bags.

Makes a lot, probably about 20 servings.

The Best Prime Rib

What do you do when you have big eater coming over for dinner? Cook a prime rib of course! Ours came by special delivery from Huber’s and was reasonably priced considering how gargantuan that wodge of meat was. It was just the right occasion to try out a slow cooked recipe from Serious Eats. I was so amazed by how simple to cook and how amazing the prime rib turned out.

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It arrived at 11am and I quickly fired up my oven to 70 ºC before lovingly massaging the joint with black pepper and sea salt. Once it was ready, I set it on a rack in a tray and bunged it in, setting the alarm for 4 hours later.

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Then I got round to making some herb butters by chopping up some herbs (rosemary at the left front and chervil at the right back) and smushing them with a bit of sea salt into soft butter. The lot was patted into a log and wrapped in cling film and fridged.

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After 4 hours, I checked and the joint wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t until 6 hours later that my meat thermometer registered a healthy 50ºC and we were ready to get on with the next step. I left it out to rest for a while (uncovered because I was busy with everything else!). It looked terrible for that long wait before F and R turned up.

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But they finally did, and I cranked up the oven to 250ºC and bunged the whole lot in for 10 minutes. The results were beautiful! (And check out how the joint dwarfs my chef’s knife!)

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Look at those Flintstone-worthy slabs of rare meat!

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Here, after having rested a bit, so it got more red.

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We happily apportioned the pieces, not realising at first how freakin’ big each of the intial slices were.

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The most desired part was the end, so that we could get at the yummy burnt bits with crispy fat. The other side was of course completely red.

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Then it was time to eat! We anointed the prime rib with all sorts of goodies like pesto sauce (from our minestrone starter), the herb butters, porcini and red wine sauce made with the beef juices, Dijon mustard, and bits and bobs from our appetisers – marinated roma tomatoes, olives and cured beef tongue. It was all super good with a lovely red that F and R brought.

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The next day brought more joy with the leftovers. I laid cold slices of prime rib over some salad leaves, cooked chickpeas and leftovers from the deli, then drizzled over some dressing made from mustard, balsamic vinegar and a touch of pomegranate molasses. Lovely!

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Here’s the recipe:

1 piece of bone-in prime rib (mine had 2 ribs and weighed almost 3kg)
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 70ºC.
  2. Rub the prime rib generously with salt and pepper, then bung in the oven for 4-6 hours.
  3. Check the internal temperature after 4 hours (50ºC for rare, 55ºC for medium rare – anything more and you’re on your own, sorry). It’s unlikely to be ready at this stage, so stick back in the oven and prep the rest of your dinner – cook soup, bake bread or whatever.
  4. When the inside is ready, take out and leave on counter while you crank up your oven to 250ºC or the highest your oven goes.
  5. It should take about 30 minutes or so before your oven gets to the right temperature. Now gather everyone for dinner, have the first course or whatever.
  6. Replace the prime rib in the super hot oven and leave for 10 minutes or almost burnt, whichever is earlier.
  7. Take out and carve.

Feeds 6 big eaters. Leftovers keep nicely for a week, if any longer freeze and it’s still beautiful a month later.

Grilled Fish – Laksa Style

Here’s another meal that I threw together from what I had in the freezer. As I keep going on about in my cooking posts, it’s absolutely vital to have a well-stocked freezer. It will get you out of all sorts of quandaries. What you see in the picture below used to be frozen solid in my freezer. Well, except for the laksa paste, which was sitting patiently in my fridge waiting to be used up. The snapper and the various herbs like the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, ginger and chilli had all been prepared and put away for a lazy day like today. A quick thaw and they were all ready to go. A tip on thawing – take the fish out first and make sure it’s thoroughly thawed, putting the plastic bag of frozen fish in tap water helps a lot. Change the water often and use warm (not hot!) water if you’re in a rush. Make sure the fish is bendy before you start to make sure it’s thawed thoroughly. To thaw out the herbs, you can chuck them in the foil while warming the grill to help speed things along.

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So what results do you get from slathering the fish with spice paste, stuffing every crevice with herbs and then grilling it? First, a wonderfully aromatic kitchen. Then for dinner, slightly charred and deliciously tender fish. You don’t have to use laksa paste, or any paste at all. Use what you have, maybe Thai green curry paste, or chicken rice paste or just minced garlic or mince ginger. Or plain herbs without any paste. It’s all good.

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Serve it up with rice and fried greens and it makes for a wholesome and delicious dinner. Here, I used barley for something with a bit more bite and interest. (To cook barley, cover half a cup of the grain with about 2cm depth of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Let it simmer till the water’s pretty much all absorbed, then turn off and cover till the fish is ready.) Sorry for the messed up fish because I was too eager and mushed it up a bit. I also undercooked it slightly and had to return the undercooked bits to the grill for a while more. Don’t worry, I make mistakes so you can benefit from them!

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Here’s the recipe, improvise as you like!

Ingredients:

1 small red snapper
2 tbsp laksa paste
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced
8 kaffir lime leaves, ribs removed
5 slices galangal
5 slices ginger
1 red chilli, sliced
2 calamansi limes, halved
olive oil

Method:

  1. Heat the grill and line an oven pan with aluminium foil.
  2. Clean the fish and check that the scales have been thoroughly removed and that the guts are washed clean.
  3. Using a sharp knife, make 4 or 5 slits across the fish, perpendicular to backbone.
  4. Slather the slits and the stomach cavity with laksa paste, then stuff each slit with one kaffir lime leaf and one slice of lemongrass.
  5. Stuff the stomach cavity so that it is full the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chilli.
  6. Strew the remaining herbs on the aluminium foil and sit the fish on top.
  7. Grill for 10-15 minutes on each side, turning when the skin turns brown and starts to blister and then fins char. About 10 minutes for a 1-person fish and 15 minutes for a 2-person fish.
  8. Serve with a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 2.

Freshly Made Bread

I’ve been toying around with a bread recipe, adapted from Nigel Slater’s fantastically practical and very approachable book Appetite. I’d been faffing around with other bread recipes and a bread machine. I gave up on being lazy with the bread machine – sure, it’s easy, but it turns out bread that isn’t a great deal different from the stuff in the shops in the plastic bag. Baking my own bread seemed much more satisfying as the loaves that came out were beautifully crisp on the outside, and when still hot, soft and yielding on the inside. One of the joys in life is a simple home made soup with freshly baked bread spread lavishly with butter. I toyed with the original recipe, adding wholewheat flour and bran, and trying out various shapes and sizes, from buns…

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… to freeform loaves as per the original recipe, and finding that the freeform loaves tend to spread a lot. Plus the control freak in me doesn’t like how slices from the end and slices from the middle differ so freakin’ much that portion control is an issue. So I slapped it in a tin and it came out just as nice, only not quite as pretty.

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Here’s my tweaked recipe:

Ingredients:

600g bread flour
150g atta flour (wholewheat flour)
10g bran
1½ tsp salt
3 tsp yeast
500ml warm water

Method:

  1. Measure out the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. I use a jumbo-size metal mixing bowl about 60cm in diameter so I can knead and do everything directly in the bowl.
  2. Pour about 450ml of the warm water gradually into the dry ingredients and mix with one hand (this is to keep the other hand free in case you need to grab more flour or water). Work the water into the flour mixture to form a dough. Start kneading it by pushing it down firmly with the heel of your hand, turning and folding and continue to do so for about 10 minutes. It needs more flour if the dough won’t come off your hands, keeping kneading more flour in till it stops sticking. If it’s very hard to knead, you may need to add a few drops more of water till the dough is easier to work.
  3. Cover with a dish cloth and leave to rise for an hour or until doubled in size.
  4. Punch down the dough and knead again for 2 minutes.
  5. Flour a paper-lined tray and plonk your dough in whatever shape you want it to be. Remember that the dough rises and spreads significantly. One recipe makes 6 small buns and one loaf of bread in a 500g loaf pan. You can also do it free form but this requires either leaving the bread either rather flat and long or, as Nigel does it, tucking the bread in very gently to a high ball. I’ve only done it successfully half the time without making the whole thing collapse.
  6. Thickly flour the top of your bread and leave to rise till doubled again, about another hour.
  7. Pre-heat the oven to 250°C and when the dough is risen, put in the oven. Bake at 250°C for 10 minutes, then turn down to 220°C for another 20 minutes or until the bread turns golden brown. Remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. If you’re using a loaf tin, it’s probably a good idea to take the loaf out of the tin when the time is up (30 minutes) and bake upside down for another 5 minutes to allow the insides to brown slightly.

Makes 1 loaf and 6 small buns or one large free form loaf.

I’ve also made some rather lovely sandwiches with the home made bread. It’s a delicious filling with some common things I tend to have in my fridge – chicken shreds, Chinese cabbage, mustard and yogurt. If I have homemade yogurt, I normally strain it in cheesecloth so it’s almost solid. Otherwise, I’d use Greek yogurt for similar thickness. This filling is a take on chicken coleslaw, so use carrot slivers if you can be bothered with the knife work, or onion if you like the flavours punchier, or mayonnaise if that’s what you have on hand. Leave out the meat altogether if you’re going vegetarian or add canned tuna. I happened to have some ham in the fridge, and it really upped things a notch. Let me know what combinations you like to use!

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Sandwich filling

Ingredients:

1 chicken breast, cooked and shredded
2-3 handfuls of shredded Chinese cabbage (about 4 large leaves)
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (or to taste)
3 tbsp strained yogurt or Greek yogurt
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method:

  1. It can’t be easier – combine all ingredients and taste till you’re happy.
  2. When assembling the sandwiches, make sure you either spread the bread generously with butter or use a lettuce leaf (dried with paper towel) to separate the bread from the filling. Otherwise, the sandwiches will get soggy if you’re not eating them straight away. Another good reason to use thick, strained yogurt.

Fills 4 generous sandwiches.

 

Korean-Style Chicken Soup

I had a strange craving for Korean-style chicken soup. There’s something about the cloudy, aromatic soup with glutinous rice-stuffed chicken that made me obsessed about it for days. I found myself thwarted quite a few times – the first time, there was no Sakura chicken (it just tastes better, and hopefully is better for health) in the supermarket, then I realised that there wasn’t any glutinous rice. On the day I made it, I found that the dried red dates I bought were mouldy. So they went in the trash and I winged it.

I didn’t want to use too much chicken (Sakura chicken is not cheap), so stuffing a whole chicken with glutinous rice the traditional Korean way was out of the question. I used half a chicken instead and stuffed the glutinous rice into paper gauze bags (like tea bags) for simmering herbs in stock. They worked a charm and it was easy to retrieve the rice from the soup without it turning into porridge. It’s such an easy, tasty recipe!

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I served it with noodles (go easy on the noodles because there’s also glutinous rice for carbs) and scalded pea shoots for a warming and nutritious lunch. Super yummy!

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Ingredients:

half a chicken
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup glutinous rice, packed into 2 stock bags
500ml chicken stock or water
2 king oyster mushrooms, sliced

Method:

  1. Put the chicken, garlic and glutinous rice packets into a claypot. Pour on the chicken stock or water until it covers the chicken. Cover and bring to a simmer on low heat. Leave to simmer for about 1 hour.
  2. Before serving, put in the mushrooms and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Add salt to taste. If I use chicken stock, it’s normally tasty enough not to need salt.
  4. Fish out the glutinous rice packets and the chicken. Portion out into individual bowls and serve with the hot soup.

Serves 4.

Merry Christmas Jam with Scones

Merry Christmas!

Today I share with you how a mistake led to lots of beautiful Christmas presents. A few months ago, I’d left out a bag of frozen cranberries by mistake and had to figure out what to do with with them and fast. A quick google showed up cranberry sauce and jam, but I was worried that jam making would be complicated and difficult. Luckily, I hit upon a recipe from 101cookbooks.com (originally from Falling Cloudberries) that seemed easy. It was also convenient since we were having people over for breakfast the next day.

Anyhow, having people over was the perfect excuse to test out my new oven. Put freshly baked scones and freshly made tart cranberry jam together and slather with either clotted cream or butter for a glorious combination. Then have grilled mushrooms and crispy bacon as chaser and it’s a very satisfying breakfast.

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Scones (taken from Nigella)

These need to be made fresh and eaten while still warm. If you have leftovers, they must be heated up in the toaster oven, otherwise will have an awful dense texture. Don’t keep them any longer than overnight because it just gets too heavy to eat then.

Ingredients:

500g flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
4½ tsp cream of tartar
125g unsalted butter (direct from the freezer, oh you mean you don’t store yours there?)
300ml milk

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 220°C.
  2. Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and cream of tartar together. If lazy, just sift the baking soda and cream of tartar into the flour and salt, that bit is the most crucial.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour. Finish off the process by rubbing the butter into the flour with your fingers.
  4. Add the milk and stir quickly, kneading very lightly until it forms a dough.
  5. Press out (you can roll if you like, but I normally don’t bother) into about 3cm thickness or about as thick as one finger joint.
  6. Using a medium cookie cutter (5-6cm diameter), cut into 10-12 rounds. You’ll need to reroll for the last few.
  7. Glaze with some milk. I normally smear it on with my finger.
  8. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 15 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.
  9. Eat as soon as you can!

Makes 10-12.

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Cranberry and Apple Jam (adapted from 101 cookbooks)

I used a bag of frozen cranberries and added some of my own spices. The first round, I used cinnamon and star anise and the second time, lemongrass, lime and clove. Try various combinations and see what works for you. If you’re going to make a lot like I did for Christmas presents, don’t worry about the proportion of apple to cranberry, just make sure you scale the sugar with the cranberries and it should be all good. Another tip: don’t taste the jam immediately after it’s done. It’s somehow very sour and a bit unbalanced then. Let it sit for 30 minutes at least if you’re going to eat it fresh. The flavours will mingle and the sharpness will mellow, then it’ll be all good.

Ingredients:

340 g cranberries (one bag frozen)
120g sugar
spices – 1 stick cinnamon or 2 star anise or 5 cloves or 2 lemongrass sticks, bashed
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

Method:

  1. Rinse the berries and get rid of the spoiled (brown) ones. Drain and toss with the sugar, lemon rind, its juice and whatever spices you’re using in a bowl. The original recipe calls for a non-reactive bowl, so anything plastic, ceramic or stainless steel is fine.
  2. Leave overnight and stir a couple of times if you remember to. Otherwise just give a good stir before you continue to step 3.
  3. The next morning, load your clean empty jam jar(s) into the oven and set the oven to 100ºC. Leave for at least an hour until you’re ready to bottle the jam.
  4. Put the chopped apple into a saucepan.
  5. Transfer most of the sugary cranberries into another bowl, leaving most of the juice and sugar behind. Scrape that juice and sugar along with a spoonful or so of berries into the saucepan with the apples, then add the water and simmer till the apple is soft or about 10 minutes. Squish the berries till most burst.
  6. Add the rest of the berries and cook, stirring gently till the jam looks thickened, about 5 to 10 minutes.
  7. Get the by now sterilised jar(s) out of the oven and scrape the jam inside. Screw on the covers firmly, but not too tightly and place upside down on a tea towel.
  8. Leave to cool completely, then wash away any sticky mess and store in the fridge or a cool place.

Makes 1 standard jar plus some for breakfast for 4.

I scaled up the recipe with these proportions: 1.5kg cranberries (4 bags of 340g each added up to that much after washing!), 600g sugar, 3 lemons, 6 lemongrass sticks, 6 star anise, 3 apples. It took longer to cook the apples down in step 5, about 30 minutes or so and the mixture only thickened slightly. Then it took 10 minutes for the cranberries to cook through. It made a huge pot that ended up with 4 big and 4 small jars of jam. Here’s what they look like upside down.

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Merry Christmas!

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