(From BITTERSWEET, Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978)
by Melinda Stewart, Photos by Vickie Massey
When I first thought of making jelly, I didn't realize that it was a definite challenge and art. When I visited with Eppel Beard, she made it look so easy. She gave no hint that it might be hard to make a perfect clear jelly with the colors vivid and beautiful that when taken from the jar would hold its shape. But when I tried to make jelly on my own for the first time, I chose a fruit low in pectin, put too much sugar in it and didn't cook it long enough. It turned out like syrup. I tried again and cooked it too long. When it hardened it made a very good candy. Soon I found my mistakes and tried again and it turned out all right.
Like most people, I had thought that it wouldn't be very hard to make jelly because I reasoned, all I'd have to do was follow the recipe on the box of pectin. But Eppel said the real challenge is to make jelly like women did before the age of packaged products and commercial pectin, when they depended on the natural pectin and acid in the fruit.
Some fruits have enough pectin and acid to jell naturally, while others don't. Also as the fruit ripens it loses its pectin and acid. A good method to assure success is to mix unripened fruit which has lots of natural pectin for jelling with ripe fruit for the color and flavor. Then in case the fruit won't jell because of the absence of acidity, add lemon or orange juice. Fruits with enough pectin to jell when cooked are blackberry, plum, gooseberry, apple, raspberry and grape. (Wild grapes jell better than tame ones.) Also, to achieve proper proportions of pectin and acidity and to add to the flavor of the jelly, different fruits can be mixed. Some good combinations are crab apple with grape, currant with raspberry, gooseberry with raspberry, tart apple with plum and tart apple with quince.
It is best to limit the amount of jelly made at one time, using not more than six quarts of berries or eight pounds of fruit like apples or grapes. Two pounds of fruit, when cooked, make about one pint of juice and when the sugar is added, it yields about one and one-half pints of jelly.
Photo 1--While the jelly is cooking, skim the skum from the top. This is always a treat to the children impatient for the jelly.
Utensils needed to make jelly are: big spoons; small jars or jelly glasses; colander, ricer or doubled cheesecloth for straining the juice; two flat-bottomed pans, one to extract the juice from the the fruit and one for making the jelly; a third pan to sterilize the jars, and a saucepan to melt the wax. Beside the fruit you need sugar, paraffin and lemon or orange juice if desired.
The fruit needs to be prepared before cooking. To prepare apples, quince and crab apples cut out any bad parts. Wash the fruit carefully. Throw away all stems, leaves and blossoms. Cut into pieces but leave the core and skin as both contain much of the pectin. To prepare berries and grapes wash and remove stems, bad fruit and leaves.
Put prepared fruit in a pan with just enough water to keep it from scorching. Crush the fruit to bring out juice. Bring to a boil. It takes longer to extract the juice from some fruit than from others. Five to ten minutes should be enough for berries, currants and grapes with twenty to twenty-five minutes for apples and quince.
When the fruit is soft, strain the seeds and pulp out of the juice. When straining, let it stand and drip for a while. It is helpful to pour fruit into a cloth bag to strain it to avoid getting any pulp in the juice. After dripping squeeze or press the bag to get all the juice. Sometimes, with fruit rich in pectin, you can get a second extraction by adding more water to the pulp and simmering fifteen to twenty minutes.
After straining out the juice, many people use the pulp of fruits like apples, plums and grapes to make butters.
After the juice is extracted, you can make the jelly now or can it for later. Many women can the juice during the busy harvest season to make the jelly at a later time. To can the juice, pour the juice into clean sterilized jars to one-half inch from the top. Adjust the canning lids, but do not tighten them all the way. Heat the jars for fifteen to twenty minutes in simmering water which covers the jars. Remove from water bath and immediately completely seal by tightening the lids. Store in a dark, dry place.
When the juice is prepared, first measure the fruit juice and then bring it to a boil. Add, if needed or desired to jell better, the lemon or orange juice at a ratio of one tablespoon of citrus juice to one cup of fruit juice. Next add sugar in the ratio of one cup of sugar to one cup of juice. With apples the ratio should be three-fourths a cup of sugar to one cup of juice.
Photo 2--Occasionally stir the cooking jelly. While the jelly is cooking, sterlize the jars. Keep them in the hot water until filled.
Photo 3--When the jelly is done, pour it into the hot, clean jars. To get a clearer jelly, Eppel Beard strains hers into the jar.
Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring only until the sugar is dissolved. Watch so it won't boil over or burn during the cooking time. Skim the scum off the top. One test to determine when the jelly is ready is to see if it coats the spoon. Dip the spoon in the jelly and bring it out. It has cooked enough when the jelly no longer runs off the spoon in a stream but drips down slowly in two drops which join in a sheet. Another test is to put a few drops of the jelly in a saucer, and cool it to see if it jells. The longer you cook the jelly the firmer it will be though it can be cooked too long. But sometimes even though everything was done right and the fruit should have had enough pectin and acid, the jelly still may not jell.
While the jelly is cooking sterilize the jars or glasses by standing them upside down in a pan of boiling water for fifteen to twenty minutes. Be very careful because they might break.
Pour the jelly into the hot jars. To seal properly, the jar rim, inside and out, must be clean and dry. Melt paraffin in a small saucepan. When the jelly is firm, seal by pouring the hot melted wax over the jelly one-fourth of an inch deep. Turn and tilt the jar before the wax cools so the melted wax will run up the rim giving the jelly a good seal. Dry off the lid and place on the jar. The jelly will spoil if the jars aren't properly sealed. Label the jars with the kind of jelly and the date.
Remember, that years ago women went by taste, pinches, and dabs. It was almost impossible to find a way for an inexperienced person to cook a sure thing that would be the same every time especially jelly without using prepared pectin. It took a lot of practicing and a little guessing. But the rows of bright jars of tart jelly on the cellar shelf was and is worth it.