Tea for six

Back in December, when I pulled out the six jars of damson plum jelly I made in August, all ready to fill Christmas goodie baskets, I got a most unpleasant surprise. None of them had set.  It was too late to do anything about it, and re-cooking usually spoils the flavor. The jars had sealed properly, so I relabeled it as pancake syrup, a role it fills quite well.

That still left me tragically short on jelly, especially after I had to dip into my private reserve to fill my friends’ holiday demands. While it has been a mild winter here, it hasn’t been mild enough to make plums or berries bear this early. I was faced with the offerings of the supermarket freezer. Then, I had an idea. I made juice for jelly from frozen blackberries, then combined it with Earl Grey tea. The result was a deep, dark jelly. The subtle citrus flavor of the tea meshes perfectly with the berries (and hides the fact that they aren’t ultra-fresh berries).

Blackberry-Earl Grey Jelly

Two packages frozen blackberries

2 Earl Grey tea bags

7 cups sugar

2 pouches liquid pectin

Place berries and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot loosely and boil for 5 to 10 minutes, until the berries are softened. Crush them occasionally with a potato masher.

Pour the berry mixture into a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth (or use a jelly bag, if you have one) set over a deep bowl. Let the juice drip out for about 2 hours. You should end up with 2 cups of juice.

While the juice drips, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Place the tea bags in a bowl. Pour the water over the tea and let steep for 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags.

Place the juice, tea and sugar in a large stainless-steel saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. When the sugar is dissolved and a full rolling boil has been reached, stir in the pectin. Boil hard, stirring constantly, for a few minutes, until the jelly tests done. Pour it into sterilized half-pint jars, hand-tighten the sterilized lids and process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes. Then remove the lid, turn off the heat and let the canner sit for 5 minutes. Remove the jars and let cool before storing.

Makes about 6 jars.

Sisterhood of the blackberries

I had one of those dreams that you wake up from shaking your head and thinking about the effects of what you ate before bed. I dreamed that my grandmother’s old house in Statesville, N.C. had been turned into a sorority house, and the girls wanted me to teach them to cook sweet-potato latkes on the old gas stove. Coincidentally, the next morning, I discovered an email from my cousin, who was trying to recall all the things our grandparents grew in their backyard garden.

She remembered that it was at least two acres (I agree; it was big), with corn, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, shelley beans, spring onions and beets. I remember wild blackberries way in the back. I saw a big limb once while picking them, thought it was a snake, ran for the house and refused to go back. Much as I would do today. My cousin remembered how much she loved the blackberry jelly our grandmother made, and it’s still her favorite kind of jelly. That was enough for me to make good on my threat to make my own blackberry jelly.

Blackberry jam really isn’t good. Too many of those little seeds. And I’d never made jelly from fruit before. I have made jelly from bottled juices and herbal tea-like infusions. The hardest part was mashing the berries through cheesecloth. I see why people use jelly bags. But after that, it was a breeze. I can’t swear it tastes like my grandmother’s – does anything ever taste the way you remember it? – but it’s pretty good. I’ll have to send a jar to my cousin for her verdict.

“Funny how that’s what people seek out now – homegrown and preserved food – and all we wanted was store-bought,” she wrote.