I recreate taste memories.
It's a frustrating personality quirk—this need to make food taste like the best time I ever sampled it. It often works for me (see: gnocchi in Sagrantino wine sauce, tiramisu, pasta alla Norcia), but sometimes it just creates a lot of sweat and dirty dishes. For example, over Christmas, I ordered a wooden speculoos mold and tried like crazy to bake cookies like we had in Brussels five years ago. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I had been through about eight batches that I realized that what I had tasted and adored were biscoff cookies, not speculoos. Oops.
Rhubarb jam has been the whitest of my white whales. Sixteen years ago, when I was visiting my sort of "grandmother" (long story) in Paris, she served Keith and I red rhubarb jam one day and green the next. Both were unreal—bright, layered, alluring. They tasted like a clear day in the rolling green French countryside, wildflowers nodding their colorful crowns at the caressing breeze.
Since she passed away ten years ago, I've tried to recreate Suzanne's jam more times than I can count. Every early spring found me up to my elbows in unyielding stalks of rhubarb. Results varied from inedibly sticky sweetness to a paste with the memory of rhubarb flavor. Sometimes in the middle there, I'd get close. Usually if I used strawberries. That was pretty good, but did not match the taste memory, which was annoyingly just out of reach.
This spring found me even more determined. I craved that flavor with a visceral tug. Maybe because I've been awash in French memories in general—markets boasting creamy washed-rind cheeses, speckled cows roaming placidly alongside calvados distilleries, the flair of macarons in a cheerily lit bakery, a crepe filled with chestnut cream to warm chilly hands, long tables and branching plane trees.
I thought deeply about how my previous jams have erred and read about what contributes to various qualities in jam. I came up with a plan, and inhaled, and once again launched into rhubarb waters.
And this time emerged triumphant.
I made it twice more ostensibly to make sure it wasn't a fluke, but really because I felt the need to line my mudroom shelves with an unwavering line of jars of rhubarb jam. In the process, I established five iron-clad rules for rhubarb jam making.
1) Use less sugar than the standard 1:1 fruit to sugar ratio. Otherwise, you'll just taste sweet.
2) Cut the rhubarb into different size pieces. This allows some of the rhubarb to melt away, while some soft chunks remain.
3) Let the fruit macerate in the sugar overnight. This creates the juice that will gel in the jam. If you skip this step, you'll be left with more of a paste. And you want gloriously glistening jam.
4) Stir very gently, and as little as possible. The rhubarb softens quite a bit, if you over-work it, it'll get too uniform and sinewy.
5) Do not let the jam get over 220 degrees (Fahrenheit). This is super-important. Anything over 220 and your jam will lose all brightness and take on a tar-like consistency. The second time I made it, I think my thermometer shorted, so it wasn't reaching 220, but the jam appeared to have turned color (you want to stop the heat before the jam loses it's bright red color). I decided to stop the cooking, and the jam was quite different from the first batch. The third batch the thermometer was still not reaching 220 (I clearly need a new thermometer—in researching this later, I found that the temperature read out on thermometers can be several degrees off on a good day, so it makes sense to watch your jam closely or invest in an excellent thermometer), but I saw that it was turning and quickly shut off the heat. The jam was a shade stiffer than my first batch, so I do think it began crossing that temperature threshold, but in all other ways it's just as glorious.
This jam is so good.
It's so good that my friend had a bite and blurted, "What is in this?" I told her and she scowled at me as if I was holding out on her, but she was needing to make nice to she could have more.
It's so good that when I sent a jar to my mom as part of her "puppy-caregiver kit" (her dog just had two puppies, a lot of work and sleepless nights), it got her enthusiastic stamp of approval. And she tasted Suzanne's jam.
It's really very excellent.
- trimmed rhubarb, 2 pounds (post trimming), cut into various sizes (from half inch to one inch pieces)
- 1.5 to 1.75 pounds of white sugar (depending on how you like your jam)
- 2 lemons, seeds reserved
- Combine rhubarb and sugar in a large bowl, stir well, and cover with plastic wrap. Leave on counter overnight.
- Stir in the morning. Leave for another couple of hours (as long as you leave it overnight, the rest of the timing is all flexible).
- Pour fruit and sugar into a heavy pot.
- Add the juice of three lemon halves, then toss the spent halves in the jam. Place the seeds from all four lemon halves in a pouch made of cheesecloth and twine. The seeds add pectin, but you don't want them floating around in your jam, so make sure your spent lemon halves are pit free, and that your cheesecloth pouch won't open in the jam.
- Heat the jam, stirring only very occasionally, and checking the temperature often.
- When the jam reaches 220 degrees, right as it's looking like it's going to turn color, turn off the heat.
- Pour the jam into sterilized jars, seal according to instructions for your type of jar. This makes about 3 pint jars, plus extra that I put into another jar and stick in the refrigerator. That jam, which is exposed to less heat, is always my favorite.
- Heat process your jars, according to your favorite jam instructions.