Lest you think otherwise, things do not always go well in my kitchen. Today was a day of minor and major kitchen disasters.
I am hosting a party tomorrow evening for a local early childhood non-profit on whose board I serve. It”s a small informal gathering and I am serving coffee and desserts. The menu I had planned was: a southern-style jam cake from the cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts — a beautiful book and one I highly recommend; cream cheese brownies, which are my favorite dessert ever; cheese and crackers served with my rhubarb conserve; and berries with lime curd. Not bad, right?
I absolutely love the jam cake recipe and I have made it several times. If you are a somewhat overzealous canner, a recipe that uses two cups of jam is a godsend. The cake is amazingly moist, as you might imagine. And you can change the flavor just by using different jam. The last time I made the cake was for a preschool event, and a friend who happens to be a professional chef, gave me his honest critique. First of all, too much cloves because the recipe calls for cloves in the batter and the jam I used already had cloves in it. Got it. But also: “Wouldn”t it be great,” the chef suggested, “if there were ribbons of jam throughout the cake, instead of it being fully incorporated into the batter?” As the chef pointed out, it would be so interesting when you take a bite of cake to have an unexpected mouthful of jam. Great idea, I thought!
So today, when I made the cake — using two cups of a strawberry jam I put up on Mother”s Day — I didn”t mix the jam in thoroughly at the end of the recipe. However, all the unincorporated jam went right to the bottom of the Bundt pan and when it was time to get the cake out, all the jam stuck to the bottom of the pan. Damn. Messy-looking cake. But I am not one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The cake still tasted great. A glaze or some powdered sugar dusted over the top would surely disguise the mess. I decided to serve the cake anyway and resolved never to listen to professional chefs giving advice again.
Clearly, I should have figured out that the kitchen gods were annoyed with me and quit while I was ahead. But Saturday is a big day for cooking projects in my house because Saturday morning is our farmers” market. My canning project for the day was going to be an apricot-red currant jam. I had made a raspberry-red currant jam a few weeks ago that turned out incredibly well: not too sweet, not too seedy and a gorgeous garnet color. Apricots and red currants sounded like a delicious sweet-tart combination as well. Red currants can be a bit of a chore to work with because you have to stem them. But I actually enjoy mindless kitchen tasks like that — snapping beans, shelling peas, shucking corn. I ended up stemming about twice as many red currants as I needed for my recipe — and what AM I going to do with the rest of them? — while watching the second half of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” with Zuzu, who, I have to say it, can talk of nothing other than Harry Potter and I am starting to tune her out.
My husband was away at an evening event, so after I got the kids to bed, I started my jam. I prepared my jars and my boiling water canner. I combined my stemmed red currants with 5 cups of chopped apricots, brought the mixture to a boil, added my sugar and stirred. And stirred. This particular jam recipe did not call for added pectin, which meant that I would need to cook the fruit mixture until it came to the gel stage, which is approximately 220 degrees. That”s about 15 minutes of standing over a hot stove, stirring your boiling jam. It”s a wee bit tedious. But, you know, you play some music and the times passes.
As I approached the 15 minute mark, I put my candy thermometer into the jam to test the temperature. That”s when disaster struck. I still don”t know how it happened, but I noticed my candy thermometer felt like it was sliding around. I pulled it out and saw that the bottom of the thermometer had actually broken off and the mercury ball was exposed. My first thought was, “I can save it!” But of course, there was no saving anything. There was, at the very least, broken glass in the jam, and quite possible mercury as well. I immediately had a vague recollection of some 19th century American Lit story in which a character commits murder by serving someone food with ground up glass in it. In short, several hours of work and 16 cups of ingredients were all ruined — unless I was planning to commit the perfect murder. I poured the whole pot down the drain. And then, to quote my all-time favorite “Glee” character, April Rhodes, I cracked open a fresh box of wine.
(With my husband not at home, and my mother on the East Coast likely asleep, I immediately poured out my tale of woe on Twitter. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the ladies who gave me virtual support in my dark hour: Marisa of Food in Jars, Michelle from Honest and Truly, Melisa from Suburban Scrawl , and Hyacynth from Undercover Mother)
I think the message is: some kitchen disasters you can recover from and some you can”t. Is the top of my jam cake a little wonky? Absolutely. Can I still serve it at my party? No question. I”ll make a breezy, self-deprecating comment about it and everyone will chuckle and insist it tastes delicious. But a pot of jam with broken glass and possible mercury contamination? That”s not much you can do with that except throw it away, pour yourself a cocktail and cry.
Also, I will literally never use a candy thermometer again for anything ever. I vow here and now to perfect all those adorable 19th century methods of determining when my jam has reached the gel stage, like spooning a dollop of jam on a chilled plate and seeing if it “wrinkles” when I push it with my fingers.