Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Conserves, Preserves, Jelly and Jam

I was idly reading the labels of the individual containers on our breakfast table at the luxurious Marriott Hotel in Yerevan. (That's the capitol of Armenia --- I didn't know either, until we'd planned a trip there.)

Strawberry jam
Plum preserves
Blackcurrant jelly
Pineapple conserve
Orange marmalade

What's the difference? Why all these different names for the spread made of fruit cooked with sugar?

I was pretty sure jelly referred to the juice of the fruit, cooked with sugar until it gelled. I remember my mother making jelly using a jelly bag, a muslin bag that fit into a perforated aluminum cone about 12 inches tall and 8 inches in diameter at the top. It hung from a special stand, and the juice from the crushed fruit inside the bag, slowly seeped out and dripped into a pan beneath the apparatus. I loved watching the dark red juice "bleed" though the cloth. There was a cone-shaped masher with which to smush the fruit even more, and squeeze out the last drop of juice. Skin, pulp and seeds remained in the bag and were discarded.

I've made jam using the traditional proportion of a-cup-to-a-cup --- a cup of whole fruit to a cup of sugar. Bring slowly to a boil, cook at a simmer, stirring frequently. Test occasionally by letting the juice run off a spoon. When the juice has become syrupy enough to coalesce into a sheet, it's done. Then you hope it gels as it cools.

A glance at a few cookbooks added further information. The New Settlement Cookbook (1954 edition) gave jelly a chapter of its own, and lumped marmalade, jam, and conserves together, defining them as fruit cooked from 3/4 to its whole weight in sugar. So my cup-to-a-cup technique was valid.

How to Cook Everything (by Mark Bittman, 1998) ignored jelly, but in the chapter on fruit gave a general definition of jam: fruit cooked with enough sugar to make it gel. Bittman added that the sugar acted as a thickener and an antibacterial agent.

On Food and Cooking (by Harold McGee, 1984 edition) defined jelly as the juice of the fruit, preserves as whole fruit, and marmalade as cut-up fruit, all cooked in sugar. He traced the history of the spread; it became popular in the 16th century when the Spaniards began growing sugar cane in the West Indies. He also explained what happens at the molecular level to make the fruit gel.

The dictionary revealed that the words, "preserve" and "conserve" share the same root which means to keep or protect. Both words can be applied to any fruit cooked with sugar. The word "jelly" has a root meaning "to freeze", which relates to the definition in The New Settlement Cookbook: "Jelly should be of a clear, bright color, quivery, but firm, and should retain its shape." Jam is probably so named because the fruit is crushed and bruised, or "jammed". Marmalade come from the Greek for "honey apple" and usually includes the rind and pulp of the fruit, usually citrus.

Orange marmalade is my all-time favorite. But I occasionally switch to blackcurrant jelly or cherry preserves. Right now, I'm working on a jar of gooseberry jam. But whatever the name, it's a sweet way to start to the day.

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