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JamMK header

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Pizza for dessert?

It's my youngest daughter's birthday on 9th July and this year we are doing a little lunchtime party with a pizza theme. The plan is to invite over a couple of her friends and for me to help them create their own pizzas for the birthday tea.

I confess that I secretly love planning parties - as long as they are on a small manageable scale. The main thing I love is the challenge of a theme. So what could I think of for a pizza theme? Well, this week I have enjoyed finding 4 melamine plates shaped and decorated like pieces of pizza, and gummy sweets in the shape of piece slices and neatly packed in their own mini pizza boxes. I even managed to find make your own pizza kits which I thought would make nice party bag gifts for the girls to take home. There was a slight flaw with these, however, as when they arrived the instructions were written in Italian! Fortunately, my friend who now lives in Italy was able to translate them for me. I did at one point ponder pizza bunting as I realised bunting flags were the same shape as pizza slices (getting obsessed by now??). Sadly I couldn't find any for sale on the internet (a hole in the market, if you ask me!) so I have persuaded the girls to create some out of paper.

So in my perfect pizza party what should be for dessert? Pizza of course!

There I was standing in the supermarket contemplating custard and ice-cream cones when I spotted a box of mini flan cases and suddenly I saw them in a whole new light - sweet pizza bases. The complete concept fell into my brain and later that afternoon the girls and I tested out dessert pizza. 

Onto the flan case we spread some strawberry jam as the "tomato sauce".

This was followed by a couple of spoonfuls of custard for the "cheese". And then, as with pizza, we chose our toppings - pieces of fruit and some mini marshmallows on this occasion. It was a lovely, simple activity to do with the girls and it made a great afternoon snack and will definitely feature as dessert at the pizza party. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

How to get strawberry jam to set

It is June. It is strawberry season. It is time to make strawberry jam.

It is funny how popular strawberry jam is. It seems that we were all brought up eating strawberry jam and it is the one that is most likely to be in our cupboards and the one offered with a scone for cream tea. It is of no surprise to me that by the time strawberries are ready again in June I have back ordered for strawberry jam and I know however many strawberries I harvest I will sell out before next June.

For many people strawberry jam is the first jam that they have a go at making - maybe at the request of their family or after an over-enthusiastic trip to a pick-your-own farm. However, this is perhaps a little unfortunate as it is probably the trickiest jam to make. It all comes down to strawberries being a low pectin fruit. Pectin is the "magic ingredient" in fruit that causes a jam to reach a setting point. Some fruit, such as strawberries, some cherry varieties and pears are low in pectin, whilst other, such as blackcurrants, gooseberries and apples are high in pectin. The higher the pectin the easier it is to get a successful set. My advice, if you fancy having a go at making jam wait until July and try blackcurrant jam.

Should you decide to make strawberry jam then here are my tips for attaining a successful set.

1) Use some unripe fruit: The riper fruit gets, the lower the pectin levels in it. At the same time, the riper the fruit gets, the better the flavour becomes. When making a jam try to use a mixture of nice ripe fruit and some slightly underripe fruit for both flavour and set.

2) Add a lemon: Most strawberry jam recipes recommend the use of lemon juice, added at the same time as the sugar. The idea behind this is that the acidity in the lemon helps to extract the pectin in the fruit. My experience has shown that if the lemon juice is added right at the beginning of the whole process it is easier to   reach a good set. Make sure it is freshly squeezed lemon juice.

3) Add pectin: All commerically produced jam and a lot of homemade jam use added pectin to help to reach a good set. Even River Cottage's Pam the Jam does this. One argument for doing this is that it is likely to reach the setting point sooner than it would without the added pectin and if a jam is boiled for too long it darkens and losing some of the fruitiness in the flavour. Pectin can be added in a variety of ways. Jam sugar has pectin added to it and is used as a direct replacement for granulated sugar. Liquid pectin can be bought in bottles and added as instructed. It is also possible to make your own pectin stock by boiling up apple cores, pips and peel. I do this when I'm making a batch of something with apples such as jam, chutney or crumble. Once it has been boiling for an hour or so, strain the liquid out and test a small sample of it with a few drops of methylated spirits. If you have a good pectin stock a small springy ball should form in the liquid. Note methylated spirits is poisonous so dispose of this test sample carefully. The stock can then be frozen in ice cube trays and the ice cubes of pectin can be dropped into your jam as needed when the sugar is added. I use apple pectin stock for getting pear jam to set but have never actually found it necessary to add pectin to strawberry jam.

4) Combine the strawberries with a high pectin fruit: Life is a lot easier if rather than trying to make pure strawberry jam, the strawberries are combined with a high pectin fruit such as gooseberries. Strawberry and gooseberry jam is very easy to set yet the dominant flavour is strawberry.

5) Be patient and check for set thoroughly: Strawberry jam will set eventually if boiled for long enough so be patient. I would also recommend stirring it occasionally to check that it isn't overcooking at the bottom and beginning to burn because that will ruin the whole batch and you will cry! Although jam is supposed to set at 104°C, don't totally rely on a thermometer to be sure it has set - instead put a little on a cold saucer and push it with your finger. If it wrinkling the jam is set. If it doesn't then boil it for longer.

If you get to the stage where you have bottled your jam and it is still runny, do not despair, the whole lot can be emptied back into your preserving pan and boiled up again until the setting boil is reached. This is not ideal as it is more time consuming and you have to wash the jars up before they can be refilled but it will not damage the jam so is useful to know. Failing that, just use your jam differently. Rather than trying to balance it on your toast, use it as a flavouring in yoghurt or ice-cream, use it has a sauce with cheesecake or mix it with milk and call it milkshake!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A Jammy Cow in Normandy

We took the girls on their first foreign holiday this weekend, with a Friday to Monday visit to Normandy, France. I spent 3 weeks of every summer holiday from the year I was born until I was 15 on the continent in a tent visiting beaches and famous landmarks but it had been 22 years since I last went to France.

When people go on a foreign holiday they adopt one of two attitudes towards food. Some like to seek out familiar foods and try to eat as close to home-cuisine as possible. Others embrace the opportunity to try something new and lap up the culture by eating the native food. I am very much in the second of these groups and really wanted to enjoy something a bit different. With 22 years of holidaying in the UK, it has been very hard to experience anything out of the ordinary when it comes to food. No matter where you go in the UK you can always find a Tesco supermarket and a McDonalds. You can, of course, find the odd local items if you try - some local jam maybe or some freshly landed seafood - but on the whole we have turned our entire country into an homogeneous market. Even some of things that are marketed as local souvenirs are made in a factory and distributed nationally or, worse still, are imported but just have local packaging. Sigh.

It was therefore refreshing to enter a different country with a completely different attitude towards food and shopping. Normandy in particular is proud of its cows and associated dairy-products and we were in the Calvados area around Caen. Now, I remember from when I was kid that there are huge hypermarkets in France. They used to be Mammoth when I was child and sold so much more than just food at a time when supermarkets in this country were in town, small and just sold food and household essentials. But this time we managed to travel hundreds of miles and only saw two large supermarkets. Instead, the food shopping we did was in the high street.

In a time when the British high street seems on the verge of collapse, the French high street is still very much alive. I laughed when I realised that my school French lessons about the bolongerie, boucherie, passterie etc. was actually what it is like in France. You really can walk down any French high street and shop in all these little shops, one next to the other. That is, unless you happen to be in the high street at lunchtime when all the shops will be shut. Yes, shut for lunch! And forget shopping on Sundays - shut again. Oddly, the small convenience stores open from 7am until 9am only on a Sunday - presumably so you can buy your baguettes and pain au chocolat for breakfast. And then the bolongeries open again late Sunday evening for a couple of hours so people can stock up again on bakery products - presumably to enjoy some cheese and/or pate with slices of baguette with their wine after dinner. Yes, the whole shopping culture in France seems to revolve around food. Good for them, I say!

On our trip we popped into a local market and some of these classic little shops and dredged up our school French, added a smattering of hand gestures and a bit of Fronglaise and successfully bought local food with very little trouble. Normandy strawberries, Normandy cheese, Normandy butter, French jam, Houlgate pate, Port Salut cheese, Calvados cider and freshly baked baguette and croissants. It was a delight to enjoy these local foods but quite honestly, it would have been positively difficult to buy anything that wasn't at least French, if not made within Normandy. For this I think the French should be admired.

So this morning, having arrived back from France late last night, my girls ate French croissants with Jammy Cow jam for breakfast and Steve went to work with a French rosette (salami) and Jammy Cow chutney sandwich. Hmmm... an odd mix of "local" foods but perhaps appropriate in this day an age when it is possible to travel hundreds of miles in a few hours.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Diamond Jubilee Celebrations

So the special long weekend of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee is finally here. I hope everyone is looking forward to it. You don't have to be patriotic to enjoy a 4 day weekend but it is an excellent time to celebrate. I think it is important for nations to have a sense of pride and it is a good opportunity to be proud of being British, whatever that may mean to you.

Today I took my picnic blanket down to my daughters' school at lunchtime to join them for a Jubilee Picnic. It was a very simple idea but it worked very well and was well attended by parents. All the children were dressed up in red, white and blue and they had made bunting and paper crowns. Lovely.  Tomorrow I think we shall be having a barbecue, followed by the classic British dessert - a trifle.

After that I'm not sure what we will do so I've been reading the local paper to see what's on in Milton Keynes over the weekend. There are various events including Big Lunches, the Bletchley carnival, fun run in Stony Stratford and garden parties. No excuse for sitting around twiddling our thumbs!

The event that caught my eye was the Parks Trust Garden Party on Tuesday which amongst other things includes old fashioned competitions such as the biggest vegetable and flower arranging. But more up my street is the best batch of scones and best Victoria sandwich cake competition. Now there's a challenge. Of course, should you decide to enter these I would strongly advise a stop by my house first to pick up a jar of Jammy Cow Raspberry Jam. A seedless, fruity jam like that is bound to make your baked goods a winner! Good luck!

Victoria Sandwich Cake

225g (8oz) butter
225g (8oz) caster sugar
4 medium eggs
225g (8oz) self-raising flour
110g (4oz) butter
225g (8oz) icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
110g (4oz) raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease and line sandwich tins. Place the butter into a large bowl and if it is straight out of the fridge heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Add the sugar and cream together. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring in between additions. Sift in the flour and stir well to combine. Spoon equally into the two sandwich tins then bake for 25 minutes until springy to the touch. Leave to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before turning out to cool completely on a wire rack. In the meantime, mix together the butter, icing sugar and vanilla to make the butter icing. Once the cakes are cool, spread one half with the butter icing and one half with the jam then sandwich the two fillings together.