I feel not particularly enamoured of jam and I’m not much of a jam maker as a result. Perhaps it is because of the often unrelenting sweetness. And the strawberries I had to hand were already sweet, so adding sugar and watching the whole thing boil volcanically in a pot seemed far too one-dimensional for my tastes; a cascade of red, sugary lava. But enter lemon juice and the jam became richer, tarter and more interesting. The strawberries became altogether more themselves. I upped the ante with the lemon juice because I wanted my jam with a bit of spine. However, balsamic vinegar is also an option; according to Nigella Lawson, they make the strawberries “strawberrier.” I believe her. If you can preserve some of the berries in their whole state, this would lend the jam a jewel-like aspect, I should imagine. Mine fell apart, a quivering mess.
Felicity Cloake’s recipe was the one I plumped for. She advocates the juice of two lemons and I went for three, but other than that, I followed her to the letter. She did all the homework, testing and tasting, and I just did what I was told. Sometimes I like that about recipes.
I’m not sure what it is about strawberries I don’t trust. Perhaps it’s that they no longer taste as they once did, or look neat or darkly red enough. Small lobes of crimson was what I remember, studded with yellowing seeds. And the taste was concentrated, sturdy, and there was juice, goddamit. I doubt what passes for cream nowadays is really the strawberry’s natural mate (what is?). Perhaps leave the cream for the raspberries to come, and simply macerate the strawbs’ – mashed up a bit – in some sugar. There’s something lovely about watching them leach their winey juice. Anyway, the jam was very good – a soft set, but definitely jam as opposed to strawberry sauce.
It is good spooned straight from the jar, Pooh-style. A warm, buttered scone is lovely, with the requisite pot of tea alongside. Here you have cold jam caving into a yellow pat of butter, and of course there are dancing crumbs to lick. But honestly, if you have some homemade strawberry jam, try it with some fresh cream cheese – a version of coeur à la crème. The plainness is the thing, substantial and not overly sweet, lemon-flecked, but not trying to compete. And if you have some good strawberries to hand, by which I mean on the small side, uniformly red, no whiteness within and definitely not hollow, then resist the temptation to cook them at all. No cobblers, pies or tarts, no jam, no heat, no flame. Let them rest. They’ve been through enough.
Coeur à la crème
This is a standard French country dish to serve with soft fruit and to showcase preserves in the winter months such as apricot and strawberry. It’s made using fromage frais – fresh curd cheese – and either crème fraîche or double cream. Yogurt cheese or cream cheese, such as mascarpone, can be used instead of the fromage frais. If you want to set it in a heart-shaped mould, which is traditional, then the cheese and cream need to be drained through muslin overnight. The heart-shaped mould will have holes in it, so you will have, quite literally, a bleeding heart (whey, in this case, not blood though). If you don’t drain the cream cheese mixture, it will be a bit swimmy, but no one has complained so far.
Lucas advocates serving these with some strawberries soaked in red wine and basil leaves, which is also lovely. Or do both – jam and wine-soaked berries. Although it sounds it, it isn’t overkill. Think ‘islands in the stream’ (that is what we are etc).
Inspired by and adapted from Lucas Hollweg, Good Things to Eat
½ a vanilla pod, split lengthways, or a few drops of natural vanilla extract
250g (9 oz) cream cheese*
250ml (9fl oz) double/heavy cream
2 tbs caster/superfine sugar
Zest of ½ a lemon
Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and whisk into the cream cheese (or add a few drops of vanilla extract). Pour in the cream, sugar and lemon zest and whisk everything together until well combined.
As you can see, I used a cookie cutter here to get some sort of shape. I put the moulds in the fridge to set; this is where you might want to drain off any liquid that has collected before serving.
*Interesting cream cheeses
I used a goat’s cream cheese here from the Meyenberg company, in Central California, but there are other lovely ones to try. Neufchâtel (from which American cream cheese is derived) is one. Cowgirl Creamery does fromage blanc (though I’ve yet to try it) and Creole cream cheese, listed in the Ark of Taste, and championed by Deborah Madison, was made originally by French settlers in New Orleans and is making a comeback. So if you’re down that way, nab some; apparently, it works very well in coeur à la crème. Failing that, Philadelphia is not to be sniffed at; go for the full-fat version.
Adapted from Felicity Cloake, Word of Mouth, The Guardian
Makes 4 x 200ml jars
2kg ripe strawberries
1.7kg jam or preserving sugar
Juice of 2-3 lemons
Wash (if necessary, and if not, simply rub off any dirt or dust) and then hull (cut the tops off) the strawberries and discard any rotten ones. If you wash them after you’ve pulled the little ‘plug’ of leaves, the strawberries will become waterlogged, and in the words of Jane Grigson: “A strawberry that has become acquainted with water loses its virtue.” Pat dry very quickly. Set aside about 10 of the smallest berries, and then mash the rest up into a rough pulp. Put into a wide, thick-bottomed pan, add the sugar and the lemon juice, and bring slowly to the boil. Add the remaining strawberries to the pan, and put a saucer in the freezer.
Boil the jam for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly checking the setting point every minute or so during the last 5 minutes. To do this, take the cold saucer out of the freezer, put a little jam on it, and put it back in to cool for a minute. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, then it’s done. Strawberry jam is unlikely to set very solid though, so don’t expect the same results as you would with a marmalade. Take off the heat and skim off any scum. Pour into sterilized jars and cover with a disc of wax paper. Seal and store.
Addendum posted April 3rd
If you want good strawberries and you live in the Los Angeles area, visit McGrath Family Farms. Jam-makers and strawberry lovers swear by them.