BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Gift giving is part of the holidays. With a few simple clicks of a mouse, one is now able to fulfill almost any desire someone may have.
But as the holidays draw ever closer and advertisements to buy more items fill up TV screens across the country, there are some who turn to handmade gifts as a way to give the holidays a more personal feel.
Handmade gifts can take many forms, but some of the best are those that are edible, like jam.
On a cold Saturday morning just days before Thanksgiving, 19 people joined Cornell Cooperative Extension Food and Nutrition Educator Diane Whitten to learn how to make jam. Their goal was to see and take part in the process of making jam and walk out of the three-hour-long class with a jar of jam they had helped make.
Whitten offers these classes regularly. Her class on canning in late summer usually draws an equally large group. The class on making jam was held in a programming room at the Saratoga County Office building, 15 West High Street, Ballston Spa.
Most of those who signed up for the Nov. 23 class, Making Jam for Gifts, had done some canning in the past. When Whitten asked who had not, just three hands went up.
Canning experience is not a necessity for making jam, but it certainly helps. In the past when sealing wax was used to seal the jars of freshly made jam so as to prevent mold, it was not always successful. To prevent that from happening the USDA now recommends canning one’s jams and jellies.
Whitten took the class through the different types of jars to be used, the utensils and equipment available for boiling them, and the two-piece lids that have replaced the old canning jars and rubber seals.
The session was 85 percent participatory and 15 percent lecture. Websites with recipes and helpful hints were discussed as were the differences between steam canners, electric canners, and multi-use canners. The differences between liquid pectin and powdered pectin (a natural gelling product) were also reviewed.
Once Whitten had gone through the what, the why and the how of the process, she and the class got down to making three types of jams; heavenly fig, cranberry-raspberry, and a hot pepper freezer jam.
“Remember, if you’re making a freezer jam you have to use canning jars that are specially made for freezers,” Whitten said as she walked between the three demonstration stations.
Part of the processing work had been done beforehand. Empty jars to hold the preserves had been cleaned, the canners were warmed up, and two packages of figs from a local grocery store had been puréed. Half the class helped Whitten with the cranberry-raspberry jam while the other half helped her assistant, Donna Ringwall, with the fig jam.
The hot pepper freezer jam would be made at a third station as a demonstration only with the entire class observing as the finished jam jars were being heated in the canners.
There was chopping, measuring, mixing, cooking, and stirring with the cranberry-raspberry jam while those making fig jam were able to eliminate the chopping.
“Canning is not creative cooking,” Ringwall said loudly at one point so all could hear. “It’s food preservation. It’s a science, not an art.”
Her point being that recipes should be strictly followed to get the results desired.
To make a point on the aesthetics of jam making Whitten held up a jar of strawberry jam she made in June that contained no added sugar. It appeared as a hazy brown gelatin. Then she held up another jar she had made at the same time. This one had sugar added, and it was bright red.
“Both will taste good,” she said. “But sugar, besides flavoring something, is also a preservative that protects food from bacteria. It also preserves the color. The amount of sugar you put in gives it the difference in color.”
When both pots of jam had bubbled to perfection on their respective stoves there was pouring, measuring, removing air bubbles, and more pouring to be done. To make the jars festive small round pieces of colorful cloth were cut to table coaster size for a finishing touch.
Peter Green said he took the class because one is always learning in life and because the people with the skills being demonstrated were becoming hard to find.
“My family put up jelly, but not like this,” he said. “I’d been around people who were canning as a young kid, but when you become a teenager there are other things that draw your attention.”
Green added that there were economic motivations in the back of his mind, like farmer’s markets.
“And it’s more economical all around,” he said. “It’s an alternative storage method that lets you make the most of your money rather than buying something from God knows where.”
Lovey Lee was another who took the class.
“I think this is a lost hobby,” she said. “We need to get back to basics. With all the preservatives that are used today food tastes different. I intend to make the cranberry-raspberry jam at some point at home.”