Dr. Scholl’s recently came out with a pretty bad and cheesy ad campaign in which a bunch of men and women go around exclaiming to everyone they meet “I’m gellin’–Are you gellin’?” The reason they are all so excited to be “Gellin'” is because they are wearing Dr. Scholl’s gel foot inserts. Whoo-hoo!!
Nothing against Dr. Scholl’s (I have been known to wear their classic single strap sandle) but whoever let this campaign fly should rethink their ad agency partnership. Seriously.
But we are not here to talk about feet or gel inserts. We are here to talk about the kind of gellin’ that really matters–jelly. (And no, we will not be addressing “toe jam,” as my dad always called the gunk that gets in between your dirty toes as a kid.)
Since holiday time I have been experimenting with…canning. Yes, canning. This may come as a shock to anyone who read my “In a Pickle” post where I opined about being forced to do hard labor prepping canned beans, cherries and the like for my Aunt Mary Lou as a teenager. But when I started thinking about my holiday treats for the co-workers last December, I became very tempted to attempt making them some gifts of wine jelly. This was due in part to one of those cookbooks that you receive in the mail from Cook’s Illustrated, where they sort of force the thing on you by sending it without warning and then only giving you a certain amount of time to return it, postage paid, if you don’t want it. They obviously count on people like me who barely have time to get the to post office ever let alone to send back some unsolicited cookbook. The bill for the thing arrived before I’d even opened the package.
Anyway, they sent what did turn out to be a cool “DIY” cookbook, or more accurately, The America’s Kitchen D.I.Y. Cookbook.” I’m actually not sorry this book was foisted on me. It’s got a lot of interesting stuff in it – from making your own beef jerky to making your own cocktail bitters. There’s a bit of something for any type of cook who’s ambitious enough to try to make homemade versions of things we’ve come to rely on the store for–even beer and cheese and salami.
So when I came across what seemed like a very interesting recipe for wine jelly in the DIY book, it got me thinking about canning something like that for the holiday treats. But since I’d never tried to actually do the canning myself, rather than just be forced to to the prep work by my parents when we visited the Illinois relatives with a huge garden, I thought the better of trying that out on the co-workers. What if it failed? What if I couldn’t get the stuff to gel? Better to try things out on the relatives first.
And I just so happened to go into CVS one evening looking for gift tags for the co-worker goodie bags when I spied an entire aisle full of Mason jars, as well as a $25 bath canning pot and a $13 set of Ball canning tools. Dear reader, I broke down and bought a canner!
Let me just say that I am a good cook–I’m pretty decent at putting random things together and having them turn out well. I don’t say this to brag–I’m just old enough to know what I am and am not good at and not feel like I need to apologize for it. (For instance, I suck at all sports and all games, from checkers to video games, so there.) Failure does not happen in my kitchen that often. (There was the time that I dumped a meatloaf I was about to serve to 20 fellow college students and two of my professors and their children into a sink full of soap bubbles trying to drain grease off it when I was in college, but that was a long time ago!) So it is with some consternation that I say to you, “Jelly has not been my friend” thus far.
I tried my hand at the wine jelly recipe at holiday time. The recipe called for a 3 oz. packet of liquid pectin. I didn’t find any liquid at the store, so I tried to guesstimate the dry amount. Disaster. I ended up sending wine syrup home to the relatives. It tasted good, but it was a gellin’ failure. I also failed at trying my hand at orange marmalade. That just went straight down the sink (much like that meatloaf in college).
Not to be deterred, the next time I spied some liquid pectin at the store so I decided to try the wine jelly again. I used a nice bottle of Pinot Noir from a great winemaker in Healdbsurg, Alan Baker, who was formerly a colleague of my brother’s at Minnesota Public Radio in the mid-90s. Now turned winemaker, he and his partner Serina specialize in Pinots and bottle under the name “Cartograph.” Good stuff.
My second attempt at the Pinot jelly was a success. Yay! It actually gelled. It wasn’t sauce. It tasted good. It worked!
Encouraged and flushed by this minor success, I decided I should try to tackle the “Herbes de Provence Jelly” recipe in the Ball canning cookbook. Of course, now that I was a jelly expert who had made one successful batch of red wine jelly, I decided I should be able to experiment with their jelly recipe and basically combine the Ball recipe with the best parts of the Cook’s recipe and have it work out.
I f*ed up the “Herbes de Provence Jelly.” Was it because it used white wine instead of red? I used the pectin packet that time. But I experimented with the sugar level and the amount of wine in the recipe. Duh…
I have found out that, like baking, jelly is a bit of a science. Damn. This is not good for someone who doesn’t really like to follow recipes to the T. Jelly is exacting. I am not.
Today, I tried the recipe again – this time with the variant Ball suggested–lavender, instead of herbes de Provence–and with the exact proportions, etc., etc., listed in the recipe. It’s cooling on the counter now. It appears to be working. My jars sealed well, I heard the series of satisfying pops when I removed them from the water bath and there seems to be some gellin’ going on–at least there was thickening when it went into the jars. I’ll know in about 24 hours. That’s another thing about jelly–it takes at least a full day to know if it even worked. And apparently, it often doesn’t work. This is why master canner and Put ’em Up author Sherri Brooks Vinton says you can always redeem yourself by just calling it “sauce” rather than jelly. At least I had the good sense to do that with the failed holiday gifts! 😉
But for now, I think I am 2 and 2 on the jelly roll. I’ll keep you posted.
Update: After sitting overnight, my jelly seems to be gelatinous! Victory! (Until next time!)
If you are interested in exploring the jelly recipes I’ve been playing with, check out the following books (and no I’m not being paid to say this.)
America’s Test Kitchen D.I.Y. Cookbook
America’s Test Kitchen
Complete Book of Home Preserving
Edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
Put ’em Up
Sherri Brooks Vinton