My Halloween Finger Food Buffet

halloween finger food

All eyes are on my Halloween finger food buffet!

As you regulars to my blog probably know by now I love Halloween and especially making up all sorts of ghoulish Halloween finger food and drinks to entertain my guests. I always have a Halloween party, it’s something I haven’t got over from my time living in the US where Halloween is a really big deal. I love America and the American people. They just really know how to live and have a good time. Anyway enough reminiscing, I’ve sorted my canape recipes for this year and shared them with you. I’ve also given you some great recipes for chutney and marmalade to get rid of all that excess pumpkin flesh. So now it’s down to what I’m going to serve up as the main event!

Now I’m not going to have a sit down affair this year, just a simple buffet. So I want to put together some really fun Halloween finger food. I’m going to do the great American classic Sloppy Joe’s in a bun as the major food item and I don’t think I’ll waste my time with a special Halloween recipe for that here. There are so many great recipes out there just look on the Internet and you’ll be swamped with them. I will share with you though, two really quick and simple ideas that look quite revolting as is befitting of Halloween finger food, but taste absolutely fantastic.

halloween finger food

Dead Witches Fingers – The ultimate Halloween finger food!

Designed to look like witches fingers; as Halloween finger food goes they make the perfect pun! What’s more they are delicious, healthy and really easy to whip up. They will literally take you only half an hour to prepare. They look amazing as you can see and they are surprisingly filling so you wont need to make too many. Three per person should be plenty. A quick tip here – when you buy the sweet potatoes try and get the long thin ones.

You’ll need:

  • Sweet Potatoes (1 potato makes 4 fingers)
  • Pitted Black Olives
  • Grated Cheese
  • Tomato Puree

So, to make your fingers:

  1. Heat the oven heating up to 350F (180C or Gas 5)
  2. Scrub the potatoes and slice each into 4 wedges. Use your imagination and try to cut them as finger shaped as possible.
  3. Lay them out on a large oiled baking tray, brush over some olive oil and season before roasting for 20 minutes or until they go soft. Keep an eye on them, they don’t want to go to mush.
  4. Once the potatoes are tender, slice a black olive in half long ways, dab it dry with kitchen towel and stick to the end of the “finger” with a blob of tomato puree so as it looks like a blooded black finger nail.
  5. Spread a little grated cheese along the fingers and place under the grill for a few minutes to let the cheese melt.

Hey presto dead witches fingers complete with black nails and running with yellow bubbling pus!! Gross I hear you cry well just taste them they are absolutely delicious. The tartness of the olive and tomato puree really off sets the sweetness of the potato to give one of the tastiest Halloween finger food I know. If you season with plenty of sea salt before you cook them you will find you can’t leave them alone!!

Devilish Dip – Halloween finger food on the move

This recipe makes a great centrepiece for a buffet or can just as easily be carried around on a tray. The ‘cauldron’ can be a round bread, any one will do but brown adds a more authentic look. It needs to be hollowed out to make way for the dip. If you’re like me though you’ll get yourself a real miniature cauldron to put it in.

For the spicy dip, you’ll need:

  • 3 avocados
  • 2 chopped plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsps of chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • ¼ tsp of chilli sauce
  • Salt to season

Mash the flesh of the avocado before stirring in the tomatoes, onion, lime juice, chilli sauce and salt. Pile into your cauldron and surround with fresh vegetables such as carrots, peppers, celery, raw cauliflower or even some breadsticks ready for your guests to dip in. Make sure you mash the avocado quite lightly and chop the tomatoes and onions fairly coarsely. This gives the look of a real witches brew, eye of toad, wing of bat and all that good stuff. Just before you serve it pop a green glow stick and a cube or two of dry ice in, if you get some for the occasion. It gives an amazing effect to Halloween finger food like this, but do make sure the dry ice has gone before the guests tuck in, so as some joker doesn’t eat it by accident!

Now just one final word for this year. As some of you might know I have been spending the last year setting up an online flower shop. Yes that’s right, you heard right, and there is no one more surprised than me how these things turn out. However, the point of mentioning it is, that we are having a Halloween Flowers Sale with all our ghoulish looking flowers at 10% discount. So take a look by clicking on the link and for a few quid you can really liven up your party with some fantastic Halloween flora.

Happy Halloween!

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…….

jam making

What glorious jam making goodies!

Wont be long now before the jam making session starts in earnest, thank goodness. I was outside yesterday examining the buds on my blackcurrant bush to see how many fruits I’d got. Looks like its going to be a good year so far. Can’t wait to get my hands on the elder flowers and early goosegogs though. That really heralds the start of it all.

jam making

Meanwhile, I was walking through the supermarket the other day cursing how the pears were more like mortar shells than anything you could use for jam making, when my eyes alighted on – yes you’ve guessed it – this beautiful rhubarb. Whats more at a fiver for 2lb, in today’s madness, I thought it was a bit of a bargain. Of course the obvious candidate was rhubarb and ginger, so I picked up the other ingredients and scuttled home for some real end of session jam making.

jam making

What did strike me though was why does the old rhubarb and ginger jam always look a bit brown and caramelised. After all, that winter strained champagne stuff is so bright pink you would think you’d be able to capture the colour really easily. Well my hunch is that all that soaking the rhubarb in the sugar business that you see in most recipes is the culprit. Why not use the standard jam making technique, I thought to myself, and see if I can keep the colour.

jam making

So armed with plenty of acid to fix the colour, I gently simmered the rhubarb in the juice of 2 lemons and just enough water to wet the bottom of the pan until it was total mush. To be more accurate about it, I let it simmer for 45 minutes with a lid tightly on, putting the finely chopped ginger in after about half an hour. A quick colour check - so far so good, still beautifully pink!

jam making

Now I suppose before I get shouted at and the electronic equivalent of rotten tomatoes hurled at me, I ought to give all you folks who like it, an exact list of ingredients, so:

For Rhubarb & Ginger Jam making four 8oz jars, you need:

  • 2lb Forced Rhubarb, pinker the better
  • 3lb Sugar
  • 1oz Fresh Root Ginger
  • 2 Lemons

My next thought was naturally for pectin. Specifically, would my technique of boiling the fruit first, as with normal jam making, have released enough to produce a good set. Out with the trusty methylated spirits and shot glass and to my relief and somewhat surprise the pectin level was really high.

jam making

For those of your who are not familiar with this test when jam making, you can go to my blog post on the subject to read about it in detail. But basically you take a small quantity of the test fruit liquor, put it in a shot glass, once cool cover it with an inch of methylated spirits and the snottier the liquor goes the more pectin there is in it – simples! If you get a result as below, then that is high on the snot-o-meter and there is plenty of pectin present. The other end of the scale would see the liquor remain totally liquid meaning the total absence of pectin.

jam making

With pectin check good, all that remained was to add the sugar, bring to a rolling boil and test for set after five minutes, on a saucer that had been in the freezer for five minutes (another tip, what would you do without me – lol!). I have to say the set was unsurprisingly very good, but of course if you do have difficulties, normally adding a third more sugar and boiling for another five or ten minutes will do the trick.

jam making

Problem is though, it will also knock out all that gorgeous colour. You see the secret of jam making is to extract as much pectin as possible as gently as possible in the fruit boiling stage and then really quickly boil up with the sugar to gain the set, so as to loose as little colour as possible, as this is the stage where it will disappears.

jam making

And so there we are, after a spot of judicious de-scumming, having let the mixture cool for a few minutes, all that was left was the jarring up. Well it was such a magnificent colour even I, the philistine that I’m am, couldn’t just stick it in plain one pound jars. And in any case it’s far to good to give away in those kind of quantities. So I thought, I’ll sterilise a few of the fancy jars I told you I’d acquired the other day and put it in them.

jam making

The perfect match just had to be the so called “Gourmet Food Jars” from Wares. Their fancy blue gingham tops went so well with the smokey pink of the jam making a real eye catching gift. In fact that’s a great idea I think I’ll give a pot to my mother for her birthday on Sunday. I’m just on my way down to open up the boat for the summer and attend her birthday lunch at the yacht club – weather permitting of course!

jam making

Homemade jam making at it’s finest – if I say so myself!

Just a little foot note – I like to speak as I find and I was a little concerned how “them fancy lookin’ jars” would hold up in the steriliser, and I have to say I’ve got no complaints. In fact not only did the paint on the lids hold up beautifully, but I also tried wiping one, while still red hot, with a cold damp cloth just to see, and there was no cracking. So I reckon they are a mighty fine product.

Christmas Jam – At Last!!

christmas jam recipe

The much anticipated Christmas jam recipe has arrived!!

I am so so sorry, I know it’s a bit late, but better late than never I say. What is more this Christmas jam recipe is so easy to make, if you’ve got a few spare minutes while you’re in the kitchen doing the Christmas cooking you won’t regret making it I can assure you. Even if it’s only ready on Christmas Eve spreading this Christmas jam on your toast on Boxing morning, you will be so glad you made it. You don’t have to make a huge batch either; its base is cooking apples, that when boiled down are in essence just pectin juice, so you can scale the recipe really easily with no fear of losing the set.

christmas jam recipe

As you will recall this Christmas jam recipe came from our lovely Gloria. It is purported to be the recipe the Dutch settlers used to put on their toast or oat cakes or whatever it was they had to celebrate Christmas. So without further ramblings from me let’s get this Christmas jam recipe down for you. Honestly, please do make it, you will be amazed, I was!

Ingredients for the Christmas Jam Recipe

  • 1.5kg Cooking Apples
  • 1.5l Water
  • 1 Eating Orange
  • 1 Lemon
  • 1.75kg Sugar
  • 1tsp Citric Acid
  • 2 Star Anise
  • 1 Stick Cinnamon
  • 4 Pods Cardamom

To Prepare the Christmas Jam Recipe

    1. Snap the cinnamon stick in two and crush open the cardamom pods under a knife, roughly chop the apples, core skin and all, place in a large pan with the water and spices. Bring to the boil and simmer with a lid on for 20 minutes until the apple has disintegrated into a pulp.

christmas jam recipe

    1. While the apple is boiling, juice the citrus fruit and keep to one side, de-pith the skins and place them in boiling water with a pinch of salt for 5 minutes or until they start to look transparent. A tip is to use very fresh lemons as the peel goes very hard if they are old. Remove from the boiling water and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Slice the peel into thin slithers. This part is down to personal preference as to how you like your peel in jams and marmalades; I’m a thick cut man myself!

christmas jam recipe

    1. When the apple is ready, first strain through a kitchen sieve and then again through a muslin straining bag and discard all solids including the spices.

christmas jam recipe

    1. Place the apple juice in a large saucepan or jam kettle. Strain the citrus juice through muslin and add to the apple juice along with the sugar, citric acid and citrus peel.

christmas jam recipe

    1. Bring to a rolling boil, hold for a minute or two, then remove from the heat. Descum the jam if necessary and allow to cool in the saucepan.

christmas jam recipe

    1. After about 5 minutes stir very gently now and then to mix the peel into the jam. You must be very careful here not to disrupt the set.
    2. Once the peel starts to incorporate, jar it up in sterile jars and do make sure you store it at room temperature. If you put it out in the cold it will turn cloudy – you’ve been warned!
    3. One last thing, if you want to make it other festive colours besides the beautiful gold it turns out naturally, then just add a few drops of food colouring when it’s finished boiling.

cjristmas jam recipe

Now I guarantee once you start making this Christmas jam recipe you will be in Christmas heaven with the amazing aroma that fills your kitchen. I couldn’t believe just how much it made me think of all things Christmas. I’m betting if you make some you won’t be able to leave it to its traditional Boxing Day outing. I know I couldn’t!

If you don’t want to take your computer into the kitchen just download the recipe below.

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Lets Get Crafting – It’s Christmas!!

jar gift boxes

Hey Presto! Jar gift boxes for Christmas.

Well what do you think? Pretty fab I say and all worked out in my tiny little noodle. I reckon I could go for a black belt in oregano or is it origami – lol! Seriously, I was thinking how nice it would be to make my own jar gift boxes. You know the type; you see them in every garden centre from John O Groats to Lands End or that would be Eastport to San Diego for our US contingent. There’s always a couple of jars of fairly mediocre quality preserves sat side by side in a cardboard box cut at a slant, with a bit of Christmas ribbon on, attached to which is usually a price tag to make the eyes water. How nice then, not only to be able to gift your superior quality homemade preserves to your folks, but also be able to present them in your very own handcrafted jar gift boxes.

So my Sunday morning lie-in was spent, eyes tight shut, picturing in my head what shape piece of card I had to create, that would fold up into something roughly resembling the jar gift boxes you see at Christmas. Having gotten a rough idea then came the fun part. I had every single one of my wife’s set squares and protractors out, she being the arty one and owning all that stuff. You’d have thought I was Leonardo da Vinci seeing me hunched over the drawing board compasses in hand. The really tricky part was making a template for the jar gift boxes that would fit on standard A3 card – that really made the head hurt. Still, it is done and a fine job too, if I say so myself.

So what I’ve done for you is I’ve created two templates for large and small jar gift boxes. The small is suitable for most jar styles, but I also made the large one to accommodate the Wares 283ml Hexagonal Jars so they can sit in the jar gift boxes with a flat side rather than a corner facing forward. You can see what I mean in the picture at the top. This orientation takes a label much better and generally is more pleasing than having a sharp edge facing outwards. I went to all that trouble simply because I think that the hexagonal jar is one of the very best for presenting homemade preserves when you’re giving them as gifts. I would personally use either the hexagonal jars or the 280ml Octagonal Jars, which fit in the small jar gift boxes, for all my “presentation packs.”

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty then. I’ve created two templates for you to download. They both consist of 2 A4 sheets that first need to be stuck together to make one complete template that fits an A3 size piece of card. The assembly details are exactly the same for both size jar gift boxes. I have numbered the sections that need folding so as to make the instructions a bit easier to follow – I hope! You will see the downloads are available at the bottom of the page. Just fill in your email address and name and they will be sent straight to your PC. So without further ado let’s get on with the instruction.

What You Will Need to Make the Jar Gift Boxes

  • A3 Card, either plain or pre-decorated
  • A4 Plain Paper
  • Sellotape
  • Craft Knife
  • Ruler
  • PVA Glue, or similar

To Make the Jar Gift Boxes

    1. Download the template and print out the two pages. With the craft knife cut down the long straight side of one of the halves of the template and discard the strip of paper. The long edge of one half of the template should now be on the very edge of the paper

jar gift boxes

    1. Marry this edge up with the same edge on the other half of the template and stick the two pieces together with Sellotape along the seam to make one whole template

jar gift boxes

    1. Stick the template to the A3 piece of card using Sellotape at the edges of the template.

jar gift boxes

    1. Using the craft knife cut round the outline of the template applying some pressure so as to cut through the template and the card below at the same time. Also make sure you cut along the other lines marked “cut.”

jar gift boxes

    1. You should now have a cut out template and a cut out piece of card. Using the lines on the template as a guide score the card with the back of the craft knife along all the lines shown on the template. In addition where the template is marked trim, on the card carefully trim those edges back by approximately 1mm.

jar gift boxes

    1. Using the template as a guide, thinly coat (2) with glue, except where it says not to, fold (1) over onto (2) and stick down.

jar gift boxes

    1. Bend (3) up 90 degrees to (4). Bend both (5)s up 90 degrees to the already stuck (1)+(2) and coat the underside of the (5) with glue. Bend (1)+(2)s in 90 degrees to (4) and stick both (5)s down to (3).

jar gift boxes

    1. Coat (4) with glue and bring (6) over and glue it to (4).

jar gift boxes

    1. Finally, slide tabs (7) into the slits in (1)+(2) and glue in place.

jar gift boxes

And there you have it, clear as mud! No, I hope the instructions aren’t too difficult to follow. You know it’s surprisingly difficult to write clear instructions for something like this. People interpret words and phrases in so many ways. Still the pictures should help to some degree.

jar gift boxes

These jar gift boxes are just perfect for the kids to decorate

Of course you can use pre-printed card for your jar gift boxes if you wish, which make decoration instantly unnecessary, a god send for some I’m sure. On the other hand if you use plain card as I have then you have a blank canvas to let your Christmas creative juices flow all over, as it were! There is always the option of letting the kids do the decorating. What would please Granny more on Christmas morning than a jar of strawberry jam, another of marmalade all presented in one of the jar gift boxes decorated by your little cherubs!

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Small Jar Gift Box Template Download


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Large Jar Gift Box Template Download


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The Italian Job

pickle recipe

A pickle recipe that put Italy in a jar!

I know I’ve been banging on about being sick to death of green tomatoes, but actually there is one last task they must perform before I pull down the vines for another year. Since tasting this divine pickle recipe in a Tuscan trattoria some years ago, I preserve a little Italian sunshine to see me through our miserable winter. So what is this pickle recipe of which you speak I hear you ask. Well I suppose you would best describe it as an Italian rustic tomato pickle recipe. The tomatoes don’t have to be completely green but they must be hard. Those on the turn from green to red are fine but any truly ripe fruit will not work in this tomato pickle recipe as the finished product should be light and crunchy

pickle recipe

I came across this glorious stuff in a little back street restaurant just across the square from the Pitti Palace in Florence. Sue and I were sat scratching our collective heads over how we were going to translate the menu when the waiter took pity on how long we had been there and brought us some bread accompanied by this fantastic pickle. One taste and I was hooked. The rest of the evening was spent dissecting the contents of the dish to see if I could work out what was in this amazing pickle recipe

pickle recipe

Back home and the frustration was immense. Being February all I could do was jot down my ideas as to the makeup of pickle recipe and sit on my hands until autumn and the coming of some green tomatoes to practice on. Eventually, practice I did and to be honest I think I’ve made a reasonably good fist of it. It’s possibly not identical to the real thing back in Tuscany, but it certainly has that Italian-ness about it in spades. It’s one of those recipes that has the capacity to transport you from wherever you are straight to its country of origin with the first bite. Much like humus takes you to Turkey or a croissant to France, one mouthful of this and you are in the rolling hills of Chianti country!

Ingredients for Italian Green Tomato Pickle Recipe

  • 6 to 8 large green tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 4 pieces sun-dried tomatoes
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1/2 birds-eye chilli
  • 1 handful fresh mint
  • 1 handful fresh basil
  • White wine vinegar
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

To Prepare the Italian Green Tomato Pickle Recipe

    1. Chop the tomatoes into centimetre size pieces and place in a bowl. Shake over the salt and mix in thoroughly. Cover with cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight.

pickle recipe

    1. The next day place the tomatoes in a kitchen sieve and rinse thoroughly. It is really important to give them a good rinse. The tomatoes retain quite a bit of salt and the pickle recipe can turn out too salty if you are not careful. Leave the tomatoes to drain in the sieve so they are as dry as possible

pickle recipe

    1. Put the sun dried tomatoes in a cup and just cover with boiling water and leave for 10 minutes to soften. Discard the water and pat dry with kitchen towel.

pickle recipe

    1. Place the sun dried tomatoes, garlic, chilli, mint and basil in a blender and blitz to a coarse paste. Place the tomatoes and the paste in a mixing bowl and toss together thoroughly, so all the tomato pieces are evenly coated in paste.

pickle recipe

    1. Pack the coated tomatoes tightly into pre-sterilised jars. Pushing down with a spoon to remove any large gaps between pieces. Fill the jars to within 1 cm of the top.

pickle recipe

    1. Carefully pour in white wine vinegar until it only just covers the top of the tomatoes. There should be no layer of vinegar over the tomatoes. Then gently pour a thin layer of the olive oil so as it just covers the surface.

pickle recipe

  1. Seal the jars tight and store in a cool dark place for one month before eating – if you can wait that long!

I absolutely adore Italy. Who knows one day I might even get the chance to live there if my darling wife gets a job designing shoes for one of the big Italian fashion houses; wouldn’t that just be divine. In the meantime however, this little pickle recipe goes a long way to reminding me of the delights of Tuscan spring mornings looking out over the cyprus covered hills

<pickle recipe

If you put a few tomatoes in that are just starting to change colour then the whole thing looks really attractive as well as tasting great. A big chunk of crusty soda bread a few slices of Parma ham, a dollop of this pickle and for those that can a chilled glass of Soave, half shut your eyes and you’re there!

Some Lovely Messages

Hello: I have just found this website and am thrilled to have your scientific background combined with your passion for the art of the kitchen! Also, you have along the way acquired a fine use of the language which helps to explain the details.  I just signed up for this site.

pressure cookerYesterday was my first try at using the pressure canner and it was a good success–not too painful even though I was using a borrowed canner. I put my own beef stock and am very pleased. In the past I have only done tomatoes and orange marmalade–both of those being done in a hot water canner.

Now, I have more dilemmas. The friend who loaned me her canner also gave me a full quart and a full pint of elderberry juice. She said it was ready to be made into jelly.

A.) I have never made jelly–but this looks to be very clear and tastes not nearly as tart as it would if the berries were just fresh. I don’t know if she has added sugar, etc. Any ideas as to how to proceed? Should I use the pressure canner–what happens to jam/jelly that is different from using the hot water canner? Can I use the low sugar pectin with less sugar for elderberry?

B.) There are only two of us at home now and I am trying to put away only those things that we enjoy making ourselves. Jams, jellies, tomatoes, ketchups, etc. Neither my DH and I are very tall and I am using the Mirro 16 quart canner it is about 12 inches tall and just right for both of us to handle. Question: should we buy the All American 21 canner which is 4 inches taller and would allow me to use it as a hot water bath canner as well as doing pressure canning, or should I just stick with my old fashioned water canner and buy the All American 15 quart which I know is the size we can handle, but which is not tall enough to use as a water bath canner for quarts?  Does that make sense?

Thank you, A

Hi there Jess,

Hope this email finds you doing well and having a good summer season.  We are having an incredibly hot and humid summer here in Tomball. The strawberries have been darker than normal so far in the stores.  However, yesterday there were some really nice looking, bright red ones.  So finally I decided they would work for jam and today I made a double batch of you strawberry jam recipe.  I could have not used any pectin, but I went ahead and added it since I know it’s not going to have time to really take on a set sitting on the shelf.  These jars will be gone by end August for sure.

Strawberry Jam 2The blueberries were really good from the local U-Pick farm, but I didn’t get enough picked to make jam.  Next year I will try and get out there and pick more.

Joe and I are going to try and plant a second crop of beets in the fall.  Will let you know what happens with that.And by the way, the jam looks dark because I used my blue jars.   That’s what the blue tint is that you can see on the jar on the left.

What would be something that would look good in the blue (antique looking) jars?  Maybe something with a clear liquid. (any suggestions folks – my thought is pickled pears or pickled asparagus; Jess xxxx)

Will visit you blog soon.

Take care,

Ruth

Non-alcholic Elderflower Champagne

I’m fed up with moaning about the weather, but it has certainly give cause for us to do so over the last few years and this spring has been no exception. I did think though, when I took the dog for a walk last night, I’d have a quick look and see if the elderflowers had even thought about developing yet. I was actually surprised at how far on they are. Give it a week to ten days and they will be ready for picking, so I thought it time to post this back up so you can make sure you have everything you need, ready to make a drop of the good stuff, when they finally burst into life.

elderflower champagne

Finally elderflower champagne season arrives!

My word its been a long wait this year but finally the elderflowers have graced us with their presence and heralded the beginning of a new season of hedgerow goodies. Now it’s no secret that I’ve already drunk my share of booze and hence haven’t touched an alcoholic drink for over 4 years now and God willing long may that remain. Also the internet is crammed with recipes for normal elderflower champagne and to be honest it ain’t much of a challenge to make anyway – the yeast do all the hard work! So I thought I’d set myself a real challenge and see if I could come up with a way of putting the fizz into elderflower champagne without having to add the alcohol.

elderflower champagne

After a little head scratching and a considerable amount of kitchen chemistry I think I’ve come up with a delicious elderflower champagne solution which is also a bit of fun to make into the bargain. Now you’ve all seen the trick with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, where you mix them together and whoosh a huge volcano of foam is created which usually ends up all over the ceiling. Well getting the fizz in the bottle of our non-alcoholic elderflower champagne is based on that principle, not using vinegar I hasten to add, but using citric acid instead. The trick though is how do you get the bicarbonate of soda in the bottle and the lid on before the foam erupts out of the top? Well here goes.

Ingredients for Non-alcoholic Elderflower Champagne

  • 6 ltrs Water
  • 250g Sugar
  • 20 heads Elderflowers
  • 2 Lemons
  • Bicarbonate of Soda
  • Citric Acid
  • Glucose Syrup

To Prepare Non-alcoholic Elderflower Champagne

  1. Pour 6 litres of water into a large stock pot, put the lid on and set to boil
  2. elderflower champagne

  3. While the water is heating up grate the zest of the lemons into a straining bag using a microplane grater if you have one. If you don’t I suggest you get one they are great (grate) – get it, boom, boom! I know don’t give up the day job! Make sure you don’t break into the pith while grating as this gives a bitter taste to the elderflower champagne. Also snip off the elderflowers into the straining bag. It is worth snipping them off with as little stem as possible, as too much stem leaves a bit of a grassy type taste in your elderflower champagne.
  4. elderflower champagne

  5. Tie the straining bag off tight with a piece of butcher’s string and once the water is boiling add it, the sugar and the juice of the lemons. Give a good stir to dissolve the sugar and beat the bag about a bit with a wooden spoon to start releasing the flavours. Now at this stage it is all down to personal choice. I’ve suggested 250g of sugar and 20 heads of elderflowers. This gives a slightly sweet and delicately flavoured brew. You can add more sugar and elderflowers if you like it sweeter or stronger – it’s up to you, but in any case remove from the heat and leave to infuse for several hours. This again is a matter of taste, the longer you leave it the stronger the elderflower flavour.
  6. elderflower champagne

  7. Once infused remove the straining bag and discard the contents. Now here is another decision you need to make. If you want to store your non-alcoholic elderflower champagne for any length of time, and I’m talking more than a week or so, you will have to reboil the liquor. The reason being the elderflowers are covered in yeast, most should have died in the original boiling water, but they can be persistent little blighters, so to kill what is left a reboil is necessary. The problem with this is that some of the beautiful perfume of the elderflowers will be lost. It is a judgement call you will have to make. The result will still be very pleasant, but not quite as fragrant as if it’s not reboiled. Might I suggest you decant some off to bottle for immediate consumption and boil the remainder for storage. I think they call that a win win situation.
  8. elderflower champagne

  9. Once reboiled for 5 minutes or not depending on your intended consumption rate, decant the liquor into bottles through some form of filter. Those who are into home brew will have all the kit. I just use a piece of kitchen towel folded in 4 to make a filter cone and placed in a funnel. Now here is the big word of warning, make sure you use bottles that can withstand the pressure. The very best thing to use, albeit not very pretty is old plastic pop bottles. Firstly, they are designed to withstand enormous pressures and secondly if for some really weird reason your elderflower champagne managed to burst them, being made of plastic they would do no harm. Now I know lots of you like to use fancy jars and bottles and I agree that part of the fun of all of this is making it look really nice, especially when you want to give your hard labours as presents or entertain guests with them. If this is the case, make sure you use glass bottles that are certified for the job. Good old Wares of Knutsford are more than happy to supply bottles that are perfectly safe and look the part into the bargain. Obviously, there are other suppliers I just know that I can trust Wares not to slip something else in place if they were low on stock. It really isn’t worth taking the risk, you’re a long time blind!!
  10. elderflower champagne

  11. Okay, lecture over, here comes the fun bit. How do we get the fizz in. Right first add 15g of citric acid to every litre of your elderflower champagne. So that is two and a half flat teaspoons in a one litre bottle or 5 in one of those big plastic pop bottles. Put the lid on and shake it around until it dissolves. So there is your acid part ready, now for the bicarbonate of soda.
  12. elderflower champagne

  13. For every litre of elderflower champagne put 2 level teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda in a small mixing vessel; I use a plastic disposable cup. To this add a small blob of glucose syrup and mix the two together to get a kind of crumbly texture. It takes quite a lot of hard mixing and the secret is to not put too much glucose syrup in. You’re trying to get a consistency that will just hold together if you squeeze it in your hand. Now if you’ve got lots of bottles of elderflower champagne you can do this on a larger scale rather than one bottles worth at a time. If you do that you will need 10 to 12 grams of the finished mixture per litre of elderflower champagne.
  14. elderflower champagne

    How the bicarb mixture should look

  15. Now take the appropriate quantity of bicarbonate of soda mixture and squeeze it together in your hand to make a sausage shape that will fit through the neck of the bottle.
  16. elderflower champagne

  17. Holding the lid of the bottle in one hand drop the sausage into the bottle, quickly place the lid on and tighten down immediately.
  18. elderflower champagne

  19. You should see a huge eruption of fizz from the bicarbonate of soda sausage and it will slowly start to disappear. Gently turning the bottle end over end will help this happen. Once all the bicarb sausage has dissolved the elderflower champagne is ready – how cool is that!

I personally would leave it all to settle for a few days. It is obviously best served chilled from the fridge. Make sure you open the bottle over a sink as it can be very, very lively!!

elderflower champagne

Finally, I cannot stress enough how important it is to use bottles that are up to the job. Please, please be careful, the gift of sight is so precious and only missed when it is gone! Having said that, if you are sensible then this really is a fabulously refreshing drink without the need for alcohol. It is also great fun to do a bit of kitchen chemistry and if you get the kids involved its something they will find fascinating and who knows it might just spark their interest to become budding chemists.

elderflower champagne

Oh, one last point, you can of course adopt this same method to make all sorts of fizzy drinks, either with natural flavours or as I sometimes do using ersatz tutti-frutti flavouring and green food colour – see the kids light up at that one!!

……More from Tomball, Texas!

Hi Guys, you know its so good to hear from our little community, its just a shame that more of you don’t join in. I’m certain there must be loads of you with great jam and pickle stories to tell. Don’t be shy and leave it all up to Ruth, Sandy and the others. The jam season is really starting to get underway now – who’s made their first batch of Rhubarb and Ginger? We’d all love to hear from you!!

Hi Jess,

Thanks for posting the pics. Joe says “Maybe Jess will put the pics on the website.” I’ve got him reading it too. So we had some of the blackberry jelly this morning and it was so wonderful. Set up very nice. It was so thick I actually was brave enough to add water and it did just fine with no pectin added. The texture of it was amazing. It wasn’t like “proper” jelly that’s the see through, stiff stuff. It was almost like a jam with no bits of fruit or seeds. Instead of the cheese cloth, I used a colander with a wooden pusher. Funny, my mother just now decided to give that to me. When I was little I used to play with it while she worked in the kitchen. I thought I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I would like to have it. Low and behold it came in handy. Anyway, the flavor of the jelly is sweet, but from the fruit, not so much the sugar. We are going out again tomorrow morning and picking as many as we can.

pickled beetroot
pickled beetroot

I am also sending a picture of my beets and chutney we did a couple of weeks ago. The beets are home grown from our garden and the seeds were given to Joe as a Christmas present last year. What a great present. We harvested all of them and canned them the same day. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the color at all. It is just this absolute brilliant pink/fuchsia. The flavor is earthy, yet sweet at the same time. Sent you a pic of the package. I don’t even like beets and I can’t stop eating these once I have tasted a few. Highly recommend this Gourmet variety.

I don’t think I have the jars you mentioned, but will of course look them up on Wares. My daughter and I love to look at all different types of jars.

Thanks so much for posting the pics. It’s so much fun to see our creations posted. My daughter loves the pictures of Sandy’s jams.

Until next time,

Ruth

Wild Blackberries in Tomball, Texas

Hi Jess,

Just wanted to send some pics to you of the Blackberries we picked today in the neighbourhood. Joe was out for about 3 hours picking and came back with a bucketful. Needless to say, I jumped into action and pulled up your jelly recipe. I made about 10 jars and still have some left.

wild blackberries

However, it’s after 6pm now and I’m tired so the rest will be tarts and muffins. Thanks for making the video to go with the recipe. That really helps when there’s an actual picture of what the jelly is supposed to look like.

I didn’t use my fanciest jars. I’m saving those for Strawberry jam next week. By that time the Blackberries will be gone. Or at least the wild one will be.

Until next time,

Ruth

The Science of Jam Making

As the weathermen seem to be saying that winter is finally about to release its icy grip, I thought I might repost this in anticipation of a bumper summer harvest. Well we can live in hope can’t we – lol!

jam making

The Jam Making Lament: “The more I boil it the worse it gets!!”

You know, by far and away the largest number of questions I get asked are concerned with the setting of jam and jelly. It seems that many people wrongly view jam making as somehow akin to making toffee or caramel, as in, “… the more I boil it the harder it gets.” Unfortunately, in reality this could not be further from the truth and in fact the addition of too much heat will prevent a jam or jelly from setting at all. So what is the science behind jelly and jam making and what’s more if we understand it will it make us more able to produce good preserves in a predictable fashion. Well the answer to that question is; firstly, the science is actually quite interesting and secondly, once understood it will most certainly make us better jam makers.

So the obvious question to ask and logical place to start on our quest to understand the science of jam making is “What makes jam set?” The simple answer to this is pectin. Now we’ve all heard the word pectin banded about but how many of us actual know what it is, what it does, and how it does it. I suspect not many. In the simplest of terms pectin is the building blocks, the bricks and mortar if you like, of the gel that gives jam and jelly structure. It is the substance that in effect turns a liquid fruit syrup into a solid jam, in the same way as gelatine is the substance that turns your jelly for the sherry trifle from a hot runny liquid into a solid wobbly layer between your booze soaked sponge and the cold custard.

jam making

D-Galacturonic Acid the building blocks for jam making

Ok, but what exactly is this pectin stuff made of. Well the pectin molecule is made up of lots of smaller molecules all joined together in a chain. We call these chains polymers in the scientific world and the pectin polymer is made up of long chains of a molecule called D-galacturonic acid, which is a distant relative of the sugar we put in our tea. In nature this pectin polymer is found in the structural cell wall of plants and along with cellulose it gives the plants there rigid structure. Good sources of pectin are apples and citrus fruit peel and these, indeed, are used to produce pectin on a commercial scale for the mass production of sweets, jam making and of course to sell to us amateur preservaholics to splash around liberally when things haven’t gone quite to plan!

So I hear you cry “that’s all very well but how does it work!” Well attached to some of these Galacturonic acid molecules making up the pectin polymer chain are little chemical hooks called methyl esters, and under certain conditions, which we will come to later, they grab hold of each other, connecting the pectin polymer chains up in a random tangle, a bit like a tangled ball of string. It’s this tangled lattice work that is the gel, holding all the water and fruit in a kind of slightly solid, slightly liquid, wobbly mess we recognise as jam. The number of little hooks can vary depending on the source of the pectin, and more frequently today, how it’s been fiddled with by man in the laboratory. But suffice to say the more hooks the stronger the polymers bind together and the firmer the gel.

jam making

Now we come to the interesting part. How does this intimate knowledge of pectin help us with our jam making. And more to the point can it put to bed some of these ridiculous myths that surround the art of the jam making process. The answer is yes it can, however, we need to arm ourselves with four more vital pieces of information before the curtain of mystery can fall. Firstly, pectin is soluble in water and the more water available the further the pectin polymers will be apart and therefore the less likely they are to link up to make a gel. Secondly, sugar binds water up and makes it unavailable for the pectin to “float around” in; thirdly, the hooks on the pectin polymers will not grab hold of each other unless they are in an acidic environment. And finally, now for the real bombshell – once all these conditions are met, this hooking up process occurs as the jam cools!

So what are the implications of those four statements for our jam making process. Well firstly, we can dispel the “boil it to death” school of thought, as the gelling actually occurs as the jam cools down. All that is required is enough heat to make sure the pectin is dissolved – simply bringing to the boil is more than adequate for this. It also tells us that acid, either in the form of lemon juice or pure citric acid is essential for our jam making to be successful. And last but by no means least it tells us we must have enough sugar present to “starve” the pectin polymers of water so they start to hook together – the magic number being 55% weight/volume sugar to water/fruit pulp or juice.

In summary then, heat is only required to soften the fruit, extract its flavour and natural pectin and to make sure the pectin is fully dissolved. The myth that heat somehow drives the gelling process has hopefully been dispelled for good. Acid must be present in sufficient quantity to allow the pectin polymers to cross-link, and incidentally it also helps in extracting the natural pectin from the fruit. Lastly, enough sugar must be added to bind up sufficient water away from the pectin such that it starts the cross-linking process. And that as they say is that!

What we can take away from this though is a universal recipe for jam making, that by and large will work every time for every fruit. The only variable being how much pectin the original fruit contains and therefore how much extra water you can add to your recipe, assuming you want the highest yield of jam from your fruit, and it still to set. This is of course a matter of judgement that comes with experience and would be wisely based on the results of a pectin test of the boiled fruit, which is relatively easy to carry out. As a general rule, high pectin fruits, such as citrus can take anything up to 3 times their weight in water, where as the soft fruits at the other end of the pectin spectrum should be soften to a pulp in a damp saucepan and no more.

So if we set aside for one moment the variable of how much water to add to the fruit can we write a universal jam making formula. Well let’s have a go:

  1. Always choose fruit that is slightly under ripe as it contains more pectin.
  2. Cut into appropriate size pieces, place in a saucepan with a tight fitting lid and add a generous teaspoon full of citric acid to every kilogram of fruit.
  3. Bring the fruit to the boil with the lid on tight and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or until the fruit is a pulp. Remember, the quantity of water added at this stage is dependent on the fruit you’re using. Consulting a recipe book for guidance purely on this aspect of the process is probably the easiest thing to do.
  4. Remove the lid, add sugar at 1.2kg to every 1kg of fruit pulp and bring rapidly to the boil.
  5. Check you have a rolling boil as shown in the picture below, hold for 30 seconds.
  6. Turn off the heat, allow to cool slightly, descum and decant into sterilised jars.

jam making

The rolling boil essential in jam making

And that really is it. I hope that has busted the myth of jam making for you. I can already hear the cries of “what about low sugar jams” and “you haven’t mentioned aminated pectins” and so on. I am fully aware that there is a whole load more to the art of jam making and hopefully we will be able to go into that in greater detail in other blog posts. For today I hope this has just helped to lift a little of the mystery that surrounds the standard “old-fashioned” jam making process, and will give some of you out there a better understanding of what you are doing and improve your enjoyment of jam making in the future.

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