How is it that I found myself buying 4 pounds of plums at from a vendor at the farmer’s market this weekend? (I don’t really even much like plums). But the knowledge that I’m getting my hands on something fleeting and just a bit unusual, combined with a touch of nostalgia, results in me buying pound after pound…
Now you’re trying to figure out how to politely inform me that plums are anything but exotic. What if I tell you they are Italian Prune Plums? (“OK,” you’re thinking: “Italian sounds good, prune…not so much”).
Yes, these plums, further known as quetsche in French are used to make prunes, but don’t hold that against them. They are smaller and more oblong than the rounder, squatter plums you typically see, with a black-purple matte skin. While, when raw, they don’t taste much different from regular plums (as I was disappointed to find) they bake up into something amazing — you’ll swear you added spices to the mix–cloves? anise? A little heat makes a world of difference.
And what’s the nostalgia part, then? These plums are very popular for all sorts of uses in Eastern Europe, where I have spent a lot of time – used whole to plump up dumplings, cooked down into a plum butter used in just about everything (povidel, powidla, povidla, or lekvar, depending on what side of what border you happen to be on) and — you knew it was coming — to make plum brandy (ever heard of slivovitz or slivovice, the name deriving from sliva, the Slavic languages’ word for this type of plum?)
I have a few little digressions in respect of slivovitz:
(1) Our grandfather claimed he had a healthy dose of it right after being born – esentially a liquid slap on the back from the midwife.
(2) Karen reminds me of when I brought a sample back from Croatia and three generations of us sat around our Grandma’s table to each taste a glass. As Karen remembers it, we all blanched at the slightest drop on our tongue, except for our Grandma who threw it back and bustled back to her duties in the kitchen declaring, “I’ve had stronger.”
(3) The teachers I worked with in the Czech Republic offered me a small jigger to cure a stubborn flu (why yes, they kept it in the teacher’s lounge!) I wonder if it was a home brew like Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s here!
Alcohol-soaked anecdotes aside, let me tell you about the jam, which is crazy good, and which will be made again next week if there are any more prune plums to be had! It’s perfect on toasts, sweet but bright tasting, a brilliant magenta-fuschia with little bits of cooked down peel suspended throughout. How can something from a pedestrian plum taste so good?
I used the basic, no-pectin-added, plum recipe at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. I made one change: because all the other recipes I looked at (which were practically the same anyway) required a 10 minute hot water bath, I went ahead and boiled the full 10 minutes in the canner (rather than the 5 minutes specified here). Probably overkill, especially as this source is incredibly conservative.
It takes a while to pit and chop all those plums. It also takes a while to cook the fruit into jam–and since I can at night when my boys are in bed, I was very aware of the tick-tocking of the clock. But I had the windows open, with the crisp evening air at my side as I stirred and stirred and stirred, and it was somehow contemplative. (I paused about every 10 minutes to snap a picture of the transformation, which I’ve included after the recipe).
My impatience did eventually rear its ugly head — my jars bubbled over a bit in the canner because I failed to let them rest for 5 minutes in the pot after procesing. It’s important not to take the jars out too early because the jam is boiling inside the jars–if you remove them before they have a chance to come down from the boil, the literally bubble over. After much anxious internet searching, it appears that as long as your seal isn’t compromised (which is a risk you run when it does bubble over) it’s fine. (See what Marisa and the Minnesota extension site have to say). Such are the perils of late-night canning!
Italian Prune Plum Jam (adapted from here)
- 2 quarts chopped Italian prune plums (about 4 pounds)–I halved them, and chopped each half into another 8 pieces by halving again and quartering.
- 6 cups sugar
- 1½ cup water
- ¼ cup lemon juice
Yield: About 8 half-pint jars (I got 6 and change–this always happens to me).
Note 1: you can read up on canning technique here at Principles of Home
Canning. If you’ve never done it before, please do, as each step is important. Note 2: since I was processing for 10 minutes, I did not sterilize the
canning jars as required in the original recipe).
Put a few saucers in the freezer. Combine all ingredients; bring slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Then, stirring constantly (or almost constantly), cook rapidly to, or almost to, the jellying point (which is 8°F above the boiling point of water, or 220°F at sea level).
I found it was helpful to use a candy thermometer but it’s not required, as there are two other tests not requiring the thermometer. Use your frozen saucers to test by dropping a teaspoon on your frozen plate, putting into the fridge for 1 minute, and pushing with your finger. If it wrinkles you are done. (You probably should turn off your burner while doing this so you don’t risk overcooking your jam). The other test is to check for “sheeting”–if the jam “sheets” off the spoon (rather than in fast droplets) you’re good to go. Check out the details on these techniques here: Testing Jelly Without Added Pectin.
Pour hot jam into hot, sterile jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace and removing air bubbles. (This will also help avoid bubbling over). Wipe rims of
jars with a dampened clean paper towel; adjust two-piece metal canning lids to fingertip tight, and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Allow to rest 5 minutes after turning on the burner (learn from my mistakes!) and remove. Allow to cool and check after 12-24 hours to ensure a good seal, and remove rings.
Some other prune plum ideas here:
- last jam of summer: prune plum (culinariaeugenius.wordpress.com)
- Recipe: End of Summer Prune Plum Pie (thekitchn.com)
- Plum butter (www.williams-sonoma.com)
- Tamara’s plum jam here