CanJammin’ July: it’s the height of summer and Northeast locavore livin’ is easy, right? Well, yes, it is: the berries are rolling off the bushes and vines, stone fruits are bursting out of the trees, and we’re all just waiting for the King of Summertime, the Almighty Tomato. But Gloria comes along and says “Given that we jammed ‘erries last month, this month I’m thinking… cucurbits.” (Gesundheit). Cucurbits are plants in the family cucurbitaceae, or squashes, cucumbers and melons. Gloria ruled out the winter squashes as unseasonal, but that still left us Jammers plenty of scope for imagination: dreams of zucchini pickles, cucumber relish and melon jams sprung forth.
Cucurbits, cantaloupe and other sweet melons included, are a low-acid food (the pH of cantaloupe ranges from 6.1 – 6.6) and as such pose a special challenge for the water-bath canner. Having tackled carrots, alliums and asparagus, however, we knew that we were up to the task. And even though my CSA box is groaning under the weight of zucchini & summer squash, I couldn’t stop dreaming about a fresh, melony preserve. I made one, from a recipe of Mme. Ferber’s, which tasted fantastic, but didn’t pass my (somewhat stricter) safety criteria, and ended up in the fridge. On this, the second attempt, I combined sweet & juicy cantaloupe with acidic blackberries, extra lemon and white wine for a triple-acid punch up. The good news: I’m sure this one is safely acidic for water-bath canning. The bad news: not sure I’m sold on the taste.
It went like this: I wanted to combine a very ripe, farmer’s market cantaloupe with a fruit that was acidic enough to ensure a safe overall pH without overwhelming the flavor of the cantaloupe. I thought of red raspberries, but summer raspberries seemed to come & go in the blink of an eye (the ones I’ve sampled at the farmer’s market have all been rather insipid; I think the extreme heat caused them to grow too fast for any real depth of flavor) and wineberries and blackberries are not quite out yet. Ever the productive Little Squirrel, however, I did have some blackberries in the freezer from last summer. So, cantaloupe-blackberry it was. I made a micro-batch (yielding just 2 scant cups of preserve), doubling the lemon and adding in some apple pectin stock for yet more acid and gelling power. I used the Ferber method, macerating the cantaloupe overnight in sugar; I did not include the blackberries in the maceration step, nor any of the blackberry juice, in an effort not to overwhelm the cantaloupe flavor (and color, but obviously I was unsucessful there). The wine was a last minute addition, because the juice produced by the cantaloupe did not yield enough syrup to cover the fruit; I was simply looking for additional liquid, hopefully somewhat acidic, and one that would complement the flavors.
So what is it about the flavor that I don’t like? Well, it’s not that it isn’t tasty – it is – it’s just that I’m not wild to be making it again. The flavors didn’t quite seem to blend (maybe it will improve with some shelf-sitting time?), the cantaloupe was actually a little overpowering, and the blackberry seeds, which normally don’t bother me at all, seemed obtrusive. There was a lot of tinkering with this recipe: boiling the syrup, adjusting the pectin stock, adding in the wine, cooking, cooking, cooking. I kept trying to get to a gel stage yet maintain enough syrup and not overwhelm the cantaloupe flavor. In the end, I caramelized the blackberries too much, the cantaloupe flavor was actually a little too forward, and I should have picked a drier, more acidic white wine. Live & learn. Perhaps a standard sized batch (double the amount below) would have worked better; perhaps overnight maceration of the melon in wine would have blended those flavors better; perhaps I should have waited for wineberries after all. We shall see – I certainly don’t count it as a total loss, but if I make it again, there will be more tinkering I am sure.
- 3/4 lb (340 grams) cantaloupe (net), peeled, seeded and diced to 1/4-inch
- 1 cup sugar (organic evaporated cane juice)
- zest & juice of 1 large lemon (at least 1/4 cup of juice; use bottled juice for maximum canning safety)
- pinch sea salt
- 1 cup chardonnay or other, fruity white wine
- 1/2 cup apple pectin stock
- 3/4 lb (340 grams) blackberries (I used frozen)
- Day 1. Combine cantaloupe, lemon zest & juice, salt and sugar in a medium glass or ceramic bowl (I did not decide to add the wine until the next day, but I see no reason why you couldn’t macerate in the wine as well; I’m all for boozy fruit). Mix well and allow to macerate, refrigerated, overnight.
- Day 2. Transfer the cantaloupe mixture to a medium stockpot or Dutch oven; bring to a simmer over high heat, then transfer back to bowl. Allow to macerate at room temperature 4 – 8 hours (alternatively, perform this step the night before and use the macerated fruit right away on Day 2). If using frozen blackberries, rinse them and allow to thaw in a sieve placed over a bowl, reserving the juice for another purpose.
- If canning, prepare canner, jars and lids.
- Strain cantaloupe over your stockpot or Dutch oven to collect the juice. Add the wine (if not already added) and apple pectin stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, until the juice has thickened, is producing fat bubbles, and leaves a stripe when you scrape the bottom of the pan (and/or reaches 220 degrees F), about 15 minutes. Add the cantaloupe and blackberries; at this point if you feel that there will not be enough syrup for the fruit, add additional wine or blackberry juice. Continue to boil, stirring frequently, until the fruit softens, any foam subsides, and the jam leaves a stripe when you scrape the bottom of the pan (and/or reaches 220 degrees F).
- Ladle hot jam into hot, sterilized jars to 1/4-inch headspace and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (I actually processed for 15 minutes, as my jars had not yet come to a boil when the jam was ready).
Yields a scant 2 cups.
- The above makes a micro-batch of jam; for this small amount, I would normally skip the water-batch process and just store in a pint jar in the fridge. The recipe can easily be doubled to yield about 4 half-pints of preserves.
- As mentioned in the headnotes, I would still tinker with this recipe; maybe a more acidic wine (Pinot Grigio, or a spicy Sauvignon Blanc), a different berry, longer maceration time. The one thing not to experiment with are the melon:berry proportion and the amount of acid. Those amounts ensure the safety of the recipe for water-bath canning.
- For the scientifically inclined, here is my rationale on the safety of this recipe for water-bath canning: using my favorite acidifying onions reference, we know that 1/4 cup of (bottled) lemon juice will safely acidify pint volumes (up to 300 grams) of onion or green pepper. While melons are slightly less acidic than onions or peppers (which range from 5.3 – 5.9 pH) and we added 340 grams of cantaloupe, our acidic contribution doesn’t stop at lemon juice. We added lemon zest, acidic blackberries (3.9 – 4.5 pH), apple pectin stock, and wine (typical pH of 3.4). Technically, the lemon juice & blackberries are probably enough to safely acidify the cantaloupe: everything else was a bonus and will certainly bring this recipe well into the sub-4.6 pH range for safe home canning.
- Despite my tinkering, the finished preserve did not contain enough syrup for my liking; consider adding in the blackberry juice to the syrup-boiling stage, or adding additional, unsweetened acidic juice (white grape, apple or raspberry).
- I’m now wondering how cantaloupe-cranberry would taste: hmmmm.
Canned, store in a dark, cool spot for up to 1 year. Refrigerated this should last for at least 1 month (likely longer).