The Difference Between Jam and Jelly

My friend Charlie is the fastest chopper in the West. He chopped four pounds of strawberries into a near-puree in the time that it took the rest of us to finish bitching about how hard it is to get the produce tags off of organic plums. (We are firmly NOT convinced that the super-glue that the tags are attached with is organic. Not convinced at all.)
Maybe Charlie always cuts that quickly, or maybe he was high off of the eye-stinging fumes from the balsamic vinegar reducing on the stove. In Texas in August, it is a big deal to open a window: life-saving, sane-making sweet cool air goes out and sticky, reused-breath-air comes in. When you reduce 3/4 of a cup of vinegar to 1/4 of a cup, all of the acid jumps into the air at once and flies around trying to find defenseless mucus membranes. You open the window.
We were making a strawberry jam, and you get a gold star if by now you’ve figured out that it has balsamic vinegar in it. The strawberries cook to a full boil with a packet of pectin, then the reduced balsamic gets stirred in (NB: if you over-reduce it, it turns into an amazingly sticky tar. It is pretty easy to rehydrate with some hot water and a few kind thoughts for the person who invented non-stick pans.) Once it’s boiling you add as many cups of sugar as there are deadly sins, bring it to a boil again and you’re done. The balsamic doesn’t taste like itself at all in the finished product. It comes through as a deep undernote that makes the jam somehow taste more like strawberry.
So that was awesome because we immediately ate in on ice cream and congratulated ourselves and went to bed. The plum jelly was a bit snarlier:

  • The vanilla bean got lost somehwhere between my shopping cart and home;
  • The dry-to-liquid conversion math that I did in my head apparently doesn’t apply to pectin;
  • The cardamom pods swelled up while boiling and looked like plum pits, throwing us quality-management types into a fit.
  • The resulting syrup, a brilliant clear magenta with a lovely complex cardamom/vanilla/plum taste, is delicious on bread or stirred into plain yoghurt. When you put it in a shaker with ice and gin, though, it comes out tasting like melted jello. Not like cool, adult, I-used-a-fancy-vanilla-bean-and-ground-my-own-cardamom jello. It tasted like plain old too-sweet pink-flavored jello. Damn.

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