Thursday, August 04, 2016

Camp Plum!

Mexican plum tree, early August
As a kid, I loved summer. It was everything good and nothing bad: endless hours of doing whatever I wanted, staying with my grandparents, playing with the neighborhood (or nearby farm) kids, exploring, discovering. Just nonstop fun, fun, fun.

Jack & me, at Grandma Bobb's
for the summer
Heat? Wasn't bothered by it.

Only one thing was missing. I always hoped I'd get to go to summer camp one summer, but that just didn't happen. Truth was, my grandparents' houses were close enough to summer camp, but I didn't realize that at the time. As I got older and summers began to mean summer jobs instead of summer fun, and then after college summer just disappeared into the normal work year, that heat became the only thing summer meant anymore, heat and humidity. Summer certainly lost its appeal.

A lifetime of working for a living later...

Camp Plum's gardens and Kitty Girl

I've been in summer camp all summer this year! Camp Plum this week. The name changes as my interests drift from one thing to another. This camp lets you do whatever you want, and there are no schedules other than the ones you set for yourself!

It's been a birding camp; lots of magic in the kitchen camp; French camp; meditation camp; reading mysteries camp; gardening camp. Whatever!

So, Camp Plum. 

Mexican plums
I've got a Mexican Plum tree in the front yard that always produces loads of beautiful little plums, but they're mostly pit and skin and little flesh, and way more trouble than they're worth, or so I used to think. But last year I read about how chef Jesse Griffiths at Dai Due, who is totally local everything, made the sourdough starter that the restaurant uses for all its baked goods from the wild Mustang grapes that he found growing on the alley across his street. Local flavors, indeed. I'd tried making a sourdough starter from apple peels myself, some years ago, and it was good, but I'd used organic apples from... who knows where? Not here though. So I decided to try making one with these plums, even though I'd have to wait until late summer.

Once the plums started falling, late July, I thought about jam too and it turns out, they need very little processing to go from fruit on the sidewalk (warm and incredibly fragrant) to jam in the fridge. About 30 minutes But there's a lot of room for experimenting, which I love. How long to cook them the first boil? How much sugar? How long to boil the juice and sugar? Pulp or no pulp? A rolling boil or a gentle simmer? Lid on or lid off? A few skins in the juice for color? How much pectin is in the plums? Do I need to add any? How much ripe versus underripe fruit? All these things make a difference, and so there's room to play with this for at least a week. And the plums keep coming. Small batches! Perfect for experimenting.

Yesterday these two experiments came together in fresh, hot 'plum sourdough' bread, right out of the oven, tartiné with butter and homemade plum jam. Incredibly delicious, both of them.

Here are the results of the experiments.
First, the jam:

Finished jam (first experiment)

I made very small batches because I only collected the fruit that fell on the sidewalk, and after a couple of days I'd have at most a cup or two of plums. That will make a small amount of jam. Good size for an experiment.

You pit the plums (I used a cherry pitter I'd bought earlier in the season to make Cherry balsamic shrub), cut them in half to remove any flesh that's insect damaged or over-ripe (a lot of people apparently skip this step entirely, but ewww!), then put them in a small saucepan just covering them with water (filtered or spring). Bring to a boil and boil for 5 or so minutes.

First boil
This first boil makes the next step easier: Pour the water through a sieve into a measuring cup, and use the back of a spoon to press the flesh against the sieve, so that some of the flesh goes through, as much as you want (no flesh and you'd be making jelly; some flesh and you get jam). You can throw into the juice/flesh mix a few bits of the plum peel if you want. It's supposed to deepen the shade of rose the jam becomes as it cooks.

Notice how much juice/flesh mix you've got in your measuring cup and add an equal amount of sugar. These plums are not sweet. They are really yummy, but quite tart. You'll have to be your own judge on the amount of sugar. From what I understand, it can affect the jell, but this stuff jells so quickly that I'm not sure normal guidelines for assuring jell are all that helpful.

Stir to blend the sugar in with the juice/flesh mixture, and return it all to your saucepan. There's a lot of pectin in the skins of these plums, and the less ripe they are, the more there is. So, depending on what you started with, whether you have the lid on or off, and how rapid a boil you've got, this step might take only a few minutes. Bring the mix to a boil and let it continue to boil for 10 - 15 minutes or so.

Or so...

Jam is not rocket science, but everyone's tastes are different and what's just right for me might be too firm or too runny for you. There are tried and true tests for jelling. First is 220 degrees. Believe me, this jam does not need to go that high. It's way too firm after that much boiling. Better to try the more subjective tests, for example, coating a spoon with the boiling jell and seeing if, when you run something (maybe not your finger! this stuff can be hot!) through the jell on the back of the spoon, the gully you make stays there. Does it stay? Enough boiling. Does it go right back together? Not enough boiling. Another test: drop a little on a saucer you've been keeping in the freezer. Does it stiffen up within a few seconds? It's done.

For a medium kind of jam, I found that you could get away with very little cooking at all, 10 - 15 minutes, at a medium boil, lid on some times, off others (I was testing a lot!). But there are so many variables. It's really best to use one of the "has it jelled yet" tests until you know your fruit, your stove and all that.

Now, for the sourdough:

This one is the opposite of the jam in terms of time. It takes 5 - 6 days to get a well-developed sourdough from the yeast that lives naturally on the peels of wild fruit. I used about 6 plums for this. All you have to do is lightly rinse your fruit and trim some of the peel with some flesh attached into a small bowl. Cover with water and add a tablespoon of all purpose flour (AP), a tablespoon of whole wheat or a multigrain flour and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Stir it up. It ought to be a very watery mix.
Watery mix, day one

Cover lightly and forget about it. Actually that part is hard to do. I found myself checking on it constantly. You so want to see it start bubbling and telling you that this is going to work. But it doesn't do that for awhile. So you have to be patient.

Day two, three, four and five, add another 2 tablespoons of flour (your choice about the amounts of each) and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. The mix ought to be getting a little thicker each day, but still be pretty wet. I began to see clear signs of bubbling by about the fourth day.

Last day, mix at normal
sourdough consistency
On the sixth day, remove the fruit skins and bring the mix up to normal sourdough consistency (like nut-bread or muffin batter) by adding AP flour and perhaps a little more water, and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. For me, after about 4 hours, this mixture was acting just like my regular sourdough would have. Success! I decided to save out half of it (into a glass jar, and into the fridge) and make a test loaf with the other half to be sure it didn't have any off flavors.
Toast with jam

The results were really wonderful. Local flavor for sure!

And up next -- Plum orange shrub. As soon as I collect another cup or two of plums...

Plum orange shrub

And the shrub

Well, that didn't take long. The tree hit its stride, and I got a windfall all of a sudden. Gayle Engels, who has since moved to Oregon, introduced me to a few shrub recipes last summer and I'm a true believer now. So far though, I'd only used organic produce from the grocery store. Since these plums worked so well for jam and sourdough, I thought they'd probably make a nice shrub too, and they did not disappoint!

I won't go into details about the process, since you can read all about it and the recipe under the link above, but here's the result, all bottled up and ready to go. I will definitely let it age a few more days before I serve it on ice with Topo Chico. We've got plenty of hot summer days still to go here in Austin.