DAMSON, GUINNESS AND COCOA JAM
Every year I make a batch or two of damson jam. It's a therapeutic ritual and somewhat grounding; there's something rewarding and gratifying about taking the time and care to forage the fruits. Taking the stones out is the most tedious part, but it's just a case of skimming them away with a slotted spoon as the fruit breaks down. They lurk just beneath the surface like sharks in a blood-red pool.
Last year my flavour of choice was damson and liquorice, a jar of which is still safely stashed in my cupboard, away from thieving hands. This year is something a little more experimental, and the results are weird and truly wonderful.
The jam will keep for months, if not years, but sterilised jars are a must. Simply run them and their lids through a hot cycle on the dishwasher, allow them to dry, then remove them. Failing that, wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water, then put them onto a tray and into the oven at 140C/120C fan for a good 30 minutes. However you sterilise them, once it's done, don't even think about touching the inside of either jar or lid.
The only test I trust for setting point is temperature. I use an instant read digital thermometer to ensure the jam is 105C, and I always stir the pot before taking a reading to ensure an even temperature.
When it comes to yield it's impossible to be too prescriptive. The quantity below filled 6 regular sized jam jars. Have 8 handy, just in case.
- 1.3kg damsons
- 1 x 440ml can Guinness
- 1.5kg caster sugar
- 4tbsp cocoa powder
Put the damsons and the Guinness into a large saucepan and set over a high heat. Stirring, allow the contents of the pan to come to a boil, then reduce to a quick simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has completely broken down. It's tempting to skip this part, but trust me, it'll make your life easier when it comes to skimming the stones.
Add the sugar to pan and stir to dissolve. The stones (and some skins) will float to the surface. Remove the stones with a slotted spoon or kitchen spider.
Sift the cocoa powder into a small bowl and stir together with enough of the damson liquid to create a thick paste. Pour the paste back into the jam pan and stir to incorporate.
Bring the jam to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 105C. And it bears repeating: stir the jam before you take a temperature reading.
Decant the jam into the sterilised jars and pop on the lids. Allow to cool and set. Don't forget to label; I once opened (admittedly after a few drinks) what I thought to be jam. It turned out to be a far too spicy Christmas chutney. It wasn't at all pleasant on my midnight toast.
Damson cheese is a very thick paste made from damsons and sugar. It sets to a thick jelly, like a soft fruit sweet, and can be sliced to accompany actual cheese. It's also ideal as a petit four if cut into bite-sized cubes and rolled in caster sugar. Or, as recommended by queen of preserves Vivien Lloyd, dip cubes of it in melted chocolate for a confectionary not too dissimilar to, but far more tempting than, chocolate-covered Turkish delight.
Ingredients - fills a 20cm square cake tin
- 3kg damsons
- Caster sugar (quantity below*)
Grease and line with baking paper a 20cm square cake tin. Lightly grease the baking paper, too.
Put the damsons into a large saucepan with a splash of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a quick simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit breaks down.
Set a sieve over a large bowl and put the damsons - in batches is sensible - into the sieve. With a wooden spoon, beat and press the damsons so their puree falls down into the bowl. Discard the skins and stones.
Weigh the puree. *For every 500g/ml puree, you need to add 350g caster sugar. Add the sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring very frequently - especially as it thickens - until so thick that when you draw a wooden spoon across the pan, the the base of the pan peers through for a second. Pour the damson cheese into the cake tin and allow to cool and set for a few hours.
To portion, lightly grease a chef's knife and chopping board and cut the damson cheese into slabs of whatever size you fancy - I wear blue gloves to avoid marking the cheese with fingerprints. Wrap in parchment and store in the fridge.