Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grape Jelly Making and Ear Aches - Oh My!

So yesterday was the big day I had planned for my first jaunt into jelly making since Jimmy Carter's inauguration - and yes, in hind sight making peanut butter to mark the passing of time might have been more apropos, but as they say, hind sight is 20/20 so jelly making was the order of the day.
The morning started out calm enough, as I had read through the direction the night before and with supplies ready and waiting on my kitchen counter (well almost, except for the quick cheese cloth run I had to make to Whole Foods first thing in the morning) I felt the blissful ignorance one might feel say before child birth; love the idea, much, much harder and more work than you ever imagined, but all-in-all, given the outcome, it was worth it. Husband off to work, son dutifully fed, it was time to stop putting off the inevitable and join the ranks of the generations of wives and mothers that had come before me. First things first, I set my seven year old son, Ethan, up at the dining room table with his math work. Oh, did I forget to mention I home school my him. Anyway, after looking over the assignment, I let out a thankful breath. Today's math would be covering adding and subtracting equations with decimals, something he knew how to do well, so I wouldn't be needed to actual "teach" him the lesson. I simply had only to show him his home work and with pencil and paper in hand he would be on his way. Our kitchen and the dining room, as most modern homes are today, is in the transitional construction style, so it was like being in the same room with each other but with plenty of space for our independent projects. Therefore I felt I had the perfect set up. I would make jelly, he would do his homework, we would converse as the morning progressed and he would get the added benefit of watching and learning how one makes jelly. Sounds perfect doesn't it? Of course, perfect never is the order of the day. When you think it is, take my advice and run in the opposite direction and if you pass GO do not stop to collect $200. As adults we learn that the best part life is made up of the stuff that is not perfect, the little imperfections, daily trials and everyday life is the zest of what memories are made of. So in that respect I suppose it was a perfect day - a perfectly normal day.
Usually Ethan gets through his math homework in an hour, give or take, but on this particular day he was having difficulty getting through even one math problem every fifteen minutes. Since he had about 40 problems to do, he was looking at about ten hours of math. Somehow or other he tried to convince me the writing in the book was too small, his ear hurt, the cat needed to be hugged, the dogs breathing was distracting him, he needed to race a couple of Hot Wheel cars, he was thirsty, his ear hurt, he wanted to see what I was doing, he needed to throw the dog a toy, his ear hurt and he just didn't want to do school today - it was a Monday after all don't ya know. Yet somehow between countless trips back and forth from the kitchen, around the counter and over to the dining room and back I managed to get started on my jelly making project.
Let me begin this segment by prefacing with the fact that I don't actually like grapes. I don't like any variety of grapes, I don't like raisins and I don't like grape juice. I do however greatly enjoy the sweet treat of grape jelly and a class or two of wine, not at the same time of course. So given that criteria, and the fact that I much prefer blackberries but after checking all the local grocery stores and the farmers market I decided the price of them didn't fit into our household budget. So large, deep purple grapes became the fruit victim. Don't ask me what variety they are, because I don't know. I was supposed to use Concord grapes but these were the closest looking to it I could find, and since I learned years ago to just go-with-it, I honestly didn't give it much thought after that point.
My first step was to pull the grapes off the vines and wash them, then set them in a colander to drain. After a couple more trips back to the dining room to deliver juice with a hug for another complaint in the ear ache department I reviewed my instructions once again.
I need to stop here a minute and explain something to you. I'm a Gemini, so inherently, anything I do will undoubtedly be done while two polar opposites simultaneously exist. In other words, while the yin part of me wants things perfect and orderly, following things to the letter, the yang part of me just kind of "wings it." Or I could just blame my mother (love you mom) who God bless her little Texan soul, taught me to cook with a pinch of this and a dash of that, only glancing toward a recipe occasionally to make sure one hadn't gotten too far of the reservation, then tasting to see what else it needed. Come to think of it that's how the pros cook on the Food Network isn't it? But then, they are the pro and I'm not, so conventional wisdom would tell me to stick to a recipe, but...combining the best of two recipes sounded even better in my padawan impression.
I had decided to use half-pint jars because being a family of three they seemed to fit and I also figured that if I decided to give any away as gifts, the unsolicited recipient of my wares would not feel too much quilt at tossing the jar in the trash if say, they didn't have the affinity for grape jelly that I hold. Or if it just tasted like - (feel free to provide your own word.)
So the first recipe I was using, from the book Homemade, put out by Reader's Digest (love this book, it claims to have over "702 ways to save money and the earth." Whatever. I just like all the recipes for food, beauty products, home remedies, cleaning supplies.) Anyway, this one says to combine the grapes and water in a heavy non-reactive saucepan. Okay, I have to stop right here. What the heck is a non-reactive saucepan? I mean, I've had all kinds of chemistry, organic and non-organic and isn't something always reactive to something else, it just depends what you put in it? Obviously 16 hours of college chemistry and $120K education isn't enough for making jelly. I mean, NON-REACTIVE, give me a break! For all you future recipe authors out there, please do not, I repeat, do not use the words NON-REACTIVE unless you plan to clarify what type of pan to use. Words like, aluminum, cast iron, copper, stainless steel, enamel, etcetera come to mind. Pondering only for a moment what was meant by non-reactive, I fleetingly considered running into the office and looking it up on the ever informative Internet, but considering we were an hour into the day, Ethan had exactly three math problems done and he was reminding me on a continual basis that his ear hurt, I decided to go with the largest pot (not sauce pan by the way) I had. I mean, let's be honest, even if I had looked it up on the computer, it wasn't like I was going to rush out and buy a new pot, so in the end I decided it was going to not have to matter and secretly prayed I wasn't preparing to unwittingly give my family metal poisoning.

Back to the book. Anyway, Homemade told me to combine 3 pounds of grapes to 3 1/4 cups of water in a "non-reactive" saucepan. Then I was to use a potato masher and mash them up. Piece of cake. Hah!
It was like trying to mash up a bowl of potatoes that were still raw. Yet with a lot of complaining, sweat and upper arm strength, I finally got them smashed up per said recipe. I was even proud enough to stupidly call Ethan over to take a squish himself, then spent the next ten minutes coaxing him back to the dining room table, getting him a snack, another hug for the ear ache and refocusing energy into his math book. Next I was to bring it to a boil, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes. I think I forgot to cover it. Oh well. Onward I went. Next I was to remove it from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Do you know how long it takes for a large pot that size to cool to room temperature? A long time. However, this did give me the opportunity to sit down with Ethan and see I couldn't coax him to speed it up a bit through math. Yes, we were still on math.
Three hours later, a worry some aching ear and a large pot of grape mush still cooling to room temperature, Ethan finally finished his math homework. Thank goodness it was time for lunch, we both needed the break. After lunch we continued on with homeschooling and about this time the ear ache situation had become a permanent fixture in our conversations throughout the school day, and my concern was growing, especially since I knew he had swim lessons later that evening. So while Ethan was on the computer learning Spanish with Rosetta Stone, I decided the grape mush had cooled enough to go onto the next step. According to the Homemade recipe, I was to put the grape mush into a three layer cheese cloth "bag" and suspend it over a bowl so the juices could drain off, and get this part, "overnight." Seriously, overnight? I have cat's and what about bacteria? And...so once again I decided not to make a decision at that moment and suspended my cheese cloth bag over a bowl with the only thing I had, some cooking twine and kitchen cupboard door with pulls. MacGyver had nothing on me.

About the time I strung up my grape mush, my son's complaining about his ear was non-stop. I decided it best to put a hold on the jelly making and homeschooling to take him to a near by doc-in-a-box. It was painfully clear, (no pun intended) that this ear ache was for real and wasn't planning on going away any time soon. So off we went. At the clinic, once checked in, one would think the waiting to see the physician's assistant would be the difficult part, but not actually at all. The half an hour or so wasn't the issue, it was my son complaining about his ear, complaining about the wait, complaining that no one was helping him all the while he crowded over the top of me from the adjacent seat like a dark cloud threatening to rain. Now don't get me wrong, it goes without saying how much I love my son, and I know he was in pain and it hurt. But not having the ability to do much about it at the moment other than what we were in the process of doing and trying to console and distract him, was beginning to take it's toll. After all, this had been going on pretty much all day. The nurse eventually called us back and as we were progressing through he door she so kindly held open for us my son uttered, "Finally!" The parent in me wanted to correct his rudeness but honest - here, here, I concur.
One diagnosis later and two bottles of ear drops we headed back home to immediately start to medicate his swimmers ear. I had it all planned out. I took him upstairs to my bedroom, turned cartoons on the TV - Sponge Bob of course, his favorite. What other than a yellow, talking, underwater sponge with corny jokes and an obnoxious laugh could soothe the tears of a little boy like Sponge Bob. Warning him that the drops might feel weird in his ear but assured him they wouldn't hurt, I proceeded to ease them medication in. Okay, so the screams took me a bit by surprise. Complaining I expected, but screams? No. Then the wrenching sobs of how much he would prefer the pain instead began. As any parent knows there is not much that can be done here but hugs, patient listening and time. Eventually however he was calmed down enough to become transported to the underwater world of Bikini Bottom where upon I slipped downstairs to do the final steps of my jelly making.
Here I had to make a decision on whether or not to continue with the Homemade recipe or the one inside the pectin box. Flipping between the two I switched at this point to the pectin box insert, deciding that in fact, I was not going to keep this bag hanging in my kitchen overnight. So with a couple of good squeezes and a pair of scissors I let the prisoner free. I measured out the juice and added the box of pectin, then measured out the sugar into a separate bowl. Washed the jars, lids and bands in soap and water then turned the stove top on high to, as the directions said, "get a rolling boil."
Okay, hang on tight, because here is where the real fun begins. As I was waiting for the grapes juice mixture to boil, I was either running upstairs to answer the cries of "mom," or fielding the endless questions of why the medicine wasn't working yet to a beautiful little boy standing in my kitchen, all the while cautioning him to stay back away from the stove. Back upstairs he went, just as the mixture was starting to shows signs of boiling. Standing next to the stove, I only momentarily, I swear, glanced to the left of me to reread the directions for confirmation of what my next step was, when I heard that awful and frightening sound of massive amounts of liquid spilling over onto the stove. Quickly I grabbed a hot pad and moved it off the stove only to realize I needed to keep it on the stove to pour the sugar in. Back on the stove the huge boiling pot of juice went, and next, well next can only be described as a scene from a volcano science experiment gone bad. Did you know sugar was reactive? Maybe this is where that non-reactive saucepan thing comes in. The minute I dumbed all seven cups of sugar (yes seven, think about that next time you have a tablespoon of jelly) into the pot, it instantly became a hot molten lava overflow of grape syrup. It spilled on my stove, on the counter, and on the floor. On the burner next to it I had the large granite pot with hot water ready for the jars baths, were the goo flowed all around as well. But wait, there's more.
I had to cook this rolling, boiling mass for 1 minute. What! So as I stirred with one hand and sopped up syrup with another, Ethan reappeared in the kitchen complaining about his ear and how the medicine wasn't working, but before I could shout not to come any further in, he took one look at the catastrophe, informed me that I had a mess (thanks son, hadn't noticed) then, like all good males no matter there age, high-tailed it back upstairs before he could somehow get blamed for it. I must admit watching him make an abrupt retreat upstairs to his pain and discomfort rather than face the potential of what was to come downstairs did put a quick, ironic smile on my face.
Minute over, pot of goo off stove. Baked on goo on stove. Let me talk about stoves for a moment. I have a beautiful new home we purchased two years ago that I completely love and am so thankful for, which came with an electric glass stove top. Now, first of all I prefer all day, everyday a gas stove, and still haven't completely managed to figure this one out. But that pales in comparison to how much I really, really do not like glass top stoves. If you have one and love it I apologize. But in my unprofessional opinion, these thinks stink. What on a normal stove would just be a mess of sticky goo that needed to be cleaned up, became charred, burnt up layers of crust that can't be scraped off with the blade of a bull dozer. It sets like concrete on top of these stoves. It takes weeks of scrubbing by myself and then my husband to eventually work through the layers enough to not be embarrassed when someone walks into our kitchen. So, knowing that this project would not end after the canning was done, not for days in fact, I accepted the inevitable, shook it off and marched on forward. Besides, I had doors to open before our fire alarm went off from the thick, stinky cloud of burnt sugar. Good thing my husband wasn't due home for a few more hours.
Thankfully the rest of the process went very smooth from there. I managed to fill the jars to within an 1/8 of an inch from the top (although I do admit I needed to make a quick look at my sons ruler to actually see how much an 1/8 of an inch was) without spilling nary a drop. I wiped the rims, put the lids on then set them in the bath water to process. Took them out of the bath and put them on a towel to dry. After the jars cool, you have to check the seals by pressing down on the middle of the lids with a finger. If the lids spring back, the lid is not sealed and you have to refrigerate the jelly. This I prayed was not the case, otherwise I could have just made refrigerator jelly and avoided the whole explosion mess. But alas, the jar lids did not spring up and therefore I probably would not end up poisoning my family. Life is good when you count the small blessings.
I had just finished cleaning up the kitchen between quick jaunts upstairs to check in on a now mending boy, when my husband Ken arrived home. He previewed the jars of jelly sitting on the counter and walked away with a satisfied look on his face. Atleast until he saw the stove. Bless his ever lovin heart though, after taking one look at the exhaustion that had begun to consume me he simply gave me a hug and a smile then grabbed a beer. All was ending well in our house. The jelly was made, the kitchen was clean (mostly,) the medicine had started working on Ethan, supper was almost finished, the cats and dog were fed and Ethan was taking a bath instead of a shower, so as not to get his ear wet. Then the screams from upstairs came. Running upstairs I found Ethan grasping for a towel to wipe the burning soap out of his eyes. It was time to pass the baton, so I handed round two off to my husband, who graciously and patiently attended to a little boy who had had a very rough day indeed.
This morning, just before writing this post, I knew I couldn't tell you how it went without checking two things first. 1) If it did actually jell or if I had canned syrup, and 2) how it tasted. So cutting a piece of homemade bread I had made just a couple of days ago I tasted the virgin jelly. That was the best tasting jelly I had ever had. And when Ethan came downstairs for breakfast and I made him toast with the jelly as well, he said,
"Mom, this jelly is great, you should make a bunch of it and sell it, we would be rich."
"You think so."
"Oh yaah!"
Maybe on another day in another universe, but for now that put a smile on my face and warmed my heart and I knew without a shadow of doubt that there would be many more jelly making days ahead for me for it indeed it had made me rich. For only someone as rich as I could have the love of a wonderful husband and a beautiful sweet little boy who thinks his mom makes the best jelly in the world.

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Oh I'm so happy you checked out my blog. I absolutely love hearing from each and every one of you - it truely makes my day! Jamie