Strawberry Season

Even though we had a mild winter and the seasons seemed to blend together this year, I know that summer is approaching because strawberry season is upon us. Where I live, strawberries are the first fruit of the season and depending on my canning reserves, strawberry jam is the official herald of my canning season.

We have a small garden but we do not grow strawberries. We just don’t have the space for what they yield. The strawberries I processed came from a small “pick your own” farm about a 40-minute drive from my home. I had a game plan of what I intended to can and picked accordingly. With two pecks (around 25 pounds) of plump, ripe berries, I had a couple of days work ahead of me.

I knew I wanted to try a small batch of Strawberry Jam with Balsamic Vinegar and Cracked Black Pepper. I decided to try a soft set method without pectin. I mashed berries until I had two cups and allowed them to macerate with one cup of sugar for a few hours in the refrigerator. I then placed this mixture in a large skillet that was deep enough to allow the berries to boil without boiling over. I cooked the jam until it was reduced to half and thick, about 20 to 30 minutes. At that point, I added three tablespoons of a quality balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. I let that cook for about five minutes and then removed it from the heat. I poured the jam into prepped half pint jars and processed it in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. I ended up with two half pints (a cup total) and just enough left over for a few people to taste.

This jam is delicious. There is a pleasant, unidentifiable tartness from the balsamic that is finished with a slow burn from the pepper. It is a very soft set. The part jar I have in the refrigerator is the consistency of a loose fruit spread. That doesn’t bother me. I grew up in a household where soft set jams were used as a replacement for syrup on pancakes. This jam will be perfect ladled over a brie with a nice glass of red wine and a few crackers.

When I make this jam again, I will do a couple of things differently. After reading at least 20 different recipes, I compiled my own. I will double the amount of strawberries and sugar (four cups of mashed berries and two cups of sugar) as it’s a lot of work to only end up with a little over a cup of jam. I will only add one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar for each cup of prepped fruit instead of the 1 ½ ratio. I think less than that will not be enough and more than that makes the jam border of the edge of tartness that might be unpleasant for some. It’s fine for my taste as I drizzle balsamic over a salad or even vanilla ice cream but there’s some people, bless their hearts, that don’t appreciate the taste of it. I will also set my pepper grinder on its largest grind setting as I think it will help with appearance although when you add the balsamic, the jam goes from bright berry red to a deep purple in color. You can find the recipe here:

Strawberry Balsamic Jam with Cracked Black Pepper

For the rest of the berries, I made four batches of plain Strawberry Jam and two batches of Strawberry Pepper Jam, the peppers consisting of jalapenos and a habanero. The only thing I switched up was the type of pectin I used. Normally, I use Sure-Jell, but over the years I had been reading about Pomona’s Pectin. It is a vegan, gluten free pectin that gels with low sugar or any type of sweetener. It has made a believer out of me! I had five cups of mashed berries and only used one cup of sugar and the jam set up as promised. I will say that it does not have the glossy consistency of traditional jam canned with Sure-Jell but being able to reduce the amount of sugar from seven cups to just one, I’ll take it and the strawberry flavor is off the charts.

I am not getting paid or compensated in any way from Pomona’s Pectin but I am attaching their link as I think it’s an excellent product, especially if you’re looking to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet or find alternatives to using sugar as a sweetener when canning.

The picture attached shows the fruits of my labor, except for the cat. Whenever our cat, Flash, sees a box, he’s in it. His motto? “If I fit, I sit.” And if it were up to him, his furry behind would still be planted in that box and I would have had to find an alternate container to pick in.



Candy Making 101

I was never allowed in the kitchen when I was growing up. Primarily, my mom did not like us traipsing through and nosing around while she was fixing a meal. And the other reason, I had a few kitchen disasters while growing up.

The one that brings the most laughter, now at least, was my foray into candy making. When I was in high school, you had the option of taking Home Economics as an elective credit. This class wasn’t “just for girls.” Savvy guys took this class because they were surrounded by females and food, two things that are probably most dear to a teenage boy’s heart. I enjoyed this class. Among other things, we learned about nutrition, food safety and how to cook and bake a few things—lessons that are still worthwhile, especially in this age of fast food and microwaves. It was fun to walk into a large room filled with all the necessary equipment to put our lessons into action because I never got to practice at home! Until one Christmas…

During the holidays, Home Ec classes focused on desserts and candy making. If it had lots of sugar, chances are, we made it. Cakes, cookies, lollipops, fudge, hand-pulled taffy… Oh the taffy! How that fascinated me. It took skill and precision to make taffy. The sugar had to be boiled to the “hard-ball/soft-crack” stage—between 260 and 280 degrees. Now I know, for people who have never made candy or messed with boiling sugar, that term might make you chuckle but there is quite a bit of science behind it. If the taffy was undercooked, it was fudge and if it was overcooked, well, then you had a lollipop. When properly cooked, the sugar was poured onto a sheet pan, allowed to cool and then “hand-pulled” until it had the opaque, matte finish of what you find in the candy shops of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It was then cut into pieces and wrapped in waxed paper.

I have to say, my parents were rather impressed with the samples I brought home from class. I begged my mom to let me make batch over Christmas break. Looking back, I have no idea what in the world possessed her to allow me to boil sugar in her kitchen (which is akin to making liquid fire) when I barely knew how to boil water but whatever the thought process, or lack thereof, I was allowed to make taffy.

One important distinction needs to be made about Home Ec class recipes and regular “home” recipes—the recipes made in class were in quarter amounts of the full recipe. Cakes would have never baked and taffy would have never been pulled had we made a “full batch” recipe. Our real world experience would have been limited to just reading and tasting so we made quarter batches in class and took home instructions for full batch recipes.

Now the day we made taffy in class, in preparation for pouring the cooked sugar into the sheet pan, we placed another pan underneath filled with crushed ice. This allowed the sugar to cool quicker so that it could be pulled. The quarter batch of sugar poured over the iced pan cooled pretty fast and we had to begin pulling almost immediately to avoid it becoming grainy and inedible. I added all this information so you would have the back story as to how I made my critical error of judgment.

So I am at home on the first day of Christmas break. I’ve got my sheet pan buttered and nested into another pan of ice, my full batch of sugar cooking and my mom, just steps away, watching me work my magic. The sugar finally reached the hard-ball/soft-crack stage (I say finally because it takes quite a while for boiling sugar to reach those temperatures) and I poured it into the iced sheet pan. Without further thought and just going on my quarter batch experience in class, I immediately plunged my fingertips into the liquid sugar. I vaguely recall Mom hollering at me when she saw what was happening. 270 degrees registered pretty quickly on my pain meter but not before the damage was done. I spent the next two and a half weeks with blistered fingertips, eating shiny, grainy taffy.

I took away two life lessons from that experience: as much as it pains me now (and more so, then), math matters, especially in cooking. One quarter is not equal to a whole! And there has be to an easier, less painful way to permanently alter your fingerprints!


This is a photo of my mom’s kitchen and the scene of my taffy debacle.moms-kitchen

Salt Water Taffy

I found this recipe in my recipe organizer. I don’t know if this is the same recipe we made in Home Ec but if not, it’s very similar. Please pay particular attention to NUMBER 6 in the directions, cut your waxed paper squares ahead of time and pay attention to the cooking stage of the sugar. Undercook it and you will have fudge. Overcook it and it will be impossible to chew.

Here’s a link about my first taffy making experience at home. Candy Making 101


2 cups sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup water

2 teaspoons butter

A few drops of food coloring

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon extract, of your choice


1. Combine sugar, corn syrup, salt and water in a 2 quart pan.

2. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Be careful not to splash the sides with the sugar mixture.

3. Heat mixture, without stirring, until it reaches a hard-ball stage.260*

4. Remove from heat and mix in remaining ingredients.

5. Pour onto a lightly buttered baking sheet. 

6. Cool until just able to handle.

7. Butter hands and gather taffy into a ball and pull.

8. Continue to pull until light in color and hard to pull. This works best if you have someone to help you. 

9. Divide into fourths.

10. Pull each fourth into a 1/2″ thick rope

11. Cut into 1″ pieces using buttered scissors

12. Wrap individually in waxed paper or it will stick together.

Hot Pepper Mustard/Butter


1 quart prepared yellow mustard

1 quart cider vinegar with an acidity of 5%

4 to 6 cups sugar (I only used 4 cups)

½ to ¾ cups Clear Gel

1 teaspoon salt

36 large banana peppers or 40 medium banana peppers or 50 small banana peppers


  1. Seed and chop peppers. (I use a food processor to chop the peppers tiny).
  2. Add Clear Gel to sugar and mix well. Mix everything together. Put over medium heat, stirring sonstantlyr until desired thickness is reached. DO NOT BOIL!
  3. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars. Cap with hot lid and of course the ring and process in hot water bath for 15 minutes.

This recipe made about 8 to 9 pints.

I canned a batch of this in late October, 2016 and it’s nearly gone. It’s great on sandwiches, to dip pretzels in or mix with cream cheese to spread on crackers. I’m considering raising banana peppers in my garden this year so I can use my own peppers instead of purchasing them at the grocery store.

I do not use flour in anything I can. I only use Clear Gel. It is more shelf stable than

Presbyterian Potatoes

When I lived in Virginia, a good friend gave me this recipe. She was a Methodist. I have no idea how these mashed potatoes got their name but they are, hands down, the best mashed potatoes I have ever had. They can be prepared the day before and reheated without any loss of flavor or texture.

5 lbs. potatoes, peeled and diced

1 – 8 oz. pkg. of cream cheese

½ to 1 cup milk

1 stick margarine or butter

1 t. onion salt

1 t. salt

1 t. seasoning salt (like Lawry’s)

¼ t. pepper

Cook potatoes until soft.  Drain well.  Mash potatoes with all ingredients and serve while warm.

These can be prepared the day before and refrigerated.  Reheat potatoes in a covered dish in a 350 degree oven until heated through.

We have found that in lieu of the cream cheese and butter, one box of the Boursin cheese works as well.  Our favorite is the garlic but the herbed cheese also works well too.

Leftovers also make terrific potato pancakes!

Broccoli Raisin Salad


2 bunches broccoli, florets only (5 to 6 cups florets-I chop mine up pretty finely instead of leaving them in hunks)

½ cup medium red onion, chopped

2/3 cup raisins

8 – 10 slices bacon, fried and crumbled

1/2 cup sunflower seed kernels, salted


1 cup mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip)

½ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vinegar


When I make the dressing, I add more vinegar (and sometimes more sugar) as I like the sweet/tart combination.  I also use light mayo and have used sugar substitute as well. This dressing mix is what I use for coleslaw as well.

Combine salad ingredients; top with dressing mixture just prior to serving so broccoli doesn’t get soggy.