When Jelly Won’t Jell


Sound familiar?
Fired a with housewifely wish to see her storeroom stocked with homemade preserves, she undertook to put up her own currant jelly. John was requested to order home a dozen or so of little pots and an extra quantity of sugar, for their own currants were ripe and were to be attended to at once. As John firmly believed that `my wife’ was equal to anything, and took a natural pride in her skill, he resolved that she should be gratified, and their only crop of fruit laid by in a most pleasing form for winter use. Home came four dozen delightful little pots, half a barrel of sugar, and a small boy to pick the currants for her. With her pretty hair tucked into a little cap, arms bared to the elbow, and a checked apron which had a coquettish look in spite of the bib, the young housewife fell to work, feeling no doubts about her success, for hadn’t she seen Hannah do it hundreds of times? The array of pots rather amazed her at first, but John was so fond of jelly, and the nice little jars would look so well on the top shelf, that Meg resolved to fill them all, and spend a long day picking, boiling, straining, and fussing over her jelly. She did her best, she asked advice of Mrs. Cornelius, she racked her brain to remember what Hannah did that she left undone, she reboiled, resugared, and restrained, but that dreadful stuff wouldn’t `jell’.
She longed to run home, bib and all, and ask Mother to lend her a hand, but John and she had agreed that they would never annoy anyone with their private worries, experiments, or quarrels. They had laughed over that last word as if the idea it suggested was a most preposterous one, but they had held to their resolve, and whenever they could get on without help they did so, and no one interfered, for Mrs. March had advised the plan. So Meg wrestled alone with the refractory sweetmeats all that hot summer day, and at five o’clock sat down in her topsy-turvey kitchen, wrung her bedaubed hands, lifted up her voice and wept. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

It happens to all of us – our “nice little jars” wind up with something more like syrup than jelly. Meg didn’t have the advantage of commercial pectin. I suspect the key to her problem is found in the line “their own currants were ripe.” When making jelly without pectin – home made or commercial – if at least one-quarter of the fruit isn’t under-ripe, jelly won’t jell. If you’re a lazy cook like moi, you simply call it syrup and use it to top ice cream, cake or pudding. If you’re made of sterner stuff, however, you may be able to rescue it with the following strategies. Always give your jam or jelly plenty of time to set up before deciding you’ve got a recipe failure. It may take commercial pectin a solid 48 hours to set up completely. By the way, I’m assuming that the jars sealed properly – if not, and they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a while before you discover the problem, consider it a failed cooking experiment and toss it out.

The first suggestion comes from a 1910 recipe scrapbook kept by a young woman named Mildred Mudge. “When Jelly Won’t Jell – When your jelly will not jell, and that happens to every cook at times, do not turn it back into a saucepan to cook it over; that breaks the little **missing text** (I suspect the word is bonds or strands) that have formed even though not enough to make jell, and you will have at best a sticky, stringy mess; but take a large dripping pan, half fill it with water, set your undisturbed glasses of jelly in it, not close enough to touch, put into a hot oven, and let them bake till sufficiently jelled. It sometimes takes three-quarters of an hour, but the jelly will cut as smooth and clean as though stiff enough at first cooking. In making jellies, if they will not jell easily, add a pinch of powdered alum. The result is a fine, firm jelly.”

If you decide to rescue the recipe, remember you can’t remake more than 8 cups at a time – anything more than that is too large an amount to thoroughly heat the pectin. Pour the jam into a low, wide pan like a stainless steel skillet. Whisk ? cup of sugar and a tablespoon of commercial pectin together, then whisk it into the jelly. Stir until the sugar and pectin mix has dissolved. Let it sit while you prepare your jars and lids as you normally would when making jelly. We’re not going to water bath, so don’t worry about having a pot for that purpose. Bring the jam to a boil over high heat and boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You should be able to see or feel the jelly becoming thicker. Once you feel it’s ready, pour into jars, apply new lids and fasten the rings. Give it 24 hours and test the seals.

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Pollinator Insects


We have a problem with pollinator insects. By “we” I mean my family as well as the world in general. I’ve been a bit smug on the issue for the last few years. I don’t use pesticides. I plant a wide variety of flowers and vegetables, and we have lots of natives including annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vines. There are untilled areas for ground-nesting bees, plenty of dead wood for the types that live in small holes and lots of water sources. I’ve never felt the need to keep bee hives as we’ve always had so many wild colonies. This year, I have been taken aback at how low our insect populations are. Well, except for mosquitoes and ants – I’m not sure anything can really make a dent in their populations.
The first clue was that despite plenty of blossoms – all the usual annual/perennial flowers in the garden and flowers on the vegetable plants – I was seeing very few bees. Most years, a squash plant would have two or three honey bees on every flower as well as a few mason or leaf cutter bees and the odd bumblebee. This year I might see one honey bee per plant and none of the others. I have not seen a single Monarch butterfly and we have fewer swallowtails, buckeyes and fritillaries. Next was a drop in the numbers of summer squash fruits. Not only were they fewer in number than usual, but they were smaller and in some cases not completely filled out – a sign of inadequate pollination. Yet we had lots of honey bees in the pennyroyal patches down in the pastures. Same thing with cucumbers. No problems with tomatoes, peppers and beans, but none of them depend on insects for pollination.
So, I resorted to hand pollination for the cucurbits. It’s an easy process. Take a clean Q-tip or fine bristled paintbrush with a pointed tip, poke it into a male flower, twist it around and then poke it into a female flower. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Since I’m not saving seeds, I didn’t worry about varieties. While hand pollination has probably solved the cucurbit problem, it’s very worrisome. Fruit trees are dependent on pollinator insects. Hand pollinating a fruit tree is a very different prospect. This year we had good crops of apples and pears, so there must have been insect pollinators around in the early spring. Friends about 15 miles away report the same problem with low numbers of pollinators. Have any of you readers noticed similar drops in pollinator insects?

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Country Roads


I have two options for going to work. The first takes me the long way round and runs past The Little One’s school. During the school year, I am the designated driver. The middle one rides the bus to high school, and next year, so will TLO. In the summer, however, I have the option of country roads.

This country road was originally a wagon trail. It meanders across 13 miles of mostly open range, climbing three ridges. The elevation on the ridge-tops is about 1,000 feet above valley floors, which can make the difference between rain and snow in the winter. Technically, it’s a two-lane road. I say “technically” because it’s only a two-lane road if both vehicles have their outside wheels well over on the shoulder. The bridges, on the other hand, are decidedly single lane and all are on blind curves that are also heavily screened by vegetation. The pavement is unrelieved black – no center or edge lines. When the fog is thick, you drive at 10 miles an hour.

Most country roads have been logged at least once, but mine still has trees that were probably seedlings about the time of the Civil War. Much of the road still looks like primeval forest, except for the fences.Two of the ranches I pass each morning were established over 150 years ago. Modern houses sit side-by-side with Victorians built of hand-sawn lumber and square nails. I often think of the ranch wives who lived in these isolated areas. Outhouses were the norm, as was cooking on a wood stove even in 100-degree heat. A trip to town in those days would have been a special week-long event, undertaken on horseback or in a farm wagon only in good weather. Even now, the folks who live on these ranches don’t run to the market because they’re out of eggs. Ranch wives (and ranch kids) carried water in a bucket or pumped it by hand from a hand dug well. Laundry day must have been brutal.

Since this is the only crossroad for 10 miles in one direction and over 20 miles in the other, it gets a fair amount of traffic. Logging trucks and cattle trucks are common. Utility trucks and the mail carrier use the shortcut to go from the small town where I live to the small town where I work. Although there are not too many houses out here, I do meet the same drivers on a regular basis. Most of them seem to operate on the assumption that there is no oncoming traffic. They regularly cut corners even though they can’t see clearly enough to know if there’s another car coming. I get plenty of practice braking, dodging and swearing.
Since it’s open range, there are cattle wandering freely across the pavement. The cows like to stand on the bridges for some reason. I once came bumper to nose with a very large Angus bull that was disinclined to move. I kept edging forward and he finally turned his head just enough that I could get past, leaving a smear of nose dew on my driver-side mirror. In addition to the cows, I have to stay alert for the flocks of wild turkeys, herds of deer, bears, coyotes, the occasional mountain lion and now wolves, which have moved into the area in the last year or so.

In the spring, all of our country roads are lined with tiny wild iris and the bright yellow form of Mariposa lilies known as cats’ ears. These give way to ox-eye daisies, wild hyacinths, milkweed, St. John’s wort, yarrow and – come fall – goldenrod. Pale pink bells of manzanita flowers herald the flowering shrubs, followed by white dogwood blossoms and the lavender or white of wild lilac. At this time of the year, the leaves are beginning to turn, with poison oak showing scarlet against the remaining green. I make it a point to watch the changing pageant, but with quick glances only, so I can also keep a wary eye out for the potholes the county road crews leave unmended. Their system seems to be to fix two out of three, even if the third is within 20 feet of the one they’re working on.
I often catch myself humming the old John Denver song as I travel my country road.

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