Not too long ago, the only way to enjoy fruit out of season was to preserve it as jelly or jam. Advances in farm technology make fruits and vegetables available year-round, but the art of jam and jelly making carries on here in Oklahoma.
Just when you think you've nailed down a favorite jelly or jam, another one comes along to tantalize your taste buds. That's how it is with some of the most delightful jellies and jams fellow Oklahomans are making. Strawberry lavender, blackberry sage, Scotch bonnet pepper jelly, prickly pear cactus jelly, to name just a few, and, of course, our native Oklahoma sand plum jelly and jam.
Like many of you, I grew up picking wild possum grapes, blackberries and sand plums for jellies and jams. These ripe native fruits were cause for a family gathering of these little gifts from Mother Nature. We waded into thickets, brambles and followed vines into trees after these prime little jelly and jam making fruits — of course with the exception of a few quarts of blackberries saved for a cobbler.
These “gathering” excursions provided plenty of adventure with resident snakes, wasps and a few other local critters not always taking kindly to our probing through their territory. These days, I find it a lot easier to shop farmer's markets, gift shops, specialty stores and groceries for some great selections of Oklahoma homemade jelly and jam.
Eddie Fenton, who lives in Crescent, picks plums on his farm and along the Cimarron River for his intense De Vine Oklahoma Sand Plum Jam. The plums grow prolifically on his farm. Eddie started out raising grapes to make jelly, but the grapes didn't work out so his wife suggested using the abundant sand plums.
Each year, Fenton gets from 2,500 to 4,000 pounds of plums from his farm and/or neighbors. Fenton is able to take the plums to Oklahoma State University's Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center to extract the juice and pulp. The resulting pulp is then frozen again until it is needed in production by a co-packer.
Farther north on the prairie, Tammy Crowder, of Lahoma, makes a sparkling clear sand plum jelly and several others in Enid's Retired Senior Volunteer Kitchen to sell at the our local Farmer's Market. Her 4-year-old daughter Emma's favorite is blackberry which goes into PB&J sandwiches. Tammy likes to use local Oklahoma fruits to make her jams and jellies. I asked her if she had any special secrets for making such clear beautiful jelly. She said, “I strain my jelly through eight layers of cheesecloth.”
Crowder also told me she uses almost 10 pounds of fruit to make 8 pints of jelly. That explains why the flavors of these Oklahoma fruits like peaches from Porter can produce such intensely flavored jelly and jam. If you've ever made jelly or jam from possum grapes, you understand this intensity factor. Those tiny little treasures make the most intense grape jelly you can imagine. I've always figured they got their name because you have to beat the possums to them.
The Prairie Gypsies in Oklahoma City have been exploring jelly and jam flavor combinations with great success. The infusion of herbs with certain fruits brings a special nuance to any biscuit or scone. BlackBerry sage, cherry rosemary and apple basil jellies, Red Hot Lover, Prairie Fire, pear pecan and strawberry lavender jams along with cherry fruit butter offer a wide range of carefully crafted flavors to choose from.
David and Debbie Custar, of Custar Farms near Okemah, make several varieties of jelly and jam for their Custar Farms Store Custar Farms Store 2½ miles west of Okemah on Highway 56. They have a commercial kitchen there and they grow their own blackberries, plums, porter peaches for jam. I found their apricot, jalapeno and strawberry jellies on the Farm to Fork Bus.
If you've ever been curious about the taste of a prickly pear, try Gigi's Prickly Pear Jelly. This lovely stuff carries the unique flavor of the cactus fruit. This almost fuchsia jelly bears an enchanting flavor.
Kit Petersen (Gigi to her grandchildren) said: “Most people don't even know it is edible.”
Kit, who has been making jelly for years, experimented with a recipe her husband found on the Internet.
The cactus blooms yellow in spring with the fruit developing over the summer. The fruit is left till it sweetens after first frost. Gigi also makes cinnamon pear, rum pear, vanilla pear and basil apple jelly. The Petersens live outside Noble, where they have a commercial kitchen to process their products.
Andy and Margaret Schaben, of Wild Horse Canyon Farms just off Route 66 near Luther, produce some elegant fruity wine-based jellies and spreads. Andy is excited about this year's amazing production from their 69 varieties of grapes.
“We have studied and lived growing grapes from the soil up,” he said.
Each of their 3500 vines were planted by their own hands and they are dedicated to producing small batch products “like grandma makes” to maintain their quality products.
Working with OSU, they have developed 23 products made in their own commercial kitchen. The goal being less sugar and more flavor. They purchase strawberries and blackberries from Stilwell, and use straight juice or fruit and no water in the process.
My favorite is their fruity sangria jalapeno wine jelly. It delivers what the name promises. It would be great with some intensely aged cheddar cheeses atop a cracker or used to perk up a pan sauce after searing steaks or pork chops. The Schabens have been in production for a little over a year, although the grapes were planted several years before that.
Suan Grant has captured the affection of Scotch Bonnet Pepper lovers with her beautiful Scotch Bonnet Pepper jelly.
I expected my first taste of this jelly would be firecracker hot as is the nature of Scotch Bonnet Peppers. The actual flavor of the pepper is infused with perfect sweetness and a few more mild peppers to achieve perfection.
Grant has five products on the market now, including Suan's Scotch Bonnet Pepper relish, Suan's Scotch Bonnet sweet tomato jam, pineapple cinnamon fruit butter and a mango lemon fruit butter. Grant said she made a cheesecake incorporating the mango lemon fruit butter while Whole Foods recommended serving it with lobster. I can't wait to see three more products now in development. If they are anything like the Scotch Bonnet Pepper jelly, they will be worth the wait.
Visiting with Grant was a feast for the imagination as she began sharing all the ways she incorporates her jelly into recipes. Little bits of jelly and jam add memorable layers of flavor to sauces and drizzles as well as glazes — even pie filling and cheesecake.
Sweet or savory spreads, jam and jelly can bring intense flavor to the table, whether you are topping a cookie or incorporating it into a sauce or recipe.
These are just a few of the “homemade” jams, jellies and spreads you can find around Oklahoma.
Local jellies are great on toast, biscuits or right off the end of your spoon, but here's the perfect little platform begging for a dollop of jelly: Use different cheeses to go with a variety of jelly or jam. I like pepper jelly with cheddar and a wine jelly with Swiss. They are easier to make than slice-and-bake cookies.
Little Cheesy Pecan Bites
Yield: 24 to 36 cheesy bites depending on size.
½ cup cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup flour
½ cup finely chopped Oklahoma pecans
Cook's note: Alternatively, the dough can be shaped into balls about 1 inch in diameter then pressed with thumb to indent them in the center like thumbprint cookies. This helps hold the jam or jelly in place for serving.
Sweet Jelly Mustard Sausages
This jelly-mustard bath for sausages is prime for tailgating or potlucks.
1 cup mustard (Ballpark of course)
2 packages of Little Smokies or other fully cooked sausage links cut in 1-inch segments.
Makes 3½ cups
½ cup water
1 pound blueberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups sugar
Makes 7 half-pint jars
7 cups sugar
1 pouch liquid pectin
Makes almost 1 pint
Use strawberries, blackberries, raspberries or blueberries, or a combination of two or more of the fruits, for this recipe. The amount of sugar actually needed will depend on how sweet the berries are, so add or decrease sugar as needed. Blackberries are quite tart and will need the most sugar. If desired, commercial pectin can be added to the recipe; just follow the package directions.
1-1½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bing cherry Jam
Makes 6 half-pint jars
1 package powdered pectin
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup almond liqueur
4½ cups sugar
Sweet Yellow Tomato Preserves
Makes 7 half-pint jars
1 lemon, thinly sliced with peel
4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (5 percent acidity)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Quick Strawberry Preserves
Makes 3½ cups
½ cup water
3 tablespoons Sure-Jell powdered pectin
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups sugar