When Shirley makes a fresh batch of jam, we all vie for at least one jar. Before I knew Shirley well enough to impose an ask, I knew about her jam—really anything she cooked—and that an invitation to indulge should never be turned down.
I have the privilege of knowing Shirley through her son, Tom. Tom is a dear friend of decades. One night at dinner with Tom, the subject of a fresh batch of jam came up and I simply had to ask for her recipe (because one jar isn't enough, and positioning for more seems so imposing). He didn't know, he had never made it with her. Gasp.
With this bit of intel and a couple glasses of cab in my system, I couldn't help but ask politely for, beg for, demand a jam session with Shirley. No way another batch of this delicious spread is being made without full documentation—not on my watch.
Shirley graciously agreed to take on a few students. She assigned our first task: choose the fruit. “Apricot!” I suggest rather too excitedly. Suddenly I was back to being a kid in grade school with zero patience for the teacher’s permission to speak. Quickly, I learned Apricots have a very small window for being ripe and perfect for jam-making. We might have to wait 9 months for good apricot jam.
Calendars out, we meticulously researched which fruit would be best on our prospective jam-making date. I reluctantly agreed to make Apricots Plan A if we were lucky, and peaches or blackberries Plan B.
Weeks passed. I was so excited that I called my friend John Cain Sargent to do a little photo-documenting. We were set. Finally it was time to shop! We hit the Farmer's Market. No luck. On to Central Market. I was hopefully sniffing and inspecting Apricots. I got the no-go from Shirley. She has standards. Trust the master. Plan B it is, but I'll be back. We beelined for the peaches. Shirley is very particular about what kind of peaches we use. They must be from California. Georgia peaches are too stringy for jam. Noted. (Apologies to my dear friends from Georgia. I understand these to be fighting words.)
We sniffed and squeezed and filled our bags with California peaches. Blackberries also looked fresh and delicious. We grabbed those, too. Second flavor decided. Time to get this party a casa. We arrived and washed the loot.
Wooden boards and sharp knives covered the island. The four of us peeled and chopped peaches first. Shirley had us cube the peaches into about half-inch chunks. We piled the peaches into my deep boiler pot and she instructed Scott to ready the sugar. I multitasked learning, stirring, and tasting.
Finally, the smell of simmering sugar only means one thing—showtime! I sliced and toasted a baguette with a sense of urgency. I was literally giddy at this point. Shirley gets the first bite. I watched for approval like a Top Chef contestant and saw one of my German Shepherds with the exact expression I imagined I was featuring.
We got the look of approval! The jars came out for the final phase. Shirley instructed and we poured. She told us to fill the jars and turn them upside down to cool to create the suction in the lid that helps to preserve the jam. The jars were warm from the sterilization cycle in the dishwasher. We filled them with the steaming fruit mixture as the kitchen is filled with the smells of fruit and sugar, and cracks of laughter. The jam session was in full swing.
We filled nearly a dozen jars and spread the rest on toast. Out came the espresso and coffee cups and we sat to enjoy fresh, hot jam and toast. That was just round one. Next up, the blackberries—round two! We hopped up to wash the pots and the fruit. No chopping this time, just a thorough washing of some sweet blackberries and then onto the cooking.
Scroll down for Shirley's recipe and a few tips for nailing it.