I'd never had fresh sour cherries before. This year, I realized by accident that sour cherry season is upon us and so, in spite of my DH's grimaces at having to wake up early on a Saturday morning, I dragged us halfway to West Virginia to Hartland Orchard in Markham, VA. Unlike the more popular sweet cherries, which had already sold out, the sour cherries were selling for just $1/lb at this u-pick farm. (Not such a deal when you consider th $20 we spent on gas just getting there, but hey, where else was I going to find fresh sour cherries? There haven't been any at our farmer's markets, that's for sure.) When we got there, the only other people picking the fruit were speaking Russian and Italian, but boy, did they know what they were about. One guy even brought his own ladder and chatted on his cell phone while plucking choice cherries from the top of his tree.
Now, what does one do with three pounds of sour cherries? When life throws sour cherries at you, make jam!
Wisely, I used up the rest of a Williams Sonoma gift certificate on a nifty cherry/olive pitter, which made short work of my pile. I had changed into a dark-colored, old t-shirt just in case, but this fancy pitter, by OXO, has a little shield to keep cherry juice from splattering all over the place. It worked, and I stayed nearly spotless.
For the recipe, I followed the instructions inside the SureJel package of pectin I'd purchased. I didn't realize until recently how difficult it is to find pectin at a grocery store. Either they don't stock it, or they're sold out, or they have the wrong kind. (Pectin comes in full-sugar dry, low-sugar dry, no-sugar dry, and liquid forms.) I went to four stores before I finally found the regular kind of pectin I wanted. For some unfathomable reason, that store had placed it next to the ZipLock containers.
After you stem, pit and wash the cherries, you throw them into a deep pot (because the jam will spit at you when it starts boiling) with all the pectin. Bring it all to a rolling boil, then add all the sugar at once. Return to a rolling boil for one minute, skim off foam if necessary, and then ladle into sterilized jars. (Hartland does not claim to be an organic farm, but after an hour of picking, our hands did not have any of that sticky pesticide residue that I've experienced at other farms, so that was a good sign. The other positive sign was that there was no scum to skim off the jam. Being a novice jam-maker, it may be because cherries give off less scum than other fruit, but I still appreciated being able to skip that step.)
This is where I got into trouble. Since I didn't have a pot big enough to keep my jars in a hot water bath while I cooked the jam, and my stove didn't have enough space for that many pots anyways, I went with some advice I'd read on the internet about putting the cleaned jars on a towel-lined sheet pan in a hot oven. That was a good idea, until I set the towel on fire.
The smoke detector went off, but I thought it was just angry at me again for turning on the oven. Then I heard a cackling noise coming from inside the oven, just like the noise a fireplace makes. I opened the door and my towel was ablaze in the back corner. Of course, all this happened right at the moment my jam had reached the final boil, when it should be stirred constantly and vigorously for ONE MINUTE ONLY. I ignored the jam for the moment and yanked the sheet pan, jars, burning towel and all, out of the oven. I set the blazing pile in the sink and tried to put it out using my nifty All-Clad oven mitt (free with each outrageously expensive purchase). That mitt will never be the same again, but it didn't do the job. I didn't want to turn the tap onto the hot glass (which would shatter) and my hot, shiny sheet pan (which would warp), so I calmly moved all 7 jars off the pan, dragged the fiery towel into a corner of my tiny sink, shoved the sheet pan back in the oven, and turned the tap on. In retrospect, the oven method isn't a bad idea, but I really should've used a Silpat instead. The towel extinguished and my smoke detector still going, I finished making my jam, which only turned out to yield 2 1/2 jars.
After all that, I have only two aspirations for my first, botched attempt at jam-making. One, I hope it doesn't kill us, and two, I hope it tastes good.