Seasonal Fruits: Summer and fall come together in jams and jellies

September is a peculiar month in St. Louis, finding most of us engaged in both forward thinking and retrospective reflection. It rushes in with temperatures hot enough for poolside picnics and Labor Day barbecues, reminding us that summer is in fact still in full swing. But then it goes out far more mildly, the equinox already passed and leaving a crispness in its wake that turns our thoughts toward autumn colors and trick-or-treating. Because September embraces both summer and fall, marking a time when both seasons’ produce is available, it also presents a perfect opportunity to preserve both summer and fall fruits for the coming winter months.

Fruit preservation is most readily accomplished in the form of jelly, butters and jams or preserves, and lucky for us St. Louisans, there are numerous farms on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the river that craft each variety.

While the preparation methods may seem similar, there are distinctive practices that make up the difference between a great jelly and a delectable jam. As Domien Meert of Meert Tree Farm in Festus explained, the distinction is predominantly a question of how much juice and how much pulp are allowed into the mixture. “Jellies are made from fruit juice, with the fruit itself strained out,” he said. “Jams are made from both the fruit pulp and its juice. Finally, butters are made from just the pulp, the juice having been drained and then cooked out of the mixture.”

Meert specializes in apple jelly, apple butter and pumpkin butter, all of which arrive with the fall harvest. The apple butter is made first, and then the juice drained from that process is used to create apple jelly. “We’ve had a family orchard since 1948, so these are the recipes we made when I was a kid,” he said. “We used to make the apple butter out on the driveway.”

To make the apple butter, the apples are first washed and quartered, then run through the food mill to separate the skins and seeds. The juice is then drained, leaving only the apple pulp, to which sugar, cinnamon, brown sugar and a little cider are added in a kettle over an open fire. Meert said that the mixture must be cooked for five to six hours, or until it begins to caramelize, and that the same process can be used to make pumpkin butter.

“Preserve-making has a strong heritage in rural America,” explained Jerry Mills, proprietor of Mills Apple Farm, in Marine, Ill. “It was a social event in the fall, where the women would prepare the apples and men would tend to the kettle.”

To make great apple butters and jellies, Mills advised using Jonathan apples, as they provide the best flavor and also cook down the best. He also recommended throwing a few silver dollars in the kettle while stirring the apple butter, as they keep the mixture from sticking to the pot. “I used half dollars once because I didn’t have any silver dollars,” he said. “By the time we’d bottled the butters, one of the dollars was missing. However, no one ever came to us and said they found a half dollar in their jar.”

Gertrud Largen of Frontier Enterprises in Bethalto, Ill., also makes apple butter (sweetened with honey from her own honeybees), as well as a variety of jams and jellies crafted from her farm’s fruits. While most jellies are made from a standard mixture of fruit juice, sugar and pectin, Largen maintains that most fruits have their own natural pectin, to be taken advantage of in the jelly-making process. “You just need to wait for a certain ripeness,” she said. “That’s why I grow my own fruit, so I can check them every day. I’ve been doing it for 45 years, so it’s mainly by memory now.” Among the variety of preserves she makes are strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, pear and plum.

A wide variety of jams and preserves are also offered at Beal’s Orchard in Centralia, Ill. Elizabeth Beal’s jam-making process involves chopping fresh fruit into small pieces and boiling the fruit in a pan with pectin and sugar. “We also add some lemon juice, as it firms up the preserves,” she said. “The sugar itself brings out the flavor of the fruit, but other than sugar there are no added flavors in our preserves.”

Ellen Knoernschild of Centennial Farms in Augusta, Mo., also forgoes additives in her jams, using only natural ingredients for her 20 varieties of preserves, which include blackberry-peach, peach-orange marmalade and Triple Crown, a summertime mix of blueberries, cherries and strawberries.

“We don’t use any high-fructose corn syrup, only sugar,” she said. “We also have more fruit than sugar in our jams. Whereas the first ingredient listed on most store-bought jams is sugar, we use a 4-3 ratio of fruit to sugar.” This approach allows the natural flavor of the fruit itself to come forward, without being marred by overpowering sweetness.

That just-right flavor of homemade preserves is an intrinsic part of autumn’s arrival, whether it comes from summer’s last offerings or fall’s first harvest.

Take advantage this month and try a little of each – it will leave you with warm memories of summer, and with snuggly anticipation for the crisp months ahead.