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In the Kitchen: Grandma Jo’s Pears

We have two small pear trees in our yard, and every year I marvel at the bounty those trees produce. But it took me a couple years before I actually got to enjoy the pears. The first two years that we lived here, I kept patiently waiting for the pears to get ripe before I picked them. Then, one morning when they were close, I went out to the yard to find that all but a couple had been carted off by critters, and the ones that remained were soft and brown on the inside.

Finally, a friend told me that you have to pick the pears before they’re ripe and store them in a loosely closed paper bag for a week or two to let them ripen all the way. Otherwise, they rot from the inside out (or become a raccoon buffet). It works perfectly! The only problem is that then you have a large quantity of pears all at once, so I’ve started to collect recipes like my pear tart recipe that make good use of them. This year I made a small batch of my grandma’s pear preserves, and they’re delicious!

My grandma passed away 20 years ago, but I have a very clear memory of standing with her at her stove while she made these pears. She had a very casual approach to canning, as is often the case with people who do it as just another part of their routine, over long lives. She seemed amused that I was writing down her steps, telling me “you simply add sugar to cut up pears”, but then she gave me several different options, and filled me in on some important details that seemed perfectly obvious to her. Here are my cliff notes.

Grandma Jo’s Pears

1. Slice your pears, measure and place in a pot. A large jam pot is best, but any deep pot will do, eventually. I didn’t understand the value of a jam pot and used a dutch oven for years, but I can attest that a jam pot does seem to work faster. I slice my pears in roughly 1/4″ wedges. The finer you go, the less chunky your preserves will be.

2. Add sugar. If you want your jam to “set” and be thicker, use a fruit:sugar ratio of 2:1. I had 8 cups of sliced pears, so I used 4 cups of sugar. BUT, my grandmother usually did a ratio of 3:1, so in that case, for 8 cups of pears you would use a little over 2 1/2 cups. This results in pears that are less sweet and on the runny side, not a set jam. It also may not be enough sugar to properly “preserve” the pears, so if you go this route you will want to make sure to refrigerate the pears and use relatively quickly, or freeze.

In my case, I used 8 cups of fruit and 4 cups of sugar (plus juice of one lemon, see below), and the preserves set nicely and yielded 6 half pints plus a few tablespoons (that were promptly consumed on toast).

3. Add lemon or pectin (optional). My grandma didn’t do this, but I’ve found that if I want my preserves to be thicker, this helps them to gel. I used the juice of one lemon.

4. Meanwhile, boil your jars. For this batch I only needed six half pint jars, so I just put them in a large pasta pot and covered with 2 inches of water. Boil for 20 minutes. I use metal tongs to remove them from the water and place them on a clean, dry cloth to dry and cool slightly. Right before I remove the jars I drop in the clean lids to get them hot, but they shouldn’t be boiled. I do boil my rings for good measure, but this probably isn’t necessary. You can also sterilize your jars in the oven or even in the dishwasher. I do this if it’s. a larger batch of jam.

Also, place 3 or 4 large metal spoons in your freezer.

5. Cook the pears, sugar and lemon juice (if using) together over high heat. The timing is a bit tricky, as there are a lot of variables, but I boiled mine rapidly for about 25 to 30 minutes. You want to get the temperature up to 220º, and the fruit should seem thicker and turn a golden color. Once you suspect that you might be getting close, pull out one of the metal spoons and drip some of the jam on the back of it. Let sit for a moment, and run your finger through the jam, to see if it leaves a trail. What you’re looking for is how the jam will behave once cooled. If it thickens and holds its shape like you want the finished product to do, it’s ready. If not, keep cooking and try again in a few minutes until it holds.

5. Finish Jam. Finally, when the jam is ready, ladle it into the jars, top with lids and secure with the rings. Tighten the rings a few minutes later. Then, I put mine back in the pot I used to sterilize the jars, or in a canner, and boil for 20 minutes, or refrigerate/freeze. Remove from canning bath and let cool. Enjoy!

Grandpa’s Pears

Now, I mentioned that my grandma gave me a few variations, and one was the way her husband prepared his pears. Basically, it’s the same process, but he started by caramelizing the sugar first. To do this, just add the sugar to the pot without adding the other ingredients. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is a caramel brown color, and then add the other ingredients and proceed with the steps. This will give the pears a caramel flavor.

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