Dealing with the Unexpected (or, How to Know When Your Jelly is Set)

Over the years, I have come to realize that nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  You can imagine to your heart’s content the perfect scenario, and yet something nearly always creeps in and causes havoc.For instance, while we were in Hawaii a few weeks ago, I had expectations about the relaxing vacation we would have – spending time on the beach, lounging by the pool, perhaps taking in a luau or a boat ride up the calm Wailua river.  Of course, I knew that traveling with small children would come with its challenges, so I did my best to prepare for the odd situation that might crop up.

Like the two mosquito bites that my youngest got on his face the Friday after we arrived – one on his forehead above his left eye and one just in the corner of his right eye.  I knew right away that this was bad news – he is extremely sensitive to mosquito bite, and I predicted that by the next morning both of his eyes would likely be swollen shut.And lo and behold, they were.  So we spent most of Saturday afternoon in the ER in Lihue.  They gave him some prescription steroids and sent him on his merry way.  By Monday he was back to normal. Needless to say, not the way I expected to spend my only Saturday in paradise.Or maybe the drive we took up to the top of Waimea Canyon to enjoy the views. After driving all the way to the end of the road and looking out over the wild Napali coast, we turned around and began our descent. Our oldest was playing Angry Birds on the iPod and the youngest was doodling on his Doodle-Pro.  As we navigated the winding, turny, twisty road, P said quietly from the back seat, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” and about that time he vomited all over the back of our brand new (for real – we were the first people to drive it.  I think it had like 20 miles on it when we got in it the first time) rental car.  And then his brother proceeded to do the same.

So, we pulled over on a very narrow shoulder, stripped them down to their underwear and diaper, stripped the covers off the carseats and then got everyone situated again so we could catch up with my husband’s brother and his wife and kids (they had been just ahead of us when all of this started).  P was so mortified, he didn’t want his cousins to see him like that, so I ran into an expensive gift shop at the bottom of the canyon road and purchased an overpriced t-shirt and a pair of shorts for him to wear.  Again – couldn’t have planned that scenario if I’d tried.Or perhaps that luau we’d been looking forward to.  The kids loved seeing the unveiling of the whole-roasted pig, and running around the beautiful grounds with the peacocks and other assorted exotic birds.  When it came to the show itself, the older kids were mesmerized, but my youngest got a little freaked out.  So, my poor husband had to spend the entire hour of the show outside, consoling a crying baby and missing the performances altogether.  Best laid plans.

None of it spoiled the trip, but it does just go to show you that even in paradise reality has a way of sneaking in and reminding you just how human you really are.No place does this prove more often true than in my kitchen.  No sooner do I grow confident, or dare I say “cocky”, than I am cut right back down to size by something. And such it was with this plum jelly – a dead simple recipe that, had I been patient and methodical on the front end, should have yielded a perfectly set and perfectly delicious end product.

Notice I said “should”.Everything started out fine – I made plum juice by cutting the plums in half and boiling them in water for 20 minutes (1 lb. of plums to 1/2 cup of water).  I then poured the plums and water into a damp pillowcase and hung it over a pot in the utility sink in my laundry room and let it drain for about 6 hours.  This yielded somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 cups of juice.

The first time around, I combined the juice and the sugar (3/4 cup of sugar per cup of juice is the accepted ratio) in a stock pot and brought it to a boil.  I inserted a candy thermometer and waited for it to reach 220 degrees.  And I waited, and waited, and waited.  And the thermometer seemed to be stuck at 215 degrees.  So I used a second candy thermometer.  This one read 219 degrees, so I figured the first one must be wrong.  when the second one reached 220, I removed the pot from the heat and proceeded to can the jelly as directed – filling hot sterilized jars and leaving 1/4 inch of headspace.  I then processed them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And then I went to bed.

The next morning, I was looking forward to having some fresh plum jelly on my fresh baked biscuits, so I eagerly opened the jar closest to me and was confronted with what appeared to be more of a plum syrup than a jelly.  Frustrating.  I had stood over that pot for almost an hour, watching it boil, checking the temperature, taking care to keep the sugar from scorching.  And I was sure – sure – that I had gotten it right.

But I was wrong.

So, I took a deep breath, unsealed all of the jars, dumped the contents into a stock pot, washed the jars in hot soapy water, found new lids in my storage cabinet and re-sterilized everything.  I put the stock pot back on the heat with both candy thermometers and a fancy digital probe thermometer and I brought it to a boil. At one point, one candy thermometer read 225, the second read 222, and the probe thermometer was still reading 217.  The only problem with this was that I could move the probe around the pan, and in one spot it would read 217, in another it would read 215, and in a third it would read 219.  Additionally, this went on for at least an hour.  Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?  How is a girl to know when her jelly is set?My mother says that her grandmother used to say you’d know it was done when it sounded like grits cooking.  There’s also the tried and true method of seeing if it sheets when dropped from a spoon.  So, when it started to boil furiously and sounded kind of like rice krispies in milk (snap, crackle, pop), I stuck a stainless steel spoon in the mix and then lifted it out.  The above photo demonstrates “sheeting.”  And the probe thermometer read 220 (at least in one spot in the pan). I proceeded to can it again, filling the hot sterilized jars to within 1/4 inch of the top and capping them.  I processed them (again) in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And now I can safely say that I have successfully made plum jelly (perfectly set and perfectly delicious).  And that I will never again trust my candy thermometer.

Plum Jelly
11 cups plum juice
8.5 cups sugar

  1. Combine plum juice and sugar in a heavy-bottomed stock pot and stir to thoroughly combine.
  2. Bring to a boil and allow to cook until it reaches 220F on a (reliable, well calibrated) candy thermometer, or until it sheets when dropped from a spoon.
  3. Prepare your jars by sterilizing them in simmering water.
  4. Ladle jelly into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space.
  5. Clean the rims with a damp cloth and cap with lids and rings.
  6. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
  7. Allow to cool on the counter.
  8. Enjoy!

7 thoughts on “Dealing with the Unexpected (or, How to Know When Your Jelly is Set)

  1. I am glad that this turned out on your second go round. I know how things can get a little frustrating in the kitchen! Plum jelly sounds delicious.
    Your little boy looks much better in the last picture of him-poor thing of all places to get bit by mosquitos.

  2. Oh my goodness, your poor boy. I can completely relate to the car experience too. That was my brother and me. I had the sensitive stomach, my brother woud follow suit. I think I owe my mom another phone call and thank you.

    I made blueberry jam this weekend for the first time. I feel like no matter what you do with jam and jelly, no matter how careful, you can never be sure!

  3. Oh, poor baby (both your son and you! Un-set jelly is the WORST!). I place a plate in the freezer for about 20 minutes. Once I think my jelly is “done,” I take the frozen plate and drizzle a dollop of jelly on it. If after 30 seconds it sets-up and doesn’t slide too much, I know my jelly is done.

  4. Thanks so much for this “tutorial.” I have never had a problem making jelly…until I tried a new online recipe I found last week, which called for using a thermometer. Long story short, I had worked on my zucchini for two days to get it ready for preserves, added some (not cheap) spices and got my brew on the stove. I got out my candy thermometers and felt confident…that was a short-lived feeling. First of all, the candy thermometers read the exact temperature the preserves were supposed to be set, but they were a liquidy mess. Sooo, I boiled them longer and longer. I stirred and stirred and tested periodically in a cold glass of water to see when the brew would make a thread (just as the recipe called for as a backup to the thermometer) and I FINALLY got it to thread, well above the temperature in the recipe. As I was taking it off the stove (after feeling like I got it right) I noticed this dark “bloom” coming from the bottom of the pan and it mushroomed into the whole batch and turned it black. Despite my constant stirring it had somehow scorched. I have NEVER had this happen, so you can imagine my sense of defeat. I threw it all out, after all that hard work, sat down and had a good cry (goodbye zucchini, that I lovingly grew!) I will never use a candy thermometer again and will rely on your method to produce perfect results! Thanks!

  5. I took a jelly making class at Salud! Their instructions were to put some commercial pectin in the jelly. Not the whole envelope, only about half.

    Havng experienced “hot pepper syrup” in my past, I knew that using only half the package is never enough. I was right.

    I came home with six jars of various syrups and not a one of jelly. So much for relying on the experts.

    I should note that I have taken many, many classes from Salud! and that the recipes not working is very unusual. I have had wonderful results in other classes.

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