During the summer months, all I want to do is bake pies and make preserves out of the piles of produce overflowing farmers’ market bins – and it’s a good thing, because my minor obsession with vintage jars means there are clusters of jars everywhere – on multiple kitchen surfaces, and overflowing bins in the basement.
Fortunately, this year I have a new source of inspiration in the form of Amy Bronee‘s first cookbook – all about small-batch preserving. Which is right up my alley – as much as I love putting up jams and chutneys in the late summer, I don’t like having to commit to flats of produce and an entire afternoon getting it all simmered down and into jars. I’ve been looking forward to Amy’s book since she texted me excitedly at the first mention that it might be a possibility – she’s such a lovely person, and a fantastic cook, and I couldn’t be happier that her book is out and on store shelves. I had a chat with her about how she learned to do what she does, the role music plays in her life, and in her kitchen – and who she’d invite to the ultimate musically-inspired dinner party.
AND! She shared her recipe for Salted Caramel Pear Butter.
RS: What are your childhood memories of family meals/being in the kitchen?
AB: I remember family barbecues very well. My dad would grill a mean t-bone steak and we would all share it with a salad my mom would prepare and some sort of packaged noodle or rice side dish thingy. It wasn’t perfect, but we loved it. I was a happy kid.
One memory that really stands out is my dad setting up a burger joint for my brother and I on top of our old pull-out dishwasher in the kitchen. He presented us with a grilled beef patty on a bun, then he had all the toppings laid out for us to choose from. Once we placed our “order” he dressed our burgers and wrapped them up in wax paper just like our favourite take-out place. We still do family barbecues together where we live now on Vancouver Island, minus the wax paper.
RS: Who taught you how to cook?
AB: I wish I could give you a different answer to this, but the truth is – me. Cooking was a necessity in my house growing up, not a pastime. We ate well but no one ever took me by the hand to show me how to prepare meals. Oddly, I wasn’t even aware of not being in possession of this basic life skill. When I fed myself as a teen it was simple sandwiches, cereal or canned soup.
When I moved out on my own at age 19, I moved into a rented attic room in Ottawa’s vibrant Glebe neighbourhood. Renters’ cooking facilities – you couldn’t even call it a kitchen – were three flights down in the basement of this big old house. I wasn’t bothered. Having an incredible bagel shop just a block away meant I could pick up a half dozen on the way home, along with some of their incredible whipped cream cheese. Life was good. For a while.
By the time I started university that fall I was having spells of nausea. Like, I-have-to-sit-down spells of nausea. On a couple of occasions I remember clearly trying to decide whether I should run behind that bush or that wall to vomit while crossing campus. Something wasn’t right.
I visited my doctor and discovered I was malnourished. It struck me as odd. I wasn’t underweight, that’s for sure, and I was eating plenty. I just wasn’t getting enough of the good stuff. I had to teach myself how to cook. From scratch.
I started taking out books from the library and watching whatever cooking shows I could find on TV. I would save my money to visit a nearby kitchen store, collecting basic cooking tools like my first ever mixing bowl which I still have to this day. The very first thing I learned to make was an apple pie and when I pulled it out of the oven I could barely believe I’d made it. It was perfect. My boyfriend and his roommates ate it pretty quickly, so I made another one right away. I was hooked. I went on to learn basics stews, soups, sauces, pizza dough and more. That was nearly twenty years ago and I haven’t stopped learning since.
RS: What got you into preserving?
AB: I’m not sure where the motivation came from, but I had wanted to learn for a while. So when I saw that an organic farm on Salt Spring Island – a 30-minute ferry ride from where I live – was offering a full-day workshop, I asked a friend if she wanted to sign up with me. We both went and really enjoyed the experience, but I was hopelessly hooked. I couldn’t wait to get home to my kitchen to start making my own jams and pickles.
That was about 7 years ago, and I have filled hundreds of jars since then. I even took an online course through the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia so I could better understand how canning works and some of the science behind safe preserving.
RS: What three ingredients will you always find in your fridge?
AB: Milk, butter and eggs. Plus loads of condiments.
RS: If you were to spend an afternoon putting up preserves, what would be on your playlist?
AB: Jazz. Hands down. I’m talking about the old stuff from some of the most extraordinary female vocalists to ever stand behind a microphone – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. And the great men of jazz too – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. This era of jazz does something to me deep down to my bones. Like the first sip of hot coffee in the morning after a late night, it wraps me in a warm blanket and says everything’s gonna be alright.
RS: If you could host a dinner party and invite 10 musicians, living or not, who would be at the table? (And what would you serve?)
AB: Easy: Billie, Ella, Nina, Duke, Louis and Miles. That would be something to see. Then I’d add Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Michael Bublé because I think he’d just like to be there, don’t you? In the final seat would be Canadian musician, Justin Rutledge. He is an incredible singer/songwriter that doesn’t get the attention his art deserves and I think he’d hold a conversation pretty well with the others.
I think you always tend to cook to one person’s tastes in particular. In this case it would all be for Louis – seafood gumbo, corn bread and some of his favourite red beans and rice. For dessert – warm peach pie with scoops of cold vanilla bean ice cream. Simple, gut-filling grub.
RS: What’s your favourite kind of pie?
AB: Apple. I make lots of different kinds of pies but, to me, apple pie is the gold standard of pies. If you can learn to make one of those, you’re going to live a happy life. An apple pie can fix whatever ails you. It fixed me.
Because fall is not too far off, and because salted caramel is always in season, I thought I’d share Amy’s Salted Caramel Pear Butter – something new and different to put away this harvest season.
Salted Caramel Pear Butter
This decadent pear butter proves that dynamic flavour can come from just a handful of simple ingredients. Slow cooking turns pears, brown sugar, lemon juice and salt into a deeply coloured, sophisticated dessert sauce. Spread this between cake layers or spoon over vanilla ice cream. From The Canning Kitchen: 101 Simple Small Batch Recipes by Amy Bronee. Copyright © Amy Bronee, 2015. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Photography credit: Amy Bronee.
MAKES SIX 250 ML (1 CUP) JARS
8 lb (3.5 kg) ripe pears
2 cups (500 mL) brown sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
Rinse the pears under cool running water. Remove and discard the stems, peels and cores. Dice the pears, adding them to a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Crush with a masher. Bring to a bubble over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Purée the pears using an immersion blender or standard blender. Stir in the brown sugar and lemon juice. Return to medium heat and let bubble for 80 to 90 minutes, stirring occasionally, until darkened and thick. (You may need to lower the heat to medium-low and stir more frequently toward the end to prevent scorching.) Remove from the heat. Stir in the salt.
Ladle into 6 clean 250 mL (1 cup) jars, leaving a ¼ -inch (5 mm) headspace. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes using the Processing Checklist on page 17.
TIP: Any pear variety can be used to make pear butter, so use your favourites. Bartlett and Anjou are nice choices. To know if your pears are ripe, just check the neck. A ripe pear will give slightly when pressed just below the stem.