Cloaked in a regal, deep blueish-purple hue and bearing a name to match, the Empress Plum (Prunica Domestica), is one of the most understated beauties I have ever laid eyes upon.
Growing up, I knew them as “Italian Plums”, perfect in every way—that is, until I discovered their tragically short season only lasts from early September into mid October.
But why? Why does something so good, have to come to such a quick end? I could easily quit my complaining. After all, there are more popular supermarket plum varieties out there, but some arguably, are not as tasty. Japanese plums (Prunus Salicina), although no empress, are a yummy alternative usually at their very best as early as May, ending their season in October as well.
So why am I telling you about this in early November?
Partly out of guilt, since I had a late start in posting this recipe. But that’s not all; I’d like to offer some last minute HOPE—maybe not in finding Empress plums, but an alternative—IF YOU ACT NOW.
If having time for your own jam festival this weekend is highly unlikely, then at the very least, bookmark this recipe. Better yet, put it in your “vault”—that special place reserved for making not just any food, but memorable experiences. It’s that good!
Whether it was fate or just another crick in the neck—a sudden shift of my attention this past September lead me to pick up a few pounds of Italian plums. And thank goodness for that!
Plums thrive in warm, not hot, temperatures. And when ripe, deserve to be preserved. The empress in particular, with its egg shape and large freestone pit, leaves most wondering if there’s enough lime colored flesh or juice to be savored at all. But looks can be deceiving.
They are a baker’s dream and really sing when you turn up the heat, thus making exquisite jams, tarts, chutneys, Asian sauces and more. Empress plums have the ability to create a high concentration of fermentable sugars—perfect for making prunes too. They are also a big league commercial fruit crop, loved by the cheese industry and distilleries, including wine and brandy.
Aaah the wine…which takes me back to Italy. After multiple trips, exploring local markets and artisanal shops, I became spoiled by some of the most mouth-watering marmalades, jams and preserves. Their flavor combinations were indescribable—at best.
So there I was, stateside, with the most gorgeous assortment of Empress plums at my fingertips. I suddenly recalled a small Tuscan shop, and a lovely jar of marmellata di prugne with red wine and pine nuts. Given the approaching fall season and it’s notable warm flavors, I quit entertaining the idea of making my own and literally went for it!
For this particular jam you’ll need a dry red wine such as a Syrah (most often full bodied, distinctly smoky, spicy, with hints of chocolate, pepper, violet and berry aromas) or a Sangiovese (having a bitter-sweet component of cherry, violets and tea)—either one nicely compliments both the fruit and spices at hand.
The real joy in making this jam begins with its vibrant ruby red color. If it weren’t terribly odd to sit in the refrigerator (or cold for that matter), I would have gladly kept the heavenly mixture company while it macerated; it was that gorgeous. And just when you’ve reached jam nirvana, the aroma takes over. The spices, the toasted pinoli, the wine…your house will never smell more inviting.
So how do you know when your jam is ready?
I hear this question often and had the same concern my first time up at bat. Basically you want to find the “setting point”. For jam, the temperature should be at 220ºF/ 105ºC. For peace of mind, I suggest using a sugar thermometer clipped to your saucepan, with one end partially submerged into the boiling mixture.
The second method is called the “wrinkle” test. This has nothing to do with raising your eyebrows in the mirror, crying over lost youth, more specifically—skin elasticity. Nope. This little test starts before you even cook the jam. Put 1 to 3 small heatproof plates in the freezer and let them chill for a while. After your jam boils for a few minutes, remove it from the heat and put a spoon full onto one cold plate. Let the jam stand for up to 5 minutes. Then, touch the heap of goodness with your forefinger. If the surface area “wrinkles”, and mark my words this will be the only time you’ll ever WANT wrinkles—congratulations, your jam has set. If it appears rather runny, put the pan back on the burner, boil it for another 5 minutes and repeat the test again on another cold plate. Remember not to over boil your jam. You need both pectin found naturally in fruit and sugar to reach the right consistency. And too much heat could destroy pectin. That’s why you should make jam in a large saucepan and start testing earlier on in the cooking process.
WARNING: IF YOU PLAN TO DOUBLE THE RECIPE…DO NOT…I REPEAT…DO NOT use one large saucepan. Unless you have an industrial stove and gargantuan saucepan you are asking for trouble. So here’s the science: Jams need wide surface areas. The larger/wider the surface area, the faster water evaporates, meaning— the fresher the final product. Doubling the recipe in one large saucepan only increases your time slaving at the stove, doesn’t allow for the mixture to cook evenly, and ups your chances of burning it or having a jam that just won’t set. If you must double the recipe then remember to macerate two separate batches, with evenly split ingredients, in the refrigerator. If you macerate the ingredients in one large bowl, you can’t expect to separate it into two large saucepans with the correct ratios of fruit, wine, sugar and spices.
Sterilizing jars: While your jam mixture is macerating in the refrigerator, sterilize your glass jars as follows:
- Using hot water and dish soap, wash jars and lids thoroughly.
- Place a dishcloth at the base of a large pot and place empty jars right side up.
- Add another dishcloth in between jars to prevent breakage during boiling.
- Fill jars with water first (this method prevents them from floating as you fill the pot with water).
- Then slowly fill entire pot with water, completely covering jars by an inch of water.
- Bring water to a boil over high heat.
- Once it begins to boil, lower the flame and let boil for another 30 minutes.
- Add lids about ten minutes before you turn off the flame.
- Remove from flame and let cool a bit.
- Use tongs to carefully empty and remove the jars.
- Place them open-side up, on a clean kitchen towel for a few minutes. Once dry, cover them completely for later use.
So don’t waste any more time, other than to read the ingredients and make your shopping list before the weekend! This makes a wonderful gift, home treat or starter at your next home party. Be sure to serve with fresh bread (ex: ciabatta), french brie, ricotta or goat cheese. You won’t believe your taste buds and neither will your friends and family! See the full recipe below and more pictures under the “How To” tab.