February 11, 2011

Jam Slam: Sugar versus Honey


Winter for beekeepers means a lot of thinking about bees and not much doing. There's a lot of staring out the window, hoping to see flying, hoping the bees still have honey on hand, hoping they're alive. I imagine it's excruciating for those who don't have extensions to the hobby, or a decent kitchen to work in, to help pass the time. Somehow, although my kitchen always seems to be a wreck, I've been able to crank out a couple of things. Easy things.

Making marmalade is pretty straight forward. 1) Separate the fruit into its usable components: the peel, the pectin, the juice. 2) Cook with sugar to preserve and for gelled consistency. 3) Package it. Today's jam slam involved Meyer lemons, which are reportedly a hybrid of lemon and orange parentage. They are sweetly delicious and only available November to Januaryish. I followed another very highly rated epicurious recipe, splitting it in half midway to make one microbatch as written with sugar, and another with honey instead of sugar.

One of the reasons most recipes call for so much sugar, often twice as much sugar as fruit, is for it's antibacterial properties. When fruit is cooked in a heavy sugar solution, the sugar penetrates the fruit and locks out bacteria. The glacéed peels are tender yet toothsome, with a gorgeous jeweled look. To my dismay, though, the sugar version (left) came out darker than I would have liked. The seeds of real vanilla bean are hard to see, so I don't think it's the fault of the vanilla. But not being able to appreciably taste the vanilla, even with extract added to the jar, next time I'll leave it out. While not cloyingly sweet, the intensity of the sugar overwhelms such a delicate flavor as vanilla. As a matter of fact, in comparison to the honey version, you can barely taste the Meyerness of these very special lemons. It just tastes lemony. It does, however, finish with a hint of the bitterness that makes a marmalade a marmalade. Brought to 209°F (7 above boiling), the sugar version set up fairly stiff and it should sit quite nicely on top of Swedish ginger thins.

Comprised of mostly sugars, honey also has antibacterial properties, but because of its molecular structure and 20% water level it functions differently than table sugar in jelly-making. When fruit is cooked in honey, it does not get candied and tends to be a bit mushier, so make sure to simmer gently so the peels don't get beat up. Unfortunately, even on a low burner, honey loses all it's healthy benefits with heat. I brought my honey version to only 204°F, and the finished marmalade has a nice bright color and flavor. You can actually taste the oranginess behind the gentle sweetness of the honey. A small dose of fennel pollen, a gift from Chef Shellie Kark, gives this soft marmalade a final bit of complexity. Even after ripening for 2 weeks, the honey version is softer in set than the sugar one, making it easy to spread on delicate scones fresh out of the oven. Can you tell which one I prefer?

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