On Moldy Jam

Spores from green mold growing on an orange. Image source: Wikipedia.

If ever there was a measure of how bored us non-essential types are under quarantine let me note the furor over the leaked photo depicting a moldy tub of jam sold by a local restaurant here in Los Angeles. I’m not going to go into detail but if you’re curious Eater LA did a story on the initial crisis, the apology and the more important issue of labor practices in the restaurant business. That’s all out of my lane. But we can, so to speak, open the third eye on our own moldy jams.

Here’s what my go-to source on canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, has to say about mold in your jam and how to prevent it,

Even though sugar helps preserve jellies and jams, molds can grow on the surface of these products. Research now indicates that the mold which people usually scrape off the surface of jellies may not be as harmless as it seems. Mycotoxins have been found in some jars of jelly having surface mold growth. Mycotoxins are known to cause cancer in animals; their effects on humans are still being researched.

Because of possible mold contamination, paraffin or wax seals are no longer recommended for any sweet spread, including jellies. To prevent growth of molds and loss of good flavor or color, fill products hot into sterile Mason jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace, seal with self-sealing lids, and process 5 minutes in a boiling-water canner Correct process time at higher elevations by adding 1 additional minute per 1,000 ft above sea level. If unsterile jars are used, the filled jars should be processed 10 minutes. Use of sterile jars is preferred, especially when fruits are low in pectin, since the added 5-minute process time may cause weak gels.

One additional tip: remove the rings once you’re done canning. Jam that leaks out during processing can creep under the ring and go moldy. The rings are just for processing and transport. Once the jars are on the shelf you don’t need them.

Initially, the restaurant in this scandal took to Instagram to defend themselves offering the excuse that their jam is low sugar and more susceptible to mold and that it’s the “same types of mold that develop on some cheese, charcuterie, dry aged beef, and lots of other preserved foods.”

As to the first point, it’s perfectly fine to make a low sugar jam but if you’re going to can it you need to use a lab tested recipe. Alternately, you can refrigerate low sugar jams but you need to use them before they go moldy.

As to the molds on cheeses and other preserved foods, the question of fungal cultures on these products are only now being studied using new genetic testing technology (1). There are beneficial fungal cultures as well as toxic ones that can develop on preserved foods. In short, our understanding of food safety issues of these types of fungal-preserved foods is evolving and complex. However, while fungal cultures are intrinsic to the preservation of certain foods such as blue cheeses, fungal cultures don’t belong on jam. The restaurant has since promised to follow food safety practices regarding the product they package as well as what they serve in-house.

Inner Mold
Why, in the midst of a global pandemic crisis did we all get so caught up in the story of a restaurant with moldly jam? Part of it is the growing resentment against the sort of folks (affluent, aging Silver Lake hipsters such as me) who can afford a $9 slice of toast at this particular cafe while thousand of people in Los Angeles are facing eviction or already homeless.

But there’s more to it than just that. In my weaker moments I will sometimes binge old episodes of Gordan Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. I’m not proud of this and after falling into Kitchen Nightmare hole I wonder what attracts me to a show that’s so repetitive. Every single episode follows the same trajectory: in the first half we see a failed restaurant owner wallowing in laziness and expired tubs of chicken wings. In the second half Daddy Ramsey comes along to yell profanities (in the American version ’cause that’s how we roll here) and redeem the fallen owner.

Perhaps Kitchen Nightmares holds up a mirror to our own moldy souls while offering the promise of a quasi-religious redemptive cycle. We’re all caught up in the shiny distraction of the internet and the latest Netflix series while stuff rots in the kitchen and we neglect our chores and those around us. This is part of what makes this jam scandal so rubbernecky in the midst of much more serious problems. Unfortunately, Daddy Ramsey ain’t gonna drop by and whip us all into shape. We’re going to have to join together to un-jam our moldy jam.

The New Homemade Kitchen

I have many fond memories of teaching bread baking classes for the late Joseph Shuldiner’s cheekily named Institute of Domestic Technology. Joseph had a unique formula for the curriculum of the IDT. I’d summarize as “stuff that you’d never think of doing from scratch but once you find out how easy it is your life will be transformed.” In addition to the aforementioned bread baking, the IDT offered classes in mustard, cheese making, jam making, coffee roasting, cocktail crating and much more.

Joseph gathered the recipes and collected wisdom of these classes into his posthumously published book The New Homemade Kitchen: 250 Recipes and Ideas for Reinventing the Art of Preserving, Canning, Fermenting, Dehydrating, and More just released this month by Chronicle. The section on cocktails is a good example of the IDT’s methods. Yes, you get a Martini recipe. But you’ll also be making your own vermouth and it will be easier than you think.

Then there’s the life changing chapter on coffee roasting. One of the perks of teaching at the IDT was getting to sit in on the other classes. This was how I learned to roast my own coffee in a Whirley-Pop roaster. Like a lot of IDT obsessions, roasting your own coffee simultaneously up-scales and bomb proofs your pantry. Green coffee can sit around for a long time and knowing how to roast it is a useful skill in our current crappening. In short, this book is very quarantine friendly both in the sense of having skills handy when supply chains are broken and having something more productive to do than binging Netflix.

In addition to coffee you’ll find chapters on pickles and preserves, baking, dairy, meat and fish, cocktails, fermentation and dehydration. You’ll also learn how to make your own mustard, ketchup, harissa, sriracha, preserved lemons, vanilla extract and much more.

Joseph was a gifted artist, designer, activist and photographer and the book reflects his ability to represent and explain, in clear language, information that can seem intimidating. I learned a lot about how to teach from working for Joseph. Many of the classes took place at the Altadena home of Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel. They tended to be day long affairs with a lunch served to students and an after-party for the instructors. At the end of the day, over glasses of wine, we would review the classes we taught and figure out ways to make information clearer. Joseph was a team player with a thoughtful leadership style. I can still hear his laugh and miss him greatly. This book, for me, is a kind of time capsule of those happy days teaching at the IDT that felt more like attending a lively party than work. And I have this book to remember Joseph’s joyous spirit and knowledge.

The Brown Derby Cocktail

Recipe for a Brown Derby Cocktail

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce honey syrup*

Combine ingredients with ice and shake. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
*To make honey syrup combine equal parts honey and water. Stir. You don’t need to heat it up unless the honey has crystallized.

Now there you have it. You’ve got a cocktail and I can pat myself on the back for inverting the all too common internet formula of endless paragraphs of nattering before posting the damn recipe. You got the recipe first and now here’s some brief chatter.

This cocktail sounds like an odd combination of ingredients but it works. The honey balances out the bitterness of the grapefruit juice and the bourbon broods over the face of the waters.

The cocktail’s origins are cloudy. A version of it appears as the “De Regueur” in the Savoy Cocktail Book. Some say that bartenders at the Vendome, a popular delicatessen on the Sunset Strip in the 1930s, did a slightly readjusted version of it that ended up being named for the Brown Derby restaurant.

Allow me to digress. If Steven Pinker tries to sell you on his hustle of how things are sooooo much better than they used to be just show him what happened to the Vendome:

The Brown Derby got minimaulled too:

At least we still have the cocktail.

How to Store Bulk Goods

Our present Covid conundrum has a lot of us thinking about bulk goods. Collectively, we’ve had our illusions about the reliability of our food system shattered. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our “efficient” market system turns out to be not so efficient when there’s a crisis. As David Harvey puts it in A Companion to Marx’s Capital,

By rationalizing the way in which space is organized, you can save on movement costs. So the whole space-time structure becomes an organizational question of how capitalism works. This was the big innovation that the Japanese introduced into the labor process in the 1970s with just-in-time production, the tight scheduling of flows of goods in space and time such that you had almost no inventory anywhere in the system. This was the innovation which gave the Japanese car industry its competitive advantage over all others during the 1980s, and the Japanese raked in the ephemeral form of relative surplus-value until everyone else caught up. The downside of this system is that it is vulnerable to disruption. If one link in the spatiotemporal chain is stopped by, for example, a strike, then everything has to close down because there is no inventory.

So what to do for our households and communities? Buy food in bulk and eat from it. Restock as you eat.

Need some tips on how to store food? Utah State University has you covered. I’d emphasize the importance of buying foods you like to eat. And watch out for pantry moths. UC Davis has a nice fact sheet on dealing with pantry pests.

Lastly, share resources and techniques with your neighbors. Knowing the folks on our block, thanks to our neighbor Jennie’s monthly happy hour parties, has been helpful. We check in via Zoom once a week, trade food and backyard fruit and run errands for folks in deep quarantine. We need not equate emergency preparedness with the sort of destructive individualism partly responsible for getting us into this mess.

FlicFloc Sticker Shock

The Covid crisis has bulged by inbox with questions about many of the topics covered in our two books. Once again, people are baking bread, planting gardens and worrying about the fragility of our food chain.

In recent years we got a bit lazy around the old urban homestead. There were a few too many meals out and an over-reliance on convenience foods. But at least we had experience growing and processing our own foods. When the yeast disappeared from the store I got a sourdough starter going within a week. So I’d say that experience trumps equipment when it comes to the living from scratch lifestyle. It’s never too late to learn. If you’re just getting started baking bread or starting a vegetable garden now is always the best time to begin.

An interesting example of technique over tools comes with today’s blog post. I had intended to write about one of my favorite kitchen tools, the KoMo FlicFloc Oat/Grain Flaker. It’s a manual device that turns whole oat groats into rolled oats. You can then use those oats to make oatmeal, müsli or granola. I had assumed that I’m saving money by rolling my own oats. It turns out that’s not the case.

I bought a 50 pound bag of oat groats for $54 from Central Milling via a bulk order run by the King’s Roost. Already rolled oats are, for some strange reason, a dollar cheaper per bag at $53. Properly stored rolled oats will last up to 30 years without losing much nutritional value according to Utah State University. So here’s the lesson: start with bulk goods in buckets (that you actual cook from) before obsessing over kitchen gadgets (Johnny of Granola Shotgun already pointed this out on his blog). My monkey consumer brain just leaps to the fun gadgets before I consider the prosaic five gallon bucket, time in the kitchen cooking from bulk goods and, ugh, doing dishes.

That said, I still like my FlicFloc. It’s a beautiful object and there’s a certain amount of self-satisfied smugness that comes from turning the crank to mill your own breakfast. Perhaps the freshly rolled oats taste fresher but I can’t prove that. And you can flake other grains such as wheat, rye, barley, millet, spelt, rice, sesame, flax seed, poppy and spices. I can also use the oat groats to make oat flour with my flour mill (another gadget that I’ll cover in another post). Of course, maybe I’m just justifying an expensive euro-trashy kitchen gadget.

But before we leave the sphere of oatmeal I’d like to note one nice hack that Josey Baker suggests in his book Josey Baker Bread. Josey suggests soaking a mix of whole oat groats and flaked oats in water on the counter for a day or two at room temperature. The time at room temperature causes fermentation and gives your oats a pleasant, sour flavor. You can make a batch of it ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator after it reaches the right amount of sour funk. Baker suggests adding nuts and maple syrup to make your oatmeal more interesting.

Lastly, let me add that, back in 2015, I compared the results of the FlicFloc vs. a cheap, surplus store grain cracker. If you want to do your own flaking (I guess that makes you a flake) the FlicFloc works better.