Can That Jam!: How to host a canning party

A few weeks ago, my new favorite thing in the world began. Hanging out with friends, new and familiar, and learning to make stuff. I’d been admiring a friend’s macrame creations on Instagram and she FINALLY offered to show a few of her admirers how to make macrame plant holders. (FYI it’s easy as long as you’re relatively focused. This is hard for me.)

After I posted some photos of my newly canned strawberry jam, she suggested I return the favor and host a jamming session. As you can imagine, I did not hesitate.

But there’s only so much traditional strawberry jam I really need in my life so we voted and opted to take it up a notch to strawberry balsamic black pepper jam. I had never heard of such a jam but after googling “fancy strawberry jam” I repeatedly came back to this notion. Before you wrinkle your nose at my jam, you should know it doesn’t taste peppery or like balsamic. It just tastes deeper and richer than normal strawberry jam. It was a hit.

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1// The first thing you need when hosting a canning session is fantastic snacks. I thought I was doing pretty good by purchasing cheese and crackers but my guests took it up a notch. Check out this spread!

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2// Then you should designate a notetaker. Canning is not intuitive and the directions are important. If you have a bunch of people over then socializing may take over and they’ll never know how to do this again unless you provide details.

3//Choose a very reliable recipe. Unless you’re awesome at this, don’t make up your own recipe. Because botulism.

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If you have chickens, save them the strawberry tops!

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And then we decided to make a second batch. 17 cups of strawberries were sacrificed to make jam on this day. 

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Sometimes my house is cleaner than this. Not on this day, obviously. 

I chose a recipe from Serious Eats which did not disappoint! Here’s the basics:

Ingredients

  • 7 cups sugar
  • 5 cups coarsely chopped strawberries (from about 3 farm stand boxes)
  • 1/4 cup best quality balsamic vinegar
  • 1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • One (1.75-ounce) package regular powdered fruit pectin
  • 1/4 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • mason jars, brand new lids, rings
  1.  Boil your jars for ten minutes then let them sit in hot, simmering water. Your jars should be piping hot when you fill them.
  2. Measure the sugar into a large bowl and set aside.
  3. Combine the strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and black pepper in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. To get a nice consistency, mash the strawberries in the pot.
  4. Whisk in the pectin until dissolved. (FYI: 1.75 ounces of pectin is 3.5 tablespoons. Google says so.)
  5. Add the butter and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.
  6. Add the sugar all at once and return the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil hard for one minute.
  7. Remove the pot from the heat and skim any foam from the surface of the jam with a cold metal spoon.
  8. Ladle the jam into hot sterilized jars. Leave a quarter inch of headspace in the jars. Keep the edges of the jar clean so it will seal properly, because botulism. I dip a paper towel in my hot water pot to use to clean the edges.
  9. Process the jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Pro tips:

  • Follow the directions exactly. You don’t want to double or add extra strawberries or go rogue. Your jam will not have the right consistency!
  • I always boil one or two extra jars. If your berries have a high water content, you may need them.
  • If you forget your potato masher for smashing strawberries, you can use a large bottomed jar with a decent handle, such as white balsamic vinegar.
  • Post really good photos of Instagram during the process. Your followers will thank you. #influencer
  • When you put the rims on the jars, only put them finger tight- AKA using two fingers you be able to tighten and loosen it. Everyone wants to use their super strength to tighten the jars, resist that urge. They might not release the air inside and seal otherwise. Then you have to put them in the fridge and eat them up in the next few weeks.
  • You can reuse jars and rings but you cannot reuse lids. Once they’ve sealed a jar, retire them.
  • FYI: It can take up to 24 hours for the lids to pop. So while you can tap, touch and look at them lots you should otherwise, leave them alone. I like to hit the tops with a spoon, because you can hear if it popped. If it thumps in a hollow way, it has not yet popped. If it just kind of thuds, like a car hitting a wall, then it has popped. You can also tell by looking, because the popped ones will have a bit of a divot in the middle, and the un-popped ones will still have a tiny hill. Another option is to try to open it but without using your full strength. You should always be able to open it with your full strength, because otherwise what is the point.
  • It can take a week for the jam to fully set, but you can eat it as soon as you want. If it is too runny, put it on pancakes or ice cream.
  • How do you know if the jam has botulism? You don’t. So wash your hands, sterilize everything and if it doesn’t seal, don’t leave it on the shelf!
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Only a few jam makers are captured in this moment. I think we all feel like this photo is flattering. I have since gotten a haircut. And washed my hair. And cleaned my kitchen. 

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Capturing Baby’s First Year: A Calendar for Dad and Relatives!

Last Christmas I scrounged together an idea of a gift for Tyler just in time. It was to spend the day canoeing (we never went). Haines was only eleven days old on Christmas day and gifts were low on my priorities. Despite all that Christmas week last year I had a lightbulb moment- the best possible gift for a new dad.

It wasn’t an expensive gift and those expenses I did incur were mostly optional. The only difficulties were planning and planning is hard because it involved a baby so buck up.

Each month I dressed Haines up as something or someone that Tyler loves and create a calendar. It was a challenge to come up with 12 feasible ideas at first but once I involved a couple people, the ideas started flowing!

I had intended for the ideas to correlate with the months of the year but… that got a little complicated. I had grand plans that I would take the picture on the day he turned 1, 2, 3, months old etc. but that quickly became unrealistic (like, almost immediately).

January- Fishing

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January was a struggle- there’s a learning curve with this people! I set a fishing scene- blue blanket, gummy worms and a fish at the end of a homemade pole. Every time I see some sleeping newborn in a fishing basket looking perfect, I think…. this is why newborn photographers get paid the big bucks.

February- Bookworm

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Okay, I admit it. This month was for me. I love a baby bookworm. BUT I used Tyler’s favorite children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, so it’s all good. This was one of the easiest photos to do. I popped out the lenses in some free, cheapo sunglasses I had and paired with a onesie made at my baby shower- done!

March- Baseball

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Tyler’s obsessed with baseball and even bought Haines a tiny Louisville slugger before he was born. I couldn’t get Haines to stop chewing the bat.

April- Chef

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My all time favorite! I ordered a chef’s hat and apron (unnecessary but it came in a set) via Amazon and popped baby HEB in our pressure cooker. He happily sat in that pot for like ten minutes! I threw in a dish towel for color and a wooden spoon to occupy him. Be still my heart!

May- Virginia Tech Hokies fan

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Tyler comes from a Virginia Tech family and his mom used to make these awesome “Mad Hatter” Hokie hats. I requested one and paired it along with one of the THREE Tech onesies we received as a gift for Haines. Three!! That seems insane but Haines was pretty pumped about the whole thing.

June- Golfer

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Tyler used to work on a golf course (okay, several) and is a huge golf fan. I stole one of clubs and this putting practice green thing to make this photo work. Haines is also wearing Tyler’s Masters hat but I couldn’t get that in the picture.

July- Clara

Two years ago we adopted Mrs. Clara, our lab beagle mix. I put Haines in black footie pajamas to match Clara but getting the two in a photo together was the worst! My dog and my baby are too active for this. I had to settle for the only slightly adorable photo we have of the two of them together.

August- Glenn Danzig & Bruce Campbell

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If you’ve never seen Tyler without his shirt off then you probably don’t know he loves Danzig and Bruce Campbell (hint, hint: multiple tattoos). So here we have featured Haines’ Misfits onesies in front of Tyler’s prize Army of Darkness poster with Bruce Campbell.

September- Scuba Diver

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90% of our photos looked like this.

Pro tip: do complicated costumes during months 3-6! Haines was too mobile by the time we got the scuba diver costume. He wouldn’t hold the pacifier in his mouth that I’d blackened with sharpie to look like a respirator. He also wouldn’t keep the goggles on his head. It was a disaster. In the background, I had toy fishes but you’d never know.

October- Beach Baby

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My mom made a onesie out of a T-shirt fromTyler’s job. It’s so stinking cute! You can’t tell but in this picture Haines is on the verge of hysteria. Still, cuteness overload.

November- David Bowie

Tyler is an enormous Bowie fan. So I found a DIY Ziggy Stardust costume on Pinterest and did my best. Yes, face paint would have taken it to the next level but have you tried to put face paint on a ten month old??? It’s challenging, that’s all I’m saying.

December- Snow Bear

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Snow Bear is Tyler’s childhood bear. He’s a VIP in our household and I made Haines a matching outfit. He struggled with sitting still but still managed to be a bit cute and cuddly with Mr. Snow Bear.

Tips for creating your baby calendar:

  • Only take horizontal photos. Vertical photos don’t work on most calendar formats.
  • Three to six months is your baby photography sweet spot. Any outfit that’s complicated should be taken then. Otherwise you’ll have a baby who refuses to suck a pacifier colored to look like scuba respirator or a baby who won’t cuddle with the dog (dog and baby photos will always be difficult).
  • Use large blankets/quilts or sheets for backdrops.
  • Get another person involved if at all possible. You think you can do it, but.. you need help. I involved only a few people. Regrets!
  • Use MPix to put together your calendar. I tried Costco for maximum cost savings but I needed more options to customize what I wanted. MPix ended up being inexpensive but more user-friendly.

There are many ways to capture a baby’s first year but I prefer dressing him up in costumes that may be embarrassing to him one day!

P.S. The calendar was a huge hit with Tyler. 🙂

Nesting

I got into the whole pregnancy nesting thing a bit late in the game. At least that’s what it feels like. Fellow blogger Graylin Porter has been posting pictures of her adorable nursery and she’s still got months left! My mother and friends have been asking after the baby’s room since this summer. I guess it’s just safe to say I didn’t rush the process.

Whenever asked I say that the nursery is “adventure themed” but it has as much of a theme as our wedding did. Our wedding theme was “fun.” People really love a theme though, so there you go! It was really cool to incorporate a print of a US map I got for Christmas last year. Tyler’s grandfather’s hobby was framing and we were able to use one of his frames for it. The hot air balloon Tyler gave me for my birthday looks perfect with it.

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The most special part has to be the baby blanket that Tyler’s mom made though. It’s absolutely incredible. She made it by hand while living on her sailboat in Central America. It’s perfect for our soon-to-be beach baby. If there’s one thing I don’t doubt, it’s that this kid will be a total fish (his/her father might not make it otherwise). My mom bought these sweet notecards that she framed to go with the blanket.

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The best, best part of the room? All the generosity that got it here. We’ve been so incredibly lucky by receiving tons of hand-me-down baby items while also being able to repurpose other furniture. This dresser/changing table? That’s from my nursery! Tyler had been using it as a dresser but he was forced to give it up (I don’t think he minded).

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This crib? A gift from a coworker whose children are too old for it. And these are just the big pieces. In the closet and dresser are all sorts of little items that have been passed down to me. Almost every piece of clothing I wear right now is the same.

These are the things that remind of the community of love that surrounds this little one. Displaying them for him or her is the most fun of all. I really look forward to being able to share this generosity with others when the time comes as well. It’s been the hidden surprise to all of this- how glad others are to help and how they go out of their way to do so. Pay it forward!

The Best Time of the Year

I love most holidays. In general, I love any day that is out of the ordinary. This means I embrace holidays that seem created by Hallmark (Valentine’s), and fraternities (no offense, St. Patrick’s Day). I equally love my birthday and yours. Any reason for fun food and beverage is worth while to me. If we get the day off the work? Then it’s the absolute best!

Regardless Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Its focus- being thankful- is hard to argue with. It’s safe to say that each of us has something or someone in our lives that we take for granted, even despite our best intentions. Maybe it’s our health, our spouse, our parent, our home, our job, a friend, our hobbies. It doesn’t matter. Being grateful and thankful on every day often escapes us. A reminder really couldn’t hurt. Plus we celebrate the day with the two best things in life: family and food.

Often the people we spend Thanksgiving with aren’t related by blood. Although my family will most likely be annoyed by me saying so….I like Thanksgiving this way. I celebrate with my family every Christmas. Thanksgiving is my opportunity to be thankful and spend quality time with the other family in my life- those I choose to make a part of my life.

After 4 years of Friendsgivings in Texas, I didn’t know what we’d do when we moved back to North Carolina. Would we start going home? But last year we hosted our first Friendsgiving/Thanksgiving potluck (with my mother which was an added bonus!) with many new friends. This year, we’ll do it again.

I’ll have to control myself and my urge to make a thousand different dishes. I’m doing my best to limit it to 2. With only 3 weeks until baby’s arrival, I’m not having to work too hard to convince myself to take it easy. My back and legs do that pretty well.

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I’ll just do this instead.

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Clara’s getting her cuddles in pre-baby arrival.

Tyler and I already got the week of Thanksgiving off to the right start with our annual tradition of watching The Last Waltz. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing then check out:

Pregnancy Brain- Fact or Myth?

*No science will be used or referenced in this post. I’m all about the anecdotal truths right now. 

A couple years ago I was on the way to lunch with several coworkers. One woman, a mother of three who I admired both for her intelligence but also for her unfaltering patience, spoke of pregnancy brain. She described a fender bender she was in when pregnant with her third child, a situation that was clearly  her fault. When she blamed it on “pregnancy brain” I scoffed internally. This seemed like people blaming errors on having a “blonde moment” (another thing I take offense to).

Well, skeptics I am here to say I believe. I have to believe otherwise I am losing my mind. Let me present you with the evidence.

Exhibit A: This one is the smallest infraction but I’m building up here. Two weeks ago I jumped in the car with my car-hating dog in the back to head to our dog training class. I was already running late because I hadn’t been paying attention to the time. On the way I forgot where I was going and drove to Harris Teeter. It was when we went over a speed bump and Clara threw up that I remembered where I was going. Other versions of this same situation have happened multiple times. Luckily that was the only time that involved vomit.

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Poor Clara

Exhibit B: Our dear friends were in town and one was describing a recent trip to Vancouver. She was giving us an excited description of a whale tour. As Tyler started to discuss east coast versus west coast whales I got incredibly confused. Why? Because I couldn’t remember what coast he lived on! I kept insisting that it was reasonable to believe that Tyler may have seen the same whales as the on the whale tour. Please note, Tyler and I have lived on the east coast for over 18 months now. It’s not new. It probably took me about 5 minutes to fully digest where I’d gone astray in the conversation.

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This is where I live. It’s called the Atlantic Ocean. 

Exhibit C: Husband Tyler is somewhat colorblind so I am often correcting him in the color arena. That house is green not gray, etc. This past week I mocked him for thinking our dressers were both stained not painted. It took almost five days until I figured out that he was right. We gave away our painted dresser when we moved to North Carolina. Both our dressers are the same identical wood. One is the dresser my parents bought for my nursery. The other my mom bought when I was in middle school. I am very familiar with both of these dressers, and yet it took me FIVE days to come to this realization.

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Also, a fact: I want ice cream right now. Really just every day, all day.

Dogs and Gardens

One of the disappointing parts of moving when we did, in the early fall, was that we weren’t able to see our garden through to the full season. We left green tomatoes and ripening peppers and a basil bush just waiting for pesto. We invested a lot of time and money into a project we weren’t able to see all the way through. Despite that it was still a good experience and we learned a lot. Mainly we learned there is a learning curve in gardening. A big one.

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Beware squirrels.

This year we’re approaching things a little differently. I refused to consider the possibility of an in-ground garden after the insane amount of weeding I did last year. Also, we thought our old yard had sandy soil but we might as well be at the beach in this house. In the end, after a lot of back and forth, we decided on two 8′ x 4′ garden beds. I was talked down from making them 24″ high like the ones we built at LINC last year for Work on Wilmington. Those were some awesome garden beds. When I actually saw how high 12″ is though, I was on board.

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These are not the exact boxes we built but we did base ours off these. Photo Credit: K.J. Williams 

We lined the boxes with weed cloth and put a layer of leaves in before we piled in our compost/top soil. We bought it all mixed up already from Seaside Mulch. We bought it in bulk instead of bags which saved us a lot of money.

What we should have done differently: Our very next action after building the beds should have been to protect them from their number one enemy- our dog. Clara was delighted to leap through the bed on her way to the fence where she chats with other dogs and also to dig up my seeds and freshly planted baby broccoli plants. So much fun!

After SOMEONE insisted there was no way Clara was going to dig in the garden again after she’d gotten in trouble for it, she did it again many more times. I won, he built me a fence. It’s pretty basic, just plastic mesh zip-tied to rebar poles. We* used sod staples to secure the fence to the ground.

*Please note when I say “we” in the same sentence as “build” or something similar I typically mean Tyler. “We” built garden beds, “we” used sod staples, etc. On the flip side when I say “we” planted or “we” weeded, I just mean me. 

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Fence Day!

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Finally these plants can rest easy. Whew. 

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There’s the culprit now, eyeing her prey…

Now we’re down a few broccoli plants (but how much broccoli can you really eat anyways?) and I’ve planted new spinach and beet seeds, along with tomato, pepper and herb plants. We’re trying not to plant so many different things this year. Trying is very hard for me.

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Whoops. 

Domestic Goddess Over Here

At some point since I started blogging recipes and posting an insane amount of meals and food on Instagram some of my friends and family started acting like I know what I’m doing. It seems ridiculous I know, but it keeps happening! I don’t want to dissuade anyone from this incredible idea that I DIY well but… let’s be honest here. I just look to my trusty resources.

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This stawberry rhubarb pie is by far the most attractive pie I have ever made. 

Baking Go-Tos:

Minimalist Baker is vegan but I love her style. She does not post any recipe that has a lot of ingredients or can be remotely connected with the word complicated. Thank goodness!

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Girl versus Dough’s blog is an awesome resource for both staple recipes and more adventurous forays. Her sourdough recipe is my fave!

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The Kitchn is my number website for baking and cooking. Their recipes always provide a lot of instruction that’s aimed at the beginner. Whether I’ve made a similar recipe before or not, I appreciate the very plain-spoken, foundational steps.

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Canning Go-Tos:

With canning, you need to really trust your sources. For example, I’ve found a lot of recipes for canning pumpkin butter but if you go on USDA’s website, they state that it is unsafe to can pumpkin better. You see what I mean?

A Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking is a great website and book for canning (along with other domestic things). I was fortunate enough to take part in Kate’s fruit butter canning class in Austin which gave me the confidence to make our apple butter wedding favors last year.

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Food in Jars is very reliable and has a great selection of recipes. Some may be too adventurous for you (me too!) but after making her peach jam, I totally trust her judgement.

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Ball Jars website has a good list of basic recipes. It may seem boring but for the beginner, it’s probably all you need.

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When in doubt you can always refer to USDA Canning Guide.

Pinterest: For me wanting to do a lot of DIY requires a lot of time on Pinterest (it’s research, not an addition). These are the Pinterest Boards I’ve created to sort my edible projects and adventures.

Eating is My Number One Hobby: It’s true.

Make Ahead Cooking: For your crockpot and freezer meal exploration

Breakfast is Best!: This is by far my favorite meal of the day.

Party Foods!: I love to host!

Boozin’: Clearly a very important board

Breads, Sweets and Treats: Sometimes the lines between breads, sweets and treats get blurred so let’s just mix them up.

Happy baking and creating!