It must be the diet.
Lately, all I can think about is food. And thinking about food makes me think about food in literature (“Babette’s Feast,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”).
And, of course, food in film (“Tortilla Soup,” “Ratatouille,” “Julie and Julia”).
One of my favorite food movies is the 1996 classic, “Big Night,” a story of two immigrant brothers pursuing their dreams in a 1950s-era New Jersey shore town. The brothers have invested everything in their fledgling business, a restaurant they have called “Paradise.”
The youngest brother’s dream is to achieve success American style — to have money for a suburban house, a new Cadillac, a respectable wife and a mistress on the side.
The older brother’s dream is simply to be himself. Primo wants only to be given the freedom to create art with food. In my favorite scene, Primo tries to explain the spiritual significance of good food to Ann, a widow he has befriended.
“To eat good food is to be close to God,” Primo tells her. “I’m never sure what that means, but it’s true anyway.”
Last summer my friends and I experienced a mystical moment similar to Ann’s experience when Primo shared a sample of his cooking. We were in the basement kitchen of the Russian Orthodox Church, and we tasted heaven on a teaspoon.
It was a spoon with just a dab of our first-ever batch of spruce tip jelly. One bite and we understood why the little birds sing, how it tastes to be close to God, what the angels eat for breakfast.
It was that good. So good that some of wept.
As we talked about our creation we discovered that, despite the abundance of spruce trees on this island, relatively few people here have ever even heard of spruce tip jelly, let alone made it.
So we decided that, come spring, we would share our recipe. And we would invite others who have made the jelly to do the same.
So here’s our technique:
Collect the pale green tips of the spruce trees just after they burst from their brown, papery wrappings. The fresh tips should be very, very soft. If they have hardened, they will taste tarry.
Rinse the tips in cold water, discarding any brown wrappings or tips that are tough. Lightly chop the remaining tips. This step smells like Christmas.
Place the chopped tips in a soup pot and add just enough water to completely cover them. Simmer the tips for approximately ten minutes—just enough time for the tips to bleach out.
Let the tips stand overnight, then strain with cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer. Remove any tips that sneak through.
This is the recipe we used for the batches we made last summer.
3 ½ cups of prepared spruce tip juice
½ cup of lemon juice
1 package pectin
5 cups sugar
Mix spruce tip juice, lemon juice, sugar and pectin. Stir until everything is dissolved. Bring to a full rolling boil for two minutes. Watch carefully, as you’ll be very sorry if it boils over! Pour into eight prepared jelly jars, seal with prepared lids and place filled jars in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Remove jars and set aside.
This recipe generates a jelly that is soft, almost half-way between a syrup and a normal jelly. Some people double the quantity of pectin used for making spruce tip jelly.
We also learned that our friend Susan Emerson (memory eternal) made spruce tip jelly using the standard recipe for apple jelly. She did not use lemon juice in her recipe. And, indeed, when we asked chef Joel Chenet to sample our jelly, he noted that it had too much lemon.
We found it interesting that spruce tips collected from different places on the island yielded a different color jelly. Fort Abercrombie spruce tips make a darker jelly than did the tips collected on Near Island, for example.
And, on the subject of color, most of our jelly was clear, like lace, or gossamer or whatever angel wings are made of. Some people add green food coloring to make the jelly look more spruce-like.
Do you have a technique for making spruce tip jelly? Are you willing to share your little teaspoon of heaven?
Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy hunting.