Category Archives: Life

Neva’s plum jam

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When we were kids we made plum jam every year with our godmother Neva. It was an all day event: Neva would come over in the morning and we would collect plums from the trees all over our neighborhood. We’d hold an old sheet under the trees and Neva would rattle the branches with an extendable stick we called The Plum Basher until the plums fell down, mostly on our heads. When we’d caught enough plums in the blanket we’d bring them home to cook the jam, which is where my memory of how to make plum jam ends. As I recall, Neva did something magical involving a lot of cooking and squishing and straining and stirring, while we made elaborate labels and ate the warm jam foam she skimmed off the top of the pot.

This past week I’ve tried to reconstruct Neva’s plum jam recipe. I had my limited memories, some notes I took the last time we made it together, and the Joy of Cooking. It took two tries, and I ended up making jelly rather than jam, but it’s delicious. The key, I think, is to get some young assistants to help with the bashing and straining. I couldn’t do it on my own, but with help from Kate and Clara, we made a lovely plum jelly.

More seriously, I think Neva’s recipe is meant for the small plums that grow in our neighborhood. On Monday I tried to use plums from my mom’s new tree (a mere decade old) which has big fruit like you see in stores. The fruit is sweet and delicious for eating, but you don’t really want to add any sugar to it. It also barely scraped by in the pectin test and after cooking it didn’t have much plumy flavor, it was just vaguely fruity syrup. No good at all. If you have plums like that and want to make jam, you’ll want a different recipe and probably some packaged pectin. So when I tried again I gathered up a plum bashing team and collected the little plums we used to use. Much better.

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Neva’s Plum Jam

Makes 4-8 cups of jam, depending on how many plums you start with

Ingredients

A large basketful of barely ripe 1″ plums
2-4 cups of sugar

Wash the plums. Dump the clean whole plums into a heavy pot over medium heat. Stir and squish down the plums to let the juice out (a potato masher is great for this, but the back of a big spoon will do). Cook until all the plums are soft and smashed.

Drain the juice through a sieve (top right picture above), stirring to let all the liquid out. Neva would scrape the skins against the metal of the sieve with the back of a spoon to get out all the meat of the plums, which makes a thicker, cloudy, more flavorful jam. Since Kate and Clara were doing this step we stirred but did not scrape, which makes something closer to a jelly. I like to do one big ladle-full (about 2 cups) at a time, and dump all the skins and pits into the compost between scoops so they don’t block up the holes of the sieve.

Test the juice for pectin. In a jar, shake a tablespoon of plum juice with a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. Does it set? If there is pectin in the juice, it should form a big blob or two. If it doesn’t do this, you need to add pectin. Get a package of the reduced sugar stuff, and follow the directions inside.

Put a couple of little plates in the freezer. You’ll use them later to test whether your jam is done.

If your juice passed the pectin test, measure the plum juice back into the pot. Add as much sugar as juice and bring to a boil (bottom left picture above). The jam must boil or it will not set. Turn down the heat and simmer. A cloudy layer of bubbles will form at the top of the jam. Skim this foam off the top and drop it in a bowl for your assistants to dip bread in.

Starting after about half an hour, test whether the jam is done by putting a spoonful onto one of your frozen plates. Roll it around until the jam has cooled, then run a finger through it. If your finger leaves a clean trail and the jam feels solid and jammy, it’s done. If not, keep cooking. It has taken us as long as two hours before the jam is done, so don’t worry!

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N&P’s adventures

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When we were kids one of our favorite parts of the day was Writer’s Workshop, where we wrote stories, edited them, and bound them into little fabric covered books. Prima’s ongoing series was titled N&P’s Adventures, and chronicled our expeditions to the creek behind her house, down the forbidden path to the graveyard near our school, or to the redwood forest with our families.

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Since Prima moved to Brattleboro, Vermont a month ago, we can adventure together again! On Wednesday we both ditched work and met up in Connecticut. We had a lovely little picnic in the park, where we discovered we had two of everything: since we have exactly the same idea what a picnic should be like, we brought all the same things. We’ll plan better next time, but it was fun unpacking our picnic baskets and saying to each other “you brought plums? I brought plums!” After the picnic we headed off to the beach for a photo shoot which you’ll see soon!

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Pink hair

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I dyed my hair pink. It makes me so happy.

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Anya’s great-grandma’s dress

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here. Real life has kept me very busy the last few months, and with my Etsy store on vacation, I haven’t been taking many photos or sewing nearly as much. What has kept me so busy? I’m getting married in two weeks! Last weekend we had a bridal tea party, and my friend Anya wore a dress so beautiful it inspired me to take some pictures again.

The dress belonged to Anya’s great-grandmother, and it has the most beautiful white work in every style: embroidered sleeves, a tatted edge here, a crocheted hem there. The slip is as elaborate as the dress itself, although all you can see of it when worn is a little hint of lace peaking through from time to time. So pretty.

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Too much fabric

Yes, you can have too much fabric. When you can’t get the closet door closed, you have a problem. The best solution to this would probably be to clear out the closet, give away the fabric I’m never going to use, throw away the tiny left over scraps I should never have kept in the first place, and fold it all neatly so it fits on the shelves. But that’s not going to happen any time soon. Instead I have a plan to buy less fabric, and even get a few pieces off the shelf and into my closet.

This morning I pulled out all the fabric I’ve bought for particular projects, things that I’m excited about and know what I want to do with, but haven’t had time for. There are ten of them, which is way more than I expected. My plan is not to buy any fabric for myself (fabric for customer’s clothing is ok of course) until I have finished those ten projects. Since things sometimes go wrong and these projects may not all sound like good ideas when I get to them, I’m letting myself switch out any of these projects for something else made from fabric in my stash. But I will finish ten projects from fabric I already have before I buy anymore. Hold me to it!

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Zoo

This has been one of those weeks where you wake up for work and it turns out it’s Saturday already. Which is nice of course, but somehow I went all week without posting anything, even though I spent Sunday afternoon taking pictures. Prima and I went to the zoo, and after spending a while watching the baby otters play, we took pictures of her latest projects.

The zoo is a difficult place to take photos. It is almost all direct sunlight, especially in front of the animals (which were the whole reason Prima wanted to take pictures there). The parasol helped, but I will be insisting on shadier locations in the future. I’d rather worry about what color sets off the dress than how to keep the shadows from hiding all the most interesting parts.

These dresses make up Prima’s summer collection. I don’t know much about how they’re made, but if you have any questions, leave a comment. I’m sure she’ll be happy to tell you all about them.

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Strawberry pie

Isabel’s been watching “Pushing Daisies,” and it inspired her to spend Saturday afternoon baking. I approve.

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Flash Photography

Thursday was my birthday, and my boyfriend gave me a flash for my camera. I spent Saturday morning playing with it and the different sort of light it makes.

In the afternoon we went to see Balenciaga and Spain, an exhibition at the De Young museum. It was wonderful! If you’re in the San Francisco area, I highly recommend it. Now I want to put bows on everything.

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May Day

I’m not the only one in my family who likes to sew. I’ve written before about my sister Rosalie’s projects, but our dad also made his own clothes for many years. One of his sewing projects is still in use.

Many years ago, before I was born, my father traveled through Morocco. Along the way he met a trader headed for Timbuktu who lived in a big tent. It was made of coarse fabric that kept out the sand but let the wind blow through, and watching the moon through the roof of the tent, my father decided he wanted to live in a tent like this. When he returned home he bought yards and yards of water-resistant canvas and an industrial sewing machine and got to work. He went out into the woods and found two small straight trees for the main support poles. He made a waterproof lining and an optional floor. After many weeks work, he had an enormous tent.

These days the tent comes out once a year, for our May Day celebration. In rainy years it keeps us dry, and with the front rolled down it’s a warm place to eat a picnic lunch on a cold day. In sunny years like this one it provides shade and a quiet place to take a nap. Our May Day celebration is a large one, with a May Pole dance, singing, a play put on by the children, a potluck lunch, relay races, and an egg toss that just about everyone joins in on, but my favorite part of the day is lying in the tent drinking tea with our friends at the quiet end of the day.

The tent is also a nice place to take pictures out of the harsh mid day light. Like an over sized light box.

 

I’m wearing one of Prima’s creations, which can be found at Ranunculus Market.

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Neva

I think I was seven when Neva taught me how to sew. She brought over a basket filled with colorful scraps of fabric from her collection and dragged out the huge heavy sewing box she had made for my mother years before. We cut out two small pieces of pretty purple silk with the sharp sewing scissors and pinned them together. She showed me how to thread the needle and sew the fabric together. My stitches were large and crooked, but they held the fabric together. We turned it inside out, stuffed it, and I had a tiny purple pillow I had made myself. She left me the basket of fabric when she went home. Two weeks later I proudly called her to let her know I had learned how to knot the thread the way she did, wrapping it around her finger and pushing it off.

In high school I began designing my own clothes, but they never came out quite the way I wanted. The hems weren’t straight, the zippers buckled, the sleeves were too tight and strangely pointy and pulled in every direction at once (it took me a long time to sort out sleeves). Whatever went wrong, Neva knew how to fix it. A bit more curve in one sleeve, a smaller armhole for another. And when I made something that came out well she would get so excited. “Oh!” She would say, “Naomi Neva, that is a beautiful dress!”

One summer Neva arranged for me to work for her neighbor, a costume designer. It was a pretty great summer job – I got paid to sew all day and I learned a lot about sewing and about the other work involved in a design job. After work I would go over to Neva’s and we would eat tacos from the truck on the corner and talk about our lives. She would show me a twisty branch she’d found while walking the dog or a letter I’d written her years ago from her archive, and I would tell her about my latest sewing project.

Neva died a bit over a year ago and I miss her very much. Happy birthday, Neva.

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