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In the Kitchen with Jam Guru Rachel Saunders, Author of 'The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook'

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Rachel Saunders, author of The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. [Photograph: Neal Carter]

20101107-bluechairjam.jpgI have never met anyone more passionate about jam and marmalade than Rachel Saunders, and pretty sure I never will. While spending an afternoon with her, I became immersed in the art of jam-making, a pastime I had previously considered grandmotherly. I was holed in a warm Brooklyn brownstone kitchen with Saunders, who's bringing jam back with style. The jam guru of our generation?

She recently came out with her first book, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, which includes nearly 120 recipes for jam and marmalade. It's a comprehensive how-to that answers every question you've ever wanted to ask Grandma about how she makes jam that puts Smuckers to shame.

Saunders showed me how to make Early Girl Tomato Marmalade for a web video for the TODAY show's Cooking School, a web-only series that features instructional culinary videos. As she took me through the time-intensive process of making marmalade, first prepping the raw fruit, then watching the mixture simmer out moisture, testing for doneness, and jarring, I learned more on her infatuation with spreadable sweets.

When Saunders moved to California from the East Coast, she was overwhelmed by the fresh produce available. She started baking with fruit, but eventually reached a point where she was baking more than she (and her friends) could eat. So she tried an alternative: jamming!

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Katie Quinn, the author of this piece, receiving a marmalade tutorial from Rachel Saunders.

"I got hooked on jam-making!" Saunders came to admire the chemistry involved in making the perfect jar of jam. After mastering the technique ("I've burned and cut myself more times than I can remember. You won't believe how many jars I've thrown out"), she noticed the need for interesting, outstanding jam at her farmers' market. In 2008, while working full-time at the front of the house at a restaurant, she started Blue Chair Fruit Company.

Why the name? A blue chair came to mind when she started thinking about nostalgic kitchens. She wanted to connect her company to "the nostalgia we all have around jam. When you make jam, you're cooking into a long history of something."

"There was a need for me," she said of her hobby-turned-business. What started as a local following—she sold the jams and marmalade at local restaurants—has expanded to national attention. She now ships them nationally through her online store. When I saw Saunders, she was preparing for her live appearance on The Martha Stewart Show the next day.

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Early Girl Tomato Marmalade.

So what makes her jams so special? Besides the small batch production (by Rachel and a couple of her helpers)? The unique flavors. Like tomato marmalade.

I was skeptical at first, but after the tomatoes caramelize, they hardly taste like their raw selves anymore. And after adding lemon and orange, it has an incredible sweet-to-tart balance. She's constantly changing her selection. Some other flavors you'll find on her website include: Lemon and Pink Grapefruit Marmalade, Black Plum Jam with Candied Citrus and Bay, Black Mission Fig Jam, and Lemon Marmalade with Pear.

Her inspiration? Mom. She used to make jam from raspberries grown in their backyard, but will now be cooking recipes from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. "What makes me happy is that people have had success [with the book]." Saunders also offers Jam-making 101 classes at her kitchen in Oakland.

I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one marmalade tutorial—much easier than expected. After we tested for doneness, using a technique Saunders calls the "freezer test"—just freeze a spoon and use the marmalade's consistency on the spoon to detect doneness—we sterilized the jars in the oven, then filled them up. My tomato marmalade was great on toast the next morning, and many subsequent mornings thereafter. I was struck by the brightness of flavor. So long, store-bought jam and marmalade; I'm hooked on homemade. Now I just need to make it without the Jam Guru next to me, coaching me through the process.

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