Baking can be a near-meditative pursuit, the minutes (or hours) spent in the kitchen mixing and measuring dropping you into a state of purposeful calm, or serving as a bonding experience when you’re working with others. Baking can also be a downright tedious chore — it’s tough to keep it interesting when you’re preparing the same heirloom shortbread recipe you’ve eaten 100 times, the lemon bars your partner always wants for dessert, or the coconut layer cake your family has come to expect for every single Easter egg hunt.
Sometimes circumstance keeps you in the same rotation; occasionally we just run out of new ideas. One of the easiest ways to add a fresh take to your reliable, woefully predictable recipes is to lean on the baker’s best friend: jam. Get ready to rifle through those jars in your fridge door, because jam is going to provide the fruity refresh you need.
Revamp frostings and icings
Frostings are more flexible than we give them credit for, especially buttercreams. High butter or sugar ratios lend them incredible stability, and what can we do with stability? Push it to the edge with flavour by adding unstable components like flavorful extracts, juices, or in our case, jams. Adding two heaping tablespoons of jam can turn a vanilla buttercream into a raspberry, strawberry, or blueberry buttercream. Adding jam to chocolate frosting transforms your cake into a centrepiece that will make your friends start uttering wine tasting-worthy terms things like “medium bodied, cocoa on the palate with a raspberry finish.” And with that local farmstand strawberry-rhubarb jam you love, you can create a frosting you can’t get anywhere but in your kitchen.
Icings, glazes, and drizzles should strike a balance between liquid-y and loose, but they shouldn’t be watery. Adding a jam to any of them will most certainly add interest amid the little bits of fruit and tiny seeds. Embrace these textural components, but avoid large gelatinous chunks by warming up the jam in a small pot with a splash of water until it thins out. Then, stir the loosened jam into your prepared icing, adjusting the consistency with powdered sugar — if the icing becomes too transparent and runny, stir in a couple tablespoons to thicken it. Go slowly — add too much powdered sugar at once and you risk entering purgatory, seesawing back and forth between too thick and too thin. Be cautious as you adjust. If the glaze becomes too thick, add a few drops of water and stir.
Stripe tarts and cake layers
Fruit jams are cooked-down and concentrated fruit, so a couple spoonfuls can pack a punch. Striping is a technique that involves spreading a thin layer of jam along one side of a dessert with other components; when you slice the dessert, you’ll see a fine stripe running along the inside of each piece.
If you’re making a tart, once the tart shell has been blind-baked and cooled, spread a thin layer of raspberry jam directly onto the bottom before adding the main filling. This small move elevates a frangipane tart with complimentary fruit flavours or adds a pleasant acidic bite to an otherwise overly-rich ganache tart.
For layer cakes (and even roulades), spread the layer of jam directly onto the cake before adding the frosting you would normally fill the layers with. You can control the strength of the jam’s presence in the cake by adding it to one layer, all layers, or any combination you choose. Keep in mind that you will be putting something on top of this stripe of jam–tart filling, lemon curd, frosting, five more cake layers–and jam is slippery, so it is extremely important to keep this layer super thin (think pinstripe, not rugby stripe). Otherwise, your cake layers might start sliding around on you.
Convert your cookies
Cookies don’t need a defender. They are irresistible by nature–adorably bite-sized, hand-held, usually studded with chips or nuts. Even “messed-up” cookies are delicious. This isn’t a tip on how to improve the cookie, but rather, advice on how to reignite your interest in a cookie recipe you’re a little bored with: You can convert your cookies into vehicles that carry a complementary jam flavour.
Most drop cookies are easy to shape into thumbprint style cookies with the addition of about ½ cup more flour. Drop cookies are thick batters that you shape by scooping with a spoon and dropping them onto the baking tray. They usually have a high ratio of butter and flour. With the addition of a little extra flour, the batter will resist spreading out during baking. Scoop the dough and roll them into one-inch balls and place them about two inches apart on the baking sheet. Make a small indentation (the thumbprint) in the centre and fill it with your favourite flavour of jam. Bake as usual, or until the cookie edge is firm and the bottom takes on a light brown colour.
Cookie sandwiches are another jam alternative. I have yet to find a cookie recipe that can’t be sandwiched. From macarons, to laced tuiles, to chunky chocolate chip, all you need are two cookies and a thin layer of jam to act as the edible adhesive between them. As with cake layers, remember that jam is slippery at first, so apply in a thin layer. For this same reason, jam sandwich cookies are best after they rest for at least four hours, or overnight. The excess moisture in the jam will be absorbed by the cookie, making them firmer and more stable for travelling. The overall texture will improve as well.
Keep in mind that sandwiching means you will need double the amount of cookies for each serving, so giant-sized cookies might come off a bit unhinged. But if unhinged is your vibe, then I’m all about it.
Add a surprise swirl
Jam is excellent for baking directly into desserts because it can take the heat from the oven and remain independent from the batter or dough. Any time you have a recipe that involves a “swirl” (especially a cinnamon swirl) you can use jam instead. And you can really go for it: In each of the tips above, I repeated the importance of using a scarce amount of jam, but for these recipes, you can wear your “I heart jam” t-shirt proudly and use a thicker layer.
For something like a coffee cake or a loaf cake that normally has a cinnamon swirl in the middle, switch it up and dollop in jam. Mix the jam in the jar first so the consistency is more spreadable, then drop in an equal replacement amount of the fruity filling. If the recipe calls for one cup of cinnamon swirl, use a 1:1 ratio and replace with one cup of jam. Layer on the top portion of batter and bake as usual.
To make decadent and summery jam rolls, mix, knead, and roll out your bread dough as usual. Loosen up your desired jam flavour by mixing it with a knife directly in the jar to a spreadable consistency. Drop spoonfuls of jam along the surface of the bread dough and use an offset spatula to spread it into an even layer. Roll up as you normally would for cinnamon rolls. (In this case, if you use too much jam the dough will tell you by squeezing out the excess at the end as you roll it up.) Slice the rolls with a sharp serrated knife or dental floss to avoid squidging out the filling. Use parchment paper to line the bottom of the baking dish, and butter the parchment so the rolls release easily after baking. Before baking, place the baking dish on top of an additional sheet tray to create a buffer and avoid burning any jam that leaks onto the bottom.
Help your treats retain moisture
You did it. It’s beautiful. You’ve been working for hours and finally finished that gorgeous berry fruit tart. But you made it in advance, and you start to notice that after half a day the fruit is looking a bit dull and wrinkled, and the pastry cream is dry. There’s a useful bakery trick to prevent this, and it works with open lattice fruit pies and various pastries alike. You guessed it — bakeries combat moisture loss with the help of jam. The jam (or sometimes jelly) creates an impenetrable layer around the fruit and filling so it doesn’t dry out as easily, and maintains a fresher texture and flavour. There’s the benefit of a little added sweetness, too.
To do this at home, select a jam or jelly with a mild flavour and light colour–the idea is to make it unnoticeable, not a competitor–so choose apple or apricot (which is what most bakeries use). You will only be brushing on a thin coating, so start with a ½ cup of jam and put it into a small pot. Add two tablespoons of water and heat the mixture, whisking often, until the jam and water combine, become thin, and start to bubble around the edges. If the mixture has fruit pieces floating around, strain it now.
While the jam is still loose, use a pastry brush, quickly and gently, coat the top surface of the tart, pie, or pastry. The jam will begin to set immediately so use quick, single strokes or dabs. If you try to brush back on places you’ve already covered, it may clump. If your pot of jam starts to set, simply return it to the heat for a couple minutes, or if it has been strained into a bowl you can microwave it for a few seconds and it will melt again. Jam on.