Sunday, August 19, 2001

German-style recipe preserves tomatoes' sweetness

        Pat Brennan was right. Canning tomato preserves is pretty easy. A snap. Unless you throw in a flooded basement.

        The idea of making sweet tomato preserves is intriguing enough to get me to Ms. Brennan's Fort Thomas home on a blistering afternoon. By the time I arrive, she has everything ready: fresh tomatoes on the counter, a big pot on the stove and an attractive red apron for me to climb into.

        I am awed by the beefsteak tomatoes — perfectly globe-shaped, with an impeccable smooth and glossy complexion.

        “I bought them from a Mennonite man with a Southern accent down in Lake Cumberland,” Ms. Brennan says, as if she finds it hard to believe a Mennonite man can have a Southern accent.

        As she begins to blanch the tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins, Ms. Brennan explains the preserve recipe has been in her family for years.

        Her late aunt, Della Busche, who lived in Western Hills, made the preserves every August when tomatoes were plentiful. A short woman who loved to laugh, Mrs. Busche was famous for her bacon-studded potato salad and German Christmas cookies. Her parents immigrated from Germany in the 1870s, so most of what Mrs. Busche cooked carried a German flavor.

        Ms. Brennan is not sure where the unusual tomato preserve recipe originated. Germans don't eat tomatoes on pasta like Italians, so maybe the frugal immigrants decided to turn a surplus crop into a jamlike topping for toast and biscuits.

        Educated and employed as an accountant, Ms. Brennan has inherited her aunt's love and talent for cooking. She began helping her mother, Rosemary Busche, prepare family meals when she was a child, and learned to make the tomato preserves while in high school. Now, Ms. Brennan puts up the preserves every summer. Her husband, Bob, loves them so much he eats the preserves straight from the jar.

        The recipe is simple, as promised. After the tomatoes are peeled, cored and quartered, Ms. Brennan drops them into a pot with an equal amount of sugar and a lemon sliced see-through thin. While stirring, she brings the mixture to a gentle boil, then adds a dash or two of cinnamon.

        Next, she demonstrates a trick she learned from her aunt and mother. As the tomatoes simmer, foam rises to the surface. To dissipate the unattractive foam, Ms. Brennan adds a tablespoon of butter and stirs. Sure enough, the foam subsides.

        “Don't know why, but it always works,” she says.

        Suddenly, her 11 year-old son John interrupts her stirring by bolting upstairs to announce the basement is flooding. There is not a dark cloud in the sky, so Ms. Brennan looks puzzled, hands me the spoon and runs downstairs.

        By now, the sweet-smelling tomatoes are bubbling precariously close to the rim of the pot. I've never made tomato preserves and I'm not sure how to prevent the overflow. Then I think:

        What would Aunt Della do?

        I stir faster, and the syrupy liquid retreats. Then, in another stroke of brilliant improvisation, I reduce the heat to a simmer. And I don't dare stop stirring.

        Ms. Brennan's 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, comes into the kitchen for a glass of water. It's an awkward moment — for all I know, she might think I'm a stranger who broke into her home to make tomato preserves. She says “Hi,” though, so I assume her mother advised her I was reasonably OK.

        By now, Ms. Brennan has come upstairs, breathless. Water is mysteriously churning up out from her basement toilet and floor drains. The tide is slowly flowing toward hardwood floors in the family room. She believes home construction down the street has caused the flooding, so she calls the city water department.

        I'm much better at stirring than fixing flooded basements, so I stand at the stove.

        Finally, Ms. Brennan manages to reach someone at the water department — someone who promises to send a crew. She then dispatches her children with towels to soak up the water downstairs. This allows her time to test the consistency of the tomato preserves with a fork.

        “When it looks like this, it's ready,” she says, holding up the fork, the thick, sticky preserves webbed between its tines.

        It takes only a few minutes for us to fill the jars and put them in a kettle to process. There are a few spoonfuls of preserves left, so we eat it warm on flaky scones Ms. Brennan made earlier. The preserves have a fruity tomato flavor, without the tang, but with hints of lemon and cinnamon.

        By the time I leave, a man from the water department has arrived to repair the sewer. In under two hours, he stops the flood.

        Still not fast enough to earn a jar of tomato preserves.

Aunt Della's Tomato Preserves
        5 cups peeled and quartered tomatoes
        5 cups sugar
        1 lemon, sliced thinly and seeded
        Dash cinnamon
        1 to 2 tablespoons butter

        Put tomatoes, sugar, sliced lemon and cinnamon in large, heavy pot and bring to slow boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When foam rises to surface, add butter and continue stirring and simmering until preserves thicken, about 45 minutes. (To test, stick a fork into preserves. When preserves cling to tines of fork, it should be thick enough to can.)

        Pour preserves into sterilized jars, seal and process in hot water bath for 15 minutes. Makes 6 half-pints.


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