Elizabeth Madden with Rare Bird Preserves Credit: Eric Futran

Elizabeth Madden regularly puts students from the French Pastry School to work in the Oak Park commercial kitchen where she makes her Rare Bird Preserves.

“A lot of those students are like, ‘What? You want me to cut apples for four hours?'” she says. “You can tell they want to do plated desserts and work in restaurants. I did have one assistant who got bored juicing lemons and zesting them, and she went to Trotter’s and they had her juicing lemons and zesting for hours. In a traditional kitchen you will be doing that. If you want to learn, it is part of the craft of cooking.”

In 2006 Madden herself spent six months in the school’s L’Art de la Patisserie program, learning how to make bread, breakfast pastries, petit fours, cakes, tarts, sorbets, candies, and plated desserts. But it only took one day for her to know what she wanted to do when she graduated.

“They spend one day on jams,” she says. “And that one day I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is it, this is it. I love doing chocolates and cakes and ice cream and all that, but this . . . is . . . it. I was so blown away by how beautiful it was and what a simple process it was, and just the connection with nature. It just felt right to me.”

But of course one day of instruction isn’t enough to launch a career in jam making. “The French Pastry School is amazing, but they kind of just give you the hint,” Madden says. So she began her own independent research, first diving into the books of Alsatian pastry chef Christine Ferber, internationally known as the “queen of confitures.” Ferber uses only the most pristine seasonal fruit she can find, and she rejects the use of commercial pectin in favor of extracting it from fruit herself, using an apple jelly to thicken and set the fruit.

Madden was worried that this would make her jam too sweet, so she started out using commercial pectin, but in her early experiments she couldn’t get that to set her preserves. So she turned to some of the techniques of Bay Area jam maker June Taylor, whose hand-cut small-batch preserves are made with pectin extracted from lemon peels and seeds.

There are economical advantages to making your own pectin that appeal to her as well. “I never ever want to throw anything away,” Madden says. “I use the apple peel, I’ll peel it and freeze that. I’m gonna use that. I really enjoy that aspect—to really thoroughly try to use the whole product.”

Madden took a class with Taylor in San Francisco and two with Ferber, who almost every year makes a pilgrimage to the French Pastry School for a special workshop that always sells out. “It’s a very intense class in that it’s very slow and you watch her cut fruit for hours, and a lot of people cannot take it,” says Madden. “They just want to move on, but that’s really what jam making is about. It’s slow and meditative.” Ferber also inspired Madden to complement fruit with herbal or floral notes, like lavender with peach or Earl Grey tea with fig. Madden’s also followed Ferber in making chocolate-fruit preserves (cherry, raspberry, blueberry), which are another order of sensory experience, practically reversing the complementary relationship.

She’s devoted the last few years to experimenting and developing her own techniques. “You’ll never know how to make anything until you make it over and over and over again,” she says. “I think I do like very simple tasks and I really enjoy the process. I get a lot of pleasure just being with the natural product and cutting it and chopping it and thinking about it and cooking it. It’s not a quick process.” Typically Madden will peel and cut fruit, then cook it with sugar in a small copper pot (for video see our blog the Food Chain at chicagoreader.com/food). She’ll let it macerate overnight, laying in a cloth bag filled with high-pectin fruit remnants, such as apple skins or lemon zest and seeds. The next day she squeezes the bag and thick yellowish pectin oozes forth. The fruit undergoes a second cooking before she jars it and waits for it to set.

Madden started small, making only about 60 jars of each of four or five flavors in late 2006. Back then she was working as a pastry chef at Trotter’s to Go, and when one day she put out a sample jar of the fig-Earl Grey, within an hour she’d sold about a dozen. Her manager asked her to go home and get more, but she’d already sold the rest of her inventory—70 jars—to a single customer who planned to give them out as holiday presents.

Gradually she placed her jams at other stores, including the Marion Street Cheese Market, the Goddess and Grocer, and Provenance Food and Wine. This summer she started selling at the Andersonville Farmers Market, and at the height of the season she was going through 15 to 20 kilos of fruit a week, yielding about 400 jars of each of 18 flavors. Though that might seem like a lot, she’s still making them in small batches—a little more than a dozen six-ounce jars apiece over two days—necessitating about 600 hours of labor.

“I sell out and I can’t go back and make more,” she says. “Because usually the season is done.” Right now, for instance, you can’t get her apricot-almond or lemon-blueberry anymore. When Whole Foods came calling, wanting to stock her entire line, she told them she could only supply one store with a limited number of flavors. That deal is still pending.

The artisanal jam business is fraught with the kind of unpredictability that you’d think would discourage major retailers. “Every year I have to tweak the recipe because the fruit’s different and the water content is different,” Madden says. “This year was good, though. It was good for peaches. Last year was horrible for peaches. I have no idea why. I couldn’t do anything with them.”

Now, even in November, she’s still introducing flavors—pear-vanilla-pinot blanc and chocolate-orange. And even though she tries to use as much local fruit as possible, she won’t be slowing down much this winter. She’s toying with the idea of taking January off to relax, but she’s also looking forward to playing around with bananas, mangoes, and citrus.

And maybe that’s relaxing enough. “I don’t usually have music or anything playing,” she says. “I like to work very quietly. I enjoy that solitude. I did grow up in a huge family in which there was chaos constantly, so if you want to read some psychological thing into it, I guess everything is so crazy and it’s like a little safe haven for me.”   

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