By MM Pack
Photography by Andy Sams
Wearing one of her quirky signature aprons, Stephanie McClenny closely monitors the enormous pot of gently bubbling fruit in the corner of a busy commercial kitchen. This is, as McClenny refers to it, “the jam factory”—the sweet aromatic heart of Confituras, her award-winning preserves company.
Confituras is the Spanish version of the French confiture, a preserved food. (The common Latin root is conficere: to make, to complete.)
McClenny defines confituras as fruit reduced to its most flavorful essence, and that describes the jams, jellies, marmalades, curds and fruit butters that she prepares in small batches.
McClenny’s clearly found her calling; she taught herself how to make preserves about four years ago and founded the company in September 2010. By January 2011, she’d won a Good Food Award for her Texas Fig Preserves at the national competition in San Francisco. The next year, she won again for her Bourbon Brown Sugar Peach Preserves. For 2013, she’s serving as a judge rather than competing.
Recently, Confituras’ Cranberry Cinnamon Jam was featured in Saveur magazine’s holiday issue (#151). “It’s all moved pretty fast,” McClenny admits. “When I began making small-batch preserves, I didn’t even realize that there were other people doing similar things in other parts of the country. Since then, though, I’ve become part of a large, supportive online community.”
While growing up, McClenny wasn’t specifically focused on food. She spent her childhood in Orange County, California, although her first three years were in Kenya, Tunisia and Uganda, where her father held foreign-service posts. “Supposedly, my first word was in Swahili,” she says. When McClenny was 10, her family spent a year traveling around Europe in a VW van—an experience that she says encouraged her independence and self-sufficiency.
McClenny moved to Austin in the late 1980s. “I was twenty-one and ready for a new situation,” she says. “It could have been anywhere, but I liked music, so why not Austin? I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, but I went to a True Believers concert my first night, met good people and within days I had a job and a place to live.” For 10 years, she worked at Les Amis Café, the iconic counterculture crossroads featured in the Austin-centric film Slacker. (In the 2005 documentary video, Viva Les Amis, she has some quality screen time.)
Later, McClenny earned a nursing degree at the University of Texas. “While I was in school,” she says, “I had a job looking after an elderly couple. That’s when my interest in cooking really took off. I had a generous budget and time to shop, so I got obsessed with finding the best ingredients and researching the best recipes. I started cooking seriously for friends and housemates, as well. Later, as a pediatric nurse in elementary schools, I got off work at three-thirty and would go home and cook all afternoon.” All this led to her co-ownership of the Dandelion Café in 2004 and starting her Cosmic Cowgirl food blog in 2008.
That interest in quality ingredients has only increased; Confituras focuses on produce from regional farms, and the various preserves are available only as fruits are in season. Luckily, peaches, figs, tomatoes, pears, strawberries and apples grow well in Central Texas. McClenny gets lemons, oranges and grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley and blueberries and mayhaws from East Texas. And she and her husband, Houston McClenny, go on foraging expeditions for native fruits like prickly pear, mustang grapes and agarita berries. She makes good use of local honey, herbs and chilies.
Creating unusual, but compelling, flavor combinations (Fresh Apple Rosemary Jam, Lavender Peach Butter) has become McClenny’s trademark. “Canning has been around forever,” she notes, “but it is also new. I call myself a maker of New World confitures—traditional styles of jam but with newer flavors.”
Future plans include teaching more preserving classes and giving community outreach demonstrations. McClenny’s involvement in Foodways Texas inspired an interest in oral history. “I’d like to do work on the history of canning…capturing memories,” she says. “I’m interested in returning to some food traditions that have been forgotten, such as pickling fruit like peaches and blueberries.”
Since its inception, Confituras has grown steadily. “I get lots of requests about orders for shops around the country,” McClenny says, “but we’ve decided to stay local. We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing now, only better.”
For more information on Confituras, visit confituras.net
CONFITURAS BACKYARD GRAPEFRUIT
AND CHILE DE ARBOL JAM
Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny
Yields 5 to 6 half-pint jars
8–10 large, Ruby Red or other pink grapefruit (about 5 lb. total)
3–4 dried chiles de arbol, thinly sliced (seeds removed if you
desire a bit less heat)
3–4 lb. organic cane sugar, to taste
Juice of 1 small lemon
1 t. kosher salt
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
Remove the zest from the grapefruit in long sections with a zester and cut into thin slivers. Set aside. Cut the ends from the grapefruits, then carefully cut away and discard the white pith. Remove the grapefruit segments from the cores and set them in a preserving pan or Dutch oven. Add the grapefruit zest, chiles, sugar, lemon juice and salt to the pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat. When cool enough to handle, pour the mixture into a glass or ceramic bowl, cover with parchment paper and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, strain the mixture and set the solids aside. Boil the liquid until it becomes a thick syrup (or reaches 220°). Add the solids (including the chili slices, if desired) back to the syrup and bring to a boil over high heat—stirring occasionally. Continue to cook over high heat and stir more frequently as the mixture becomes thicker and more jam-like. Turn off the heat and test the gel of the jam. Put a bit on a saucer that’s been chilled in the freezer, then place the saucer back in the freezer for 1 minute. If the jam on the saucer wrinkles when you gently push on it, it is done. Add the lemon zest, then taste for sweetness and balance of flavors. Fill sterilized glass canning jars to within ¼ inch of the top, screw on the lids and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: For information about canning safety and canning practices, see National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu)
CONFITURAS PRICKLY PEAR JELLY
Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny
Yield depends on the amount of fruit used
The prickly pear cactus bears gorgeous magenta fruits, called tunas, in late summer and early fall. The flavor is lovely, with comparisons to melon, cucumber and berries. This jelly can also be used to color and flavor marinades, vinaigrettes and cocktails.
Prickly pear fruits
Lime juice, strained
Pomona’s Universal Pectin (follow directions on box)
Organic cane sugar
Note: The amounts of sugar, lime juice and pectin depend on the number of cups of juice you have after processing fruit.
Holding each tuna with tongs over a gas flame, burn off the spines—being careful not to touch the spines with your bare hands. Cut each tuna into quarters and place in a pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Allow the mixture to slowly simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the fruit is very soft. Pour the pulp and juice over a mesh colander draped with two layers of cheesecloth. Allow the fruit to drain overnight, and resist the temptation to press on the fruit to extract the juice (this could produce a cloudy juice, which is a big no-no in jelly making). Measure the juice and pour into a preserving pan or Dutch oven.
For each cup of juice:
Add 1 tablespoon of lime juice and 1 teaspoon of calcium water to the juice. (Pomona’s pectin includes powdered calcium.)
Thoroughly blend together ½ cup of sugar and ¾ teaspoon of pectin in a large bowl.
Bring the juice to a rapid simmer. Add the sugar and the pectin mixture all at once to the boiling juice and stir vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. Bring back to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat and allow it to sit for a few minutes, undisturbed. Fill sterilized glass canning jars to within ¼ inch of the top, screw on the lids and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: For information about canning safety and canning practices, see National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu).