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There are all kinds of reasons for using the sun to bake, but the most compelling is that it's fun. Harnessing the sun's energy, keeping your kitchen cool and reducing utility bills are just frosting on the cake.
Taking advantage of this natural resource to transform juicy, ripe fruits into fruit leathers, jams and perhaps preserves are just right for lazy summer days. Considering our abundance of sunshine and fabulous fresh fruit, we could almost use solar power year 'round, but I include how to prepare fruit leathers in a conventional oven when inclination or weather dictates.
The ideal conditions for solar "baking" (actually drying) are 80 degrees Farenheit or higher and 60 percent or lower humidity. If the weather is cooler or more humid, drying the fruit leathers, jams and preserves merely takes longer. The only special equipment you might want to purchase is a sheet or two of copper screening cut to fit over the shallow containers that you use to dry the fruit. The screen covers and protects the fruit from insects and falling leaves during the sunny process. Alternatively, you can set metal cooling racks or stretch cheesecloth over the shallow pans.
Chewy fruit leathers, those delicious, nutritious snacks that adults enjoy as much as children start with any firm-fleshed ripe fruit or combination of fruits, sweet and tart. Apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, pears, berries, cherries and of course apples are perfect for drying outdoors in the direct rays of the sun. To hasten the drying process you can cook the fruit first, for example apples, to evaporate much of the moisture, but some loss of nutrients and flavor is possible. However, if I only have a small amount of one kind of fruit on hand, such as raspberries or blueberries, I use some applesauce to extend my batch, and the aromatic berry flavor still shines through.
To make fruit leather you puree unpeeled fruit in the food processor until it is a pulp and the skins are finely chopped. Using the peel adds fiber, nutrients and saves time and labor. (The peel adds color and an appealing flecked appearance.) Taste the puree and add tiny amounts of sugar or honey (I recommend 1/2 to 1 teaspoon for every cup of puree), and spices such as ginger, nutmeg or cinnamon (just a dash) to taste. It's best to remember that flavors intensify as the fruit puree dries.
Pour about 1 cup puree onto a shallow baking sheet (I use a 10-x 15-inch jelly roll pan) lined with plastic wrap. Spread the puree paper thin, or if the puree is runny, tilt the pan to distribute it evenly over the plastic wrap. Set the pan outdoors on a table in direct sunlight, and rest the screening on the edges of the pan. Depending on the amount of moisture in the puree, its thickness and the weather, it can take from two hours to a couple of days for the pulp to dry to its proper consistency. If the fruit needs more than one day in the sun, bring the pan indoors at night, and return it to the sun the next day.
Check the fruit periodically during the process. The leather is "done" when it holds together in a cohesive unit so that you can lift up one edge and peel it away from the plastic wrap. The leather should be slightly sticky, not wet to the touch, and pliable. Bring the pan indoors (the pan is hot so use oven mitts). Lift the leather on its sheet of plastic wrap from the pan, and place another sheet of plastic wrap on top of the leather. Roll it like a jelly roll into a cylinder. Store in airtight metal containers at room temperature.
If you are using the oven to make the leather, pour the fruit puree onto a parchment-lined baking pan and set it in a preheated 140 degree oven. Leave the door slightly ajar (place a spoon in the door) to allow steam to escape. You can put two baking pans in the oven at one time. Just rotate them a few times. This process takes from three to five hours.
To prepare sunshine jam or preserves, you need to cook the fruit and sugar initially, then you finish the process outdoors. It can take anywhere from three hours to two days depending on the weather to produce a syrupy, spreadable (not runny) sparkling sunshine jam or preserves. Check the jam after it has been in the sun a few hours to see if it's the consistency you wish. Spoon a drop of the mixture onto an ice cube to give you an indication of how thick it will be when you bring the mixture indoors to cool.
For healthy, delicious nibbling year 'round, make plenty this summer.
2 to 3 raw, unpeeled fruits, such as nectarines, apricots, plums or peaches (for berries such as loganberries, raspberries or blueberries use 1 cup)
1 teaspoon sugar
Puree fruit in food processor until pulp is fine. If using unpeeled fruit process until skins are finely chopped (mixture will appear speckled). Add sugar and process just to combine. Line a jelly roll pan (10-x 15-inches) with plastic wrap. Spread approximately 3/4 to 1 cup per baking pan paper thin (about an 8 x 11 inch rectangle). Set the pan on a table outdoors in the sun, and rest a copper screen on top of the pan.
If you prefer to work with a large amount of puree, cover a table top with plastic wrap and spread the mixture thinly over it. To protect pulp from falling leaves and insects, set large wire cooling racks on top. Keep the table in direct sunlight at all times.
When the leather is sticky, not moist, to the touch, and holds together in a cohesive unit so that you can lift an edge and peel it away from the plastic wrap, bring the pan indoors. Careful the pan is hot so use oven mitts. (Based on my testing, when the temperature is between 75 and 85 degrees, this sun-drying process takes 3 to 4 hours.) Place another sheet of plastic wrap on top of the fruit leather, and roll it up like a jelly roll into a cylinder. Store in airtight metal containers at room temperature. Two to three fruits yields two leather rolls. One cup berries yields one leather roll.
Sunshine Strawberry Jam
makes 1 1/2 cups
Jam is mashed fruit and sugar cooked until syrupy and thick, not runny. Use 1 pound sugar to every pound of fruit, in this recipe the fruit is the strawberry.
1 1/2 pints (1 pound) fresh, ripe strawberries
2 1/4 cups (1 pound) sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Rinse the berries in cold water, hull, then slice them. In a heavy-bottomed 4-1/2-quart saucepan, combine berries and sugar; let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Heat mixture over low heat to dissolve the sugar. Off heat, crush the berries with a potato masher or a pastry blender. Raise heat, bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Off heat stir in lemon juice and pour hot mixture into a jelly roll pan. Set outdoors on a table in the sun.
Set a screen, cheesecloth or wire cooling racks on top of the pan to protect it from insects or falling leaves. After three hours in the sun check the jam's consistency. Spoon a drop onto an ice cube, then rub the drop between your thumb and forefinger to feel if it is thick enough. (When the temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees, this recipe takes 3 to 4 hours in the sun.) Bring the pan indoors. (Careful, the pan is hot so use oven mitts.) If additional time is needed outdoors, bring pan indoors at night. If necessary repeat for 2 to 3 days, depending on weather and desired consistency. Spoon into sterile jars and store in refrigerator.
NOTE: To make Sunshine Preserves with any fruit of choice, proceed as directed above except leave the fruit whole or cut it into large chunks. Don't crush or mash the fruit as in the Sunshine Strawberry Jam.
Flo Braker has been teaching baking techniques and her sweet miniatures across the country for twenty years and is the author of several cookbooks.