In the South, a Mason jar is for sipping sweet tea and preserving fruits and vegetables.
In West Coast cities, old-fashioned canning jars are being used at upscale restaurants as vehicles for luscious mini desserts. San Francisco Bay-area chefs are using glass canning jars to serve everything from starters to desserts, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
At hot spots such as Marlowe, Lafitte, Bottega, Plum, and Fish & Farm, you'll find chocolate cream pie with a graham cracker and chocolate cookie crust and upside-down pear crisp with bourbon ice cream and brown-butter caramel sauce layered in a 6-ounce Mason jar; and steamed chocolate devil's food cake, salted caramel pot de crème, eggless custard parfait, panna cotta and and cheesecake layered or baked in half-pint jelly jars.
Jonathan Lundy, chef/owner of Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington, and Mark Wombles, chef/owner of Heirloom Restaurant in Midway, also are jarring their desserts.
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Lundy likes the idea simply because it makes a great presentation when served. Wombles has experimented with the jar desserts several times.
Almost any individual dessert may be made in the half-pint jars.
"The half-pints are great for those who want to taste a bit of dessert but not a whole slice," said Liz Bushong of Johnson City, Tenn., author of Just Desserts,. "The other benefit is that you can bake and freeze these canning jars. So you can bake ahead, let cool, then freeze until you want a dessert. Because they are canning jars, they can withstand the hot oven temperature and the freezing elements too."
The beauty of these individual-size pies, puddings and cakes is that they can be made with store-bought crust and canned filling, or your prized recipes.
This spring, when garage sales boom, you might want to pick up some inexpensive Mason jars. They usually sell for pennies, because they tend to accumulate like dust bunnies. You will need short and squatty half-pint jars from Kerr, Ball or Mason. Lundy has a special supplier for his jars.
The best description and photographs of mini desserts can be found at Ourbestbites.com and Onceuponaplate.com.
Sara Wells and Kate Jones and their Web site, Ourbestbites.com, were recently featured in an issue of Southern Lady magazine. Their recipe calls for cutting out circles of dough, using the ring part of a jar as a cookie cutter. Set those aside and use the rest of the dough to line the jars. (You do not need to grease them.) Just take little pieces and press them in. Make sure it's pressed all the way up to the top of the jar, or pretty close to it.
Mari Mirrasoul, owner of Onceuponaplate.com, makes a cookie-and-nut bottom crust because she wanted a ratio of more fruit than dough, as the jars hold only half a pint. For the bottom crust, she uses crushed vanilla wafers mixed with ground toasted almonds and a little melted butter. (A sprinkling of cinnamon can be added to the mix.)
Crushed graham crackers, or almost any type of crushed cookies, and any type of toasted ground nuts may be substituted. And you can use any favorite pie filling. Simply fill the fruit to ½ -inch to 3/4-inch from the top of the jar, and top with a circle of your favorite pastry dough. Cut a vent shape before placing the pastry on the jar, then crimp it with the tines of a fork. Brush with an egg wash or heavy cream, and sprinkle with sugar or sugar crystals for an attractive garnish.
Mirrasoul also recommends that if you want to use the lid and band with the jar (for storage or portability) you'll want to allow head room, so place the pastry below the top of the jar. The filling and crust will expand a bit while baking, but they will shrink back down as the jars cool, she said.
Bushong has a different technique. She measured the outside edge of the jar and made a 7-inch by 13⁄8-inch cardboard pattern to create the pastry sides for the inside of the jar, then she used a 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter for the bottom pastry.
To prevent pastry from getting too warm as you press the crust into the jar, roll a small piece of dough into a ball and use the ball to press the crust all around the inside. Cover the sides and bottom of jar, but leave about ½ -inch of head space at the top of the jar.
Individual servings make beautiful presentations, and almost any dessert can be made in a jar, including fruit cobblers, crème brûlée, puddings, cupcakes, and cheesecake.
They also make nice gifts. Tie a ribbon around the neck of the jar and give it to a friend, co-worker or neighbor who will appreciate a small, but indulgent, treat.