What does making jelly have to do with writing? Nothing, except of course, blogging is writing, so I’m justified to that extent. Besides, the description of me making jelly has many of the elements required for a good story–goal, conflict, danger, humor, character development, plot twists, catastrophe, climax, and (spoiler alert!) HEA ending.
It all begins with this desert plant with yellow flowers, the prickly pear cactus (genus optunia), which in the fall, produces colorful pear-shaped fruit, below, right. The paddle-like leaves of the plant, called nopales, have some vicious spines, hence the name, prickly pear.
Although the spines on the nopales are conspicuous, it’s the fruit that will sneak up on you. See those light-colored bumps on the fruit? They’re loaded with teeny, tiny needles called glochids that lodge in your skin and make life miserable for several days if not removed. There are several ways to do that, none of which work very well. Best avoid getting stuck in the first place.
Which brings us to the topic of jelly-making supplies: see the two packages on the left? The yellow one contains rubber gloves (buy the heaviest you can find), and the white one contains a cheap shower curtain with which you will want to cover every surface you don’t want stained a lovely pink-magenta.
As you can see, the fruit has a rather thick skin or rind. I cut each pear in half and in quarters for any bigger than a golf ball. The juice goes everywhere, but…no juice—no jelly. I put the whole mess into a roasting pan, covered the fruit with water, and boiled it for 15 minutes. BTW—turn the hood fan on—it doesn’t smell bad, but not especially good, either. Once it’s done, it’s time for some hard work—mashing the juice out of the cooked pulp. In hindsight, I would work with smaller batches. Of course, if you go in for volume, you could hire some French peasants to tromp the fruit in a tub. Do that AFTER cooking. Glochids between your workers’ toes will get you a visit from OSHA. Here’s what the cooked fruit looks like (in the spaghetti pot), the colander and cheesecloth to filter out the pulp, and the bowl of juice ready for making jelly.
All of the above was just to get the juice. NOW, we’re ready to make jelly.
Put the cactus pear juice, lemon juice, and pectin in a pot and boil for 5 minutes. Add sugar, boil for another 5 minutes, then skim the froth so your jelly will be clear. Pour the liquid into sterilized jars and seal them by whatever method you like. Grandma sealed the jars with paraffin, but the USDA frowns on that. For best results, use canning lids, tighten the rings finger tight, and immerse the filled jar in boiling water for 5 minutes. Take them out, cool them and you’ve got JELLY!
Wellll, maybe not. 😦
There’s always the chance that the jelly doesn’t jell. Yup, that happened to me. The internet was most helpful. It said I either undercooked the liquid or overcooked it or didn’t have enough pectin or lemon juice or had the wrong amount of sugar. Thank you very much. I guessed it needed more pectin. I opened all jars, dumped the un-jelled jelly in a bowl, and stuck the jars in the dishwasher. While that was running, I went to the store and got more pectin and more canning lids. With the additional pectin in the mix, I started the whole process over again. This time, I got jelly!
25 8-oz jars not counting what I’ll get from the leftover juice.
My advice: PAY SOMEONE ELSE TO DO THIS! It’s a LOT of work, and a LOT of things can go wrong. For example:
- I used channel-lock pliers to very carefully pick the fruit yet still got several painful pokes.
- In spite of all my precautions, juice inevitably squirted, ran, and splashed on me, the cabinets, and floor.
- There’s so much pulp in the fruit, it clogs the holes in whatever filtering medium you use—spaghetti strainer, colander, cheesecloth. You almost need a centrifuge!
- Boiling juice can froth up and over the rim of your pot in no time flat. STOP the process immediately and clean it up. Burnt/carmelized sugar is next to impossible to clean out of the stovetop burner pans.
- Estimating the amount of juice you’ll get from the fruit is exceedingly difficult. I ended up having to go to the store for more pectin, sugar, jars, lids & rings. In fact, I still have a gallon of juice in the fridge that I’ll have to freeze or make into more jelly.
- When you’re done making jelly, there’s a ton of cleanup to do.
- And of course, your jelly might not jell.
Homemade jelly makes GREAT gifts for the holidays, and making it will give you a wonderful sense of accomplishment (if you persevere).