The Gardening Report: Juice into jelly (or popsicles)
It’s hard to ignore the abundance of fruit on Block Island this year. The old apple trees in the yard — survivors of the Hurricane of ’38 — are all but groaning with the weight of their fruit bending the branches towards the ground. Pears are plentiful, and Concord grapes are still, as of this writing, ripening on their vines along the stone wall. Peaches are not quite past, and despite the Eastern tent caterpillars that decided to call the tree’s branches “home” last spring, the fruit has been extraordinary. The only exception this year seems to have been the blackberries.
I blame the drought for this fortune of fruit. When the trees were in blossom, there was no rain to discourage the pollinators from going out there and doing what they do best. And years ago I recall reading that trees in stress will actually produce better fruit as they rush to get their annual reproductive chores finished so that they can go dormant.
I don’t actually eat much jam or jelly, but I do enjoy making it for those who do. Everyone seems to have their favorite flavor — some like peach, some like cherry. My husband tells me I should “do something with the pears.” Evidently he and my daughter have been talking about spiced pear butter behind my back.
I ran through my available inventory of canning jars a couple of weeks ago, forcing me to go through the pantry cupboard to purge it of jams and relishes made in years past. (I’m embarrassed to say how many jars I found.) I scoured the back of the refrigerator for more. Someday I will learn to mark the salsa with an “opened on” date. I must have found four jars with but a tablespoon in each.
Grape jelly has always seemed to me a thing of childhood, but it turns out adults like it, too. And then there are the in between — the college students slapping together a quick PB & J in between classes. Since there were no blackberries to make jelly, I acquiesced to a request for grape.
To make jelly, one must first make juice, and actually, the point of this column is not how to make jelly, but how to make juice. It’s a relatively simple way to enjoy the flavors of the season, and with so much available fruit out there, it’s practically free. (It’s not that making jelly is all that complicated, once you know how, but one does need the proper equipment, not to mention the jars, and a proper respect for sanitation.)
My grandmother’s old cookbook from 1945 describes two methods for making juice: one for hard fruits and one for soft. Soft juicy fruits such as berries and grapes may be placed in a saucepan or stock pot, with just a bit of water to start the cooking process. One quarter cup per quart of fruit is all that’s needed. You don’t need to worry about seeds and small bits of stems. Those will be strained out later.
Bring the fruit to a boil, slowly, and then reduce the heat and “cook gently” until most of the juice has run out of the pulp. Supposedly, one will know this when the color fades from the pulp. One half hour should do.
The next step is to strain the juice. If you are entering a state fair and desire clear jelly, line a sieve with several layers of cheesecloth, and do not press on the fruit. If you don’t care if about slightly “cloudy” juice, just use the sieve. Let it sit until the juice stops dripping out. Then measure the fruit remaining in the sieve. Add it back to the pan with an equal amount of water, and again after bringing it to a boil, reduce the heat and cook gently for another 20 minutes. This is called the second extraction. You can skip this, but the juice from the first extraction will be very rich. Besides, you get twice as much juice for very little effort.
(I did say that this wasn’t about making jelly, but should you be tempted, beware that grape juice should be put into a pitcher and refrigerated overnight if you are using it for jelly. This will prevent your jelly from being gritty or crystallizing after the jar is opened.)
For hard fruits, such as crab apples, apples, quinces and hard pears, the fruit is simply quartered or cut into eighths. There’s no need to remove the peels or cores. (These contain the most pectin, a necessary element in making jelly.) Simply place the fruit into a saucepan or stockpot and add enough water to just cover it. Bring it to a boil, and again, cook it gently until the fruit is tender. Then strain the juice in the same manner as for soft fruits, and proceed with the second extraction, if desired.
Should your juice need sweetening, simple syrup may be added. Simple syrup is made by bringing equal parts of sugar and water to a boil, so the sugar will dissolve, and stay that way. Add it to taste.
If you make a lot of juice, you can freeze it and enjoy it later. Popsicles are always fun. Years ago we made some grape ones, which the kids enjoyed immensely. They declared them “way better” than store-bought, and their smiles were bright purple for hours afterwards. This mother was asked: “Are they supposed to look like that?”
Why yes, yes they are.