Monday, August 11, 2014

Making Wild Plum Jelly

Wild things
I made plum honey jam a few years ago after hitting a decent fruit clearance sale.  It wasn't great. In fact, it took a few years to burn thru the case or so that I made.  In all probability, I'll never make it again.

However, with this year's bumper crop of wild/American plums, I figured I would try something different.  Never made jelly with them before, so what the heck?  Let's do this.

For those fuzzy on the difference between jelly and jam, here it is in nutshell: jam uses all the parts of the fruit* whereas jelly is made from just the juice. With jam you just mash everything into a medium like sugar or honey. To make jelly, we need juice and lots of it, which sometimes proves a problem when dealing with wild fruit.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, so let's start with the first things.

The first thing we need is a simple jelly recipe. This one from Taste of Home Magazine demands some 5 pounds of wild plums, 7 1/2 cups of sugar, and a package of powdered pectin.

The recipe in a nutshell:
  1. Simmer 5 lbs of halved and pitted plums for about 30 minutes.  Strain 5 1/2 cups of juice.
  2. Boil the juice and the pectin. Add 7 1/2 cups of sugar. Full boil that for another minute.
  3. Scoop the resulting jelly into half-pint jars and boiling-water process those for 5 minutes.
Pretty easy, but...

To make jelly we need juice.  So the first thing we have to do with our plums is cook them down.  The recipe says to halve and pit them in preparation for cooking.  Given the miniscule size of our prunus americanas, that would take on the order of a month and a half to make 5 pounds. Using the cherry pitter didn't work, either. So to make the job easier, I froze them.  Once they thawed they got kind of mushy, so I could simply squeeze most of them to get the pit out.

One side note, with wild plums you want to use red plums, not purple.  The yellow/orange ones have no juice, the deep purple ones have very dark, soft meat that seems almost rotten. But the reds are firm and juicy with meaty, yellow innards.  Good thing we have lots of those.

The chickens will feast tomorrow.
But perhaps not enough.  I cooked down just over 5# of plums and got a very consistent mush.  The recipe calls for straining that mush thru 4 pieces of cheesecloth.  Instead, I put the mush thru a big sieve, then the strainings thru a finer one.  I put those strainings thru a jelly bag and got some beautiful, clear purple juice.  Unfortunately, I got only about 4 cups of that. What I had mostly was a dry, sloppy mush that resembled stroganoff vomit. It brought back some very bad memories.

So we'll put our juice back in the pan and fire it up, but we'll have to adjust our recipe just a bit.  I actually added all the pectin - liquid instead of powder - because there are few things less useful than 1/2 ounce of leftover liquid pectin.  Once it got to a good boil, I added 5 cups of sugar. That's a little less than the ~80% target based on our juice, but since we're over on the pectin it ought to be alright.  I gave it an extra minute of hard boil just to be sure.

Jelly season is complete.
Now comes the moment of truth, or actually, 5 minutes of truth in the open boiler.  The recipe should have produced 8 half-pints.  Being short juice, I'm not surprised that I ended up with ~7.

What I am surprised about is how good it tastes.  The chicken slop is dry and sour, but adding lots of sugar to this juice** balanced it out quite nicely.  It jelled easily but not into a little half-pint brick like my jalapeno jelly did.  As of 10:00, one of the jars hasn't sealed, so one might end up in the fridge tomorrow.

Which is awesome, because the jelly is much, much better than the plum honey jam ever was. I'm pretty sure I'll have no problem making enough bread to get rid of all of it this winter.

* Excluding pits generally, but including small seeds like those in strawberries.
** Usually with jelly one runs about 50/50 juice and sugar.  This one is closer to 60/40 sugar.

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