August 26, 2014

Making "Wild" Cherry Plum Jelly

Making "Wild" Cherry Plum Jelly
Last weekend my In-Laws called and asked if we wanted any cantaloupe because they had several nice-sized melons mature at the same time and it was too much for them. Since we were actually at the grocery store buying cantaloupe the answer was a no-brainer.

When my wife and I headed over there we, well I, wanted to take a look at their yard & garden since we hadn't been in the back yard for months. A surprising discovery was a small fruit tree they weren't aware they had. Now if this was my parents property I could understand because they have hundreds of acres and an actual orchard, but a surprise fruit tree in a small quarter-acre lot (I have no idea how big it is...but they live in town so....) when you've lived in the home for 30+ years.....

Evidently what they thought was a "regular" tree was actually a fruit tree that produced only after some generous tree-trimming the year prior. There was some debate on the age of the tree, but the general consensus was that it wasn't planted by them and was actually a "volunteer" that grew on it's own. The yard is a decent size and they've done a lot to encourage the birds and squirrels so it is possible. The cherry-sized fruit looked ornamental to them and on some sort of dare they tried it out.

I tried one as well and when they asked me what it was (my folks own the orchard, I never grew up there....) I responded, "Cherry Plum", as if I knew what the hell I was talking about. Well evidently a Cherry Plum is actually a thing and they've got one. The fruit tastes like a plum (duh, it is one!), but there is a sour component to the skin. The small pits aren't "free", which means that removing the flesh is a PITA. Great for picking a few to eat on the spot, but not so much for anything else, or so it would seem.

My Father-In-Law is diabetic, type stick a needle in yourself (1?) and they (In-Laws) don't eat a ton of fruit or sweets, so I was offered up the Cherry Plums they'd already gotten and any more that I wanted. Now I'm not stupid, nor overly proud.....I'll take free food almost any day, especially if it is good. I went over the next day 2nd thing in the morning (a guy needs his breakfast) and picked everything I could. It wasn't a large tree and almost all the fruit was accessible by ladder. Not even an hour later I had pretty much picked the tree clean of about 2 gallons of fruit.

Experimenting with the first batch to cook out
Way too much water...
After some quick interweb searching I figured I'd make some jelly/jam. Those pits would be a bother so most likely it'd be a non-clear jelly. I started by cleaning the fruit well and then simmering it for 10-15 minutes in a little water, pretty much 1/2 gallon at a time. The first batch I used maybe 1 cup of water, which was waaaaay too much. This was my first time doing this sort of thing and I obviously had barely any clue as to what I was doing. After just a few minutes the fruit skins started splitting and juice started flowing...

A lot more juice than expected!
Juice is only starting to flow...
I got a lot more out of the fruit than I had anticipated, so on the subsequent batches I kept reducing the water. A quarter cup of water, which you really cannot even see in the pot, is quite sufficient. So far this isn't too bad and I'm thinking it'd be nice to get one of those steam juice-extractors, until I see they price out at $200 for the nice model made in Finland. Meh, let's get through these four smaller batches before I go making dream plans.....
....though my mom makes a bazillion batches of jelly & jam every year to sell at the farmers market (they have an actual orchard).....

Some of the interweb instructions mention trying to pull the pits out with a pair of slotted spoons. Either they are using a different type of Cherry Plum, or they are freaking Fruit Ninjas because I couldn't do squat getting those pits out, at least that way. I thought maybe I'd have to jam everything in the press bag I use for making Almond Milk, but then remembered I had one of those food mills.

Glad I bought this when I did
Genuine Foley Food Mill
Now as an aside I have to admit I'm one of those folks that collects far too much crap, often for envisioned future projects that may or may not happen. I used to work at Fred Meyer as a manager and I knew what stuff costs, and would jump on "opportunities" when they presented themselves. One such opportunity was to get a food mill for half off the clearance price, with even more for an employee discount. It's been in my garage for probably a decade waiting for just this moment....was it a wise decision to purchase that....not financially speaking....but I almost never regret spending money on tools.

Still a good half-cup of juice left in the pulp
The food mill did a bang-up job of squeezing out most of the juice. Occasionally a pit would split in two and a half-pit would shoot out of the mill to land somewhere where I'll step on it painfully, but all my projects usually involve some blood-loss, and a few trips to the store. Luckily this project was the exception. It was surprising easy to clean the pit-filled mushy paste out of the food mill but just turning the crank backwards while tilting the mill to the side over a bowl. I kept the mush to go ahead and run through that press bag. I got almost a half cup extra juice out of each batch. Doing this was a complete mess and really felt, and looked, like I was trying to wring blood from stone.

Almost 11 cups of juice extracted (with 3 cups of water)
In jars because I thought I'd make jelly another day
When it was all said and done I had almost 14 cups of juice. I had used a little less than three cups of water in the simmering process and undoubtedly lost some water during that process. Now I got all my canning supplies ready and decided to make jelly. Most of the instructions I'd read said I didn't need to use pectin, but they also used all of the pulp and skins which I just couldn't do. I think I re-read the pectin instructions fifteen times trying to figure out if I had too much or too little water, since they assumed I was using cut-up fruit and adding water. In the end I just went with my gut and assumed I had enough water and I went with a double-batch of jelly, which meant I had almost 4 cups of juice left over. The instructions also specified a whopping 7 cups of sugar per batch. The juice is quite tart and I know you need sugar for the jelling process, but 7 cups seemed way too much. Since I'm not exactly being scientific with all this anyway I reduced that to 5 cups, hoping the natural pectin would make up some difference. Since I'm already screwing with things I went ahead and made the sugar I was using 1/2 white and 1/2 cane. This is going to be an all or nothing proposition!

Now since I've got three burners going and sterilizing the jars in the oven (I normally use the dishwasher's sterilize feature, but it is acting up) I don't seem to have enough hands as it is, so no pictures. For the most part just follow the instructions for making/canning jelly from the pectin box, deliberate modifications to the recipe not withstanding.

The end results
The haul
With the extra juice I quickly whipped up a sweet & sour plum sauce by adding some cayenne, ginger, soy sauce, garlic, and onion. I started with an online recipe and found it way too mild and then just went to town. I could have reduced this some more, but I wanted it a bit thin because I think it should be and because it'll thicken some when heating up for use. Since the In-Laws don't really have a use for jelly I thought I should give them something they might be able to use. There is no added sugar, or vinegar for that matter.

For really only a few hours of effort, not counting the still un-finished kitchen clean-up, I ended up with 18+ half-pints of jelly (the last half-pint+ is in the fridge) and two pints of plum sauce. This morning I tried the bit from the fridge and it was a bit tart, but quite tasty. I'm glad I didn't use the full 14 cups of sugar on this.