Elderberry Jelly

My mother did not make elderberry jelly because she said that elderberries were poisonous. In spite of this, I enjoyed elderberry jelly sandwiches occasionally when I was a boy. My friends ate them and did not die in agony, so I figured that whatever their mothers did to the elderberries must have turned them into something that tasted good and would not kill me.

My mother and I were both right. From the reference collection in the local library, I learned that elderberry plants and the berries themselves do contain poison, though in small concentrations. However, I also learned that cooking elderberries destroys the traces of poison found in the raw fruit. And today, people claim that elderberries are good for you, since they contain antioxidants and are high in vitamin C. I am not suggesting that elderberry jelly is a health food, but it may be a little better for you than grape jelly.

Making elderberry jelly is easier than you might think. Although elderberries are tiny, they are actually quite easy to harvest. Elderberry bushes produce clusters of white flowers that turn into clusters of dark blue or purple berries about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. To make elderberry jelly, you pick a bucketful of clusters, wash the clusters and strip the berries from the stems into a saucepan.

The most difficult challenge is to find a good patch of elderberry bushes loaded with fruit. Elderberries grow wild in most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, but my experience is that many of the best patches are closely watched by local jelly makers. You have to be quick to get your share. You need about three pounds of elderberry clusters.

Sal and Joe are selling produce from Roosterhaven at our local farmers market this year. The beautiful buckets of elderberries in their booth first caught my eye. We bought enough to go with some leftover juice frozen from last summer’s batch of jelly to make six jars of this hauntingly delicious addition to breakfast toast. That’s the lazy man’s way to do it, but the jelly tastes just as good.

Here is how to make it.

INGREDIENTS:

3 cups elderberry juice
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 box Sure-Jell fruit pectin
1/2 tsp. butter
4 1/2 cups sugar
Paraffin

PROCEDURE:

Rinse the clusters of berries in cold water and strip the ripe berries into a three or four quart saucepan. Add about a quarter cup of water to the berries, cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and crush the berries with a potato masher. Simmer the crushed berries for about fifteen minutes, stirring often.

Line a colander with several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a cotton tea towel and strain the juice from the berries. You will need three cups of juice. You can gently squeeze the pulp to extract more juice. If you don’t have quite enough juice, return the pulp to the pan, add a few tablespoons of water and bring the mixture back to a boil. Stir and simmer the pulp for a minutes or two, then strain the pulp a second time.

You can store the prepared juice in a quart jar in the refrigerator. When you are ready to make your jelly, start by measuring the sugar into a bowl and washing and sterilizing seven one cup jelly jars. Set the bowl of sugar aside.

Sterilize the jars by setting them upside down in a baking pan, adding about an inch of water and bringing the pan to a boil. Turn off the heat after two or three minutes and let the jars sit upside down until the jelly is nearly at the first boil. Place the jars upside down on a rack to drip dry.

Put a block of paraffin into a small saucepan over low heat to melt while you make the jelly.

Making the jelly if very simple. Put three cups of juice, the Sure-Jell, and a quarter cup of lemon juice into a four quart saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring the pan to a full boil over high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Skim any foam that appears with a metal spoon as the juice comes to a boil.

When the juice reaches a full rolling boil (a boil that cannot be stirred down) stir in the sugar. Keep stirring while you bring the pan back to to another full rolling boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.

Remove the pan from the heat. Skim off any more foam and turn the jars upright on a sheet of wax paper. Ladle the jelly into the jars, leaving a half inch at the top. Seal the jars with a thin layer of paraffin. Let the jelly cool completely and seal with a second thin layer of paraffin.

Cover the jars with lids, plastic wrap or fabric to keep out dust and store the jelly in a cool place away from direct sunlight.

NOTES: Many years ago we acquired a gravy ladle that looks like a soup spoon with a bent handle. It is the perfect tool for skimming foam from jams and jellies. If you can’t find one like it, use a soup spoon.

If you are nervous about eating jelly made from berries that are poisonous until they are cooked, think about all the foods we enjoy that share this distinction. Kidney beans are a good example. If they are not well cooked, the toxin they contain will make you sick. I prefer chili without beans, but like millions of Americans, I also appreciate a good chili con carne made with kidney beans.

A note about Roosterhaven. You will find the farm on Facebook. On their page, you’ll find photos of some good-looking roosters that may have inspired the name. Incidentally, besides elderberries, Sal and Joe grow some wonderful okra. We use it to make Toni’s Fried Okra.

Cherry Spoon Sweet

Cherry spoon sweet is a wonderful way to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. The flavor is so intense that one or two teaspoonfuls are usually enough to let you return to a diet of celery or baby carrots without feeling cheated.

The only serious drawback to this recipe is that you really need a cherry pitter. Spoon sweet is normally made with fresh sour cherries, but sweet cherries work fine too. Fresh cherries have pits in them, and the pits are virtually impossible to remove from the fruit without a pitter. You either have to buy a pitter or ask your friends if they have one they are willing to lend.
Cherries with pitterWe are fortunate to have such a friend. Rich and his wife Audrey bought a neat pitter that fits on top of a standard Mason jar. You just set the pitter on top of a pint jar, secure it with a canning ring and start pitting your cherries. The pits fall into the jar, making the operation neat and clean.

Spoon sweets probably originated in areas surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. Today they are popular in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Russia. They are a variety of preserve that may be made with many different fruits and even with some vegetables and flowers. Once they have been cooked in the thick syrup, spoon sweets can be canned and stored like jellies and jams so it is possible that they were invented by people who hated to watch fresh fruits go to waste when there were more than could be consumed when they were in season.

If you are like me, you will enjoy making and sharing this lovely dessert with friends and relatives. Give it a try. If it is too sweet for you by the spoonful, garnish a dish of ice cream with some or spread it on your toast at breakfast.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. cherries
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 T lemon juice

PROCEDURE:

Wash and remove the stems and pit the cherries and spread half of them in a medium-sized glass or stainless steel bowl. Sprinkle one cup of sugar over the cherries. Spread the rest of the cherries over the sugar, cover them with the second cup of sugar and gently pour a cup of cold water into the bowl. Tip the bowl to make sure that all the sugar has been moistened.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the refrigerator for about twelve hours. Take the bowl from the refrigerator and stir the cherries to make sure that the sugar has mixed with the water and cherries. Stir gently to keep from crushing any cherries. Pour the cherries and juice into a three quart saucepan. Set the pan over high heat until the mixture begins to boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer the cherries for twenty-five minutes, stirring occasionally and skimming off any foam that forms. Gently stir in the vanilla extract and simmer the cherries for another fifteen minutes.

Put a couple of saucers into the freezer after you stir in the vanilla. When the cherries have simmered the fifteen minutes, take one of the chilled saucers from the freezer and drip two or three drops of juice from a spoon on to the saucer. If the juice is the right consistency, after a few seconds it will barely run when you tip the saucer a little.

This resembles the test used to check if jelly is done. In this case, however, you are testing whether you have a thick syrup. If the drops are runny, continue simmering the cherries for another three minutes, then test again.

When the juice passes the drip test, stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice and simmer for two more minutes. Remove the pan from the stove and set the pan aside to cool.

After the cherries are at room temperature, pour them into a container with a good lid. A quart canning jar works fine.

Store your cherry sweet in a cool cabinet or pantry and serve it by teaspoonfuls in small dessert dishes or over ice cream or yogurt. It will keep several days without refrigeration.

NOTES: Be as careful as you can to keep from mashing the cherries. Part of the charm of this sweet is that the fruit retains its identity in the syrup.

The cherry pitter occasionally misses the pit, so you should be cautious when eating cherry sweet. I have found that it helps to position the cherry with the stem scar upwards towards the plunger.