Prickly pear (Opuntia) is a cactus that is hardy even in the cold winters of the northeastern U.S. and produces an abundance of delicious fruit. Jelly made from prickly pear fruit has fabulous color and taste, but it requires a lot of work. The final product is worth the labor, and if made in large quantities, can be refrigerated for up to six months or canned and stored in the pantry for up to one year.
If you've never dealt with prickly pears, then you should know its name comes from the evident fact that handling the fruit can be difficult and hazardous as its tiny prickles are pernicious. Once they get into your skin, you'll be feeling them for days.
If you don't have any prickly pear cacti growing near you, you can sometimes find the cleaned fruit for sale in late summer. This recipe, however, instructs on how to pick the fruit from the cactus. The ingredients are approximate quantities; learn in the tips below how to measure what you need, as the juice from 40 to 50 prickly pears can vary in volume.
To pick the fruit and prepare the jelly, you will need to gather a 16-ounce/500 mL plastic water bottle, good gloves, tongs, kitchen tweezers (like the ones using for cleaning salmon), a sharp paring knife, a food sieve, and jars with lids to refrigerate or specialized jars to can the jelly.
- 40 to 50 prickly pears
- 7 cups granulated sugar
- 10 teaspoons lemon juice, from organic lemons
- 5 half-lemon lemon peels, from organic lemons
Pick and Prepare the Fruit
To collect prickly pear fruit without getting the painful prickles on you, cut the top half off of a 16-ounce/500-mL plastic beverage bottle and place the bottle around each prickly pear fruit (without touching the fruit) and twist and bend the bottle to detach the fruit from the plant. Drop the fruit directly from the bottle into a sturdy bag or another plastic container.
Use tongs to remove each prickly pear from your collection container.
Turn on a gas stove burner and, using the same tongs, hold each fruit over the flame to burn off all the thorns. Turn the fruit so that the flame touches it on all sides, including the ends. Once ready, drop each pear into a bowl and repeat with the next fruit until you've "burned" all of the prickly pears. If you don't have a gas stove, you can use a lighter, or grill the fruits over hot coals or a gas grill.
Using a paring knife, cut the ends off of the prickly pears. Peel the pears, being mindful that the fruit might still be hot.
Chop the seedy pulp into approximately 1-inch chunks.
Cook the Fruit
Place the chopped prickly pear pulp into a large heavy pot. Cook, over medium heat, for 20 minutes, stirring often until the chunks fall apart and you have a soupy, seedy stew.
Run the simmered prickly pear pulp through a food mill (or sieve or fine-holed colander if you don't have a food mill). Press the liquid and pulp through with the back of a wooden spoon, or use disposable gloves on one of your hands to press the pulp.
Measure the strained prickly pear liquid and any pulp (see tips below). Add as much sugar, lemon juice, and lemon peel as you need.
Return the strained liquid to the large pot where you originally cooked the chunks of prickly pears. Cook over high heat, stirring often until the jelly reaches gel point. This can take 40 to 60 minutes.
Remove the lemon peels.
Fill clean jars with the prickly pear jelly. Fasten lids and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. It is not necessary to sterilize the jars if you are using this refrigerator method.
How to Accurately Measure the Ingredients
As fruit size varies, the volume of juice and pulp that you obtain from 40 to 50 pears can vary greatly. Remember:
- For every cup of prickly pear liquid that you obtained after passing it through a sieve, add 3/4 cup granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
- Add the peel (including the white, pithy part) of half a lemon for every 2 cups of prickly pear liquid. The lemon peel provides pectin so that you get a good gel.
Our recipe has the measurements in excess, so you have at hand more than you might actually need.
Can the Jelly
- If you want to give the jelly more shelf life, pour it into sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. The advantage of this method is that the jelly can be stored at room temperature on a shelf until it is opened. The disadvantage is that occasionally prickly pear jelly separates and turns into a bitter goop when processed.