Life in the Desert – Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly !



Music – “Don’t Sit On a Cactus” from Don’t Sit on a Cactus by Joel Frankel. Released: 1997

It’s that time of year around New Mexico, when the Prickly Pear cactus fruits begin to ripen to their luscious deep red colour and you only have one chance a year to make Prickly Pear Jelly. So, don your elbow high leather garden gloves, long-handled barbecue tongs and a couple of paper bags and trip carefully through the cactus in your yard!

When I first moved to New Mexico in 1994, I didn’t realize that those beautiful fruits that ripened on our cactus in the fall were edible. The second year, I caught on and made my first batch of jelly. Over the past few years, even though all cacti species are drought tolerant / drought resistant, even our 20-year-old Prickly Pear patches suffered and produced very little fruit. This season, however, there were enough fruits to whip up a batch of jelly, and so I did just that.

The recipe I used, “Prickly Pear Jelly” is from “Fruits of the Desert” by Sandal English, published by The Arizona Star in 1981. The book contains recipes for a multitude of desert fruits, berries and seeds, including numerous pages for using cactus fruits. The recipes are gathered from readers of the newspaper and the recipe I used was contributed by Gloria Thomasson of Tucson, AZ. The instructions follow below the photos:

NOTE:  for this season (2017), I used a different approach.  I blanched the fruits in boiling water for about 2 minutes, then speared each with a fork, and peeled.  This way, the skin comes off easily, without any of the million tiny prickly spines.  Then, I just followed the rest of the steps, above, however, I didn’t need to strain through cheesecloth this time.  Just a strainer to capture the seeds.  Much easier in the long run, but more labour intensive!)

Gather and wash 3 quarts of fruit, using gloves and tongs. Place the washed fruit into a large 6 quart kettle with 3 quarts of water. Cook for 20 minutes (I cooked mine for about 40 minutes, due to the altitude adjustments needed). Briefly remove from the heat and mash the fruits with a potato masher. Strain the juice through several layers of cheesecloth.

Although the recipe indicates that you should be able to obtain about 8 cups of juice, it wasn’t enough, so I proceeded with another batch in order to get enough juice.

Measure 4 cups of juice into a large kettle and add juice of ½ lemon and 3 cups of sugar. Bring to a boil. Add another 3 cups of sugar and bring to a boil again, stirring until it reaches a full boil. Add 2 packets of liquid pectin (or 1 bottle) and continue cooking over high heat for 15 minutes (I cooked mine for 30 minutes)(In addition, I located an article in an old edition of The Albuquerque Journal, about making Prickly Pear Jelly. The author indicates that Prickly Pear fruits, like pineapple and kiwi, contain enzymes, which can cause the proteins in gelatin to break down. Sure enough, my jelly was not truly at the point of being able to gel, so I added 2 additional teaspoons of granulated pectin and this seemed to do the trick) Although the recipe indicates that the 4 cups of juice makes 6 glasses of jelly, my fruits were not as juicy, I think, and my two batches of 4 cups each made a total of 7 jars of jelly.

After all is said and done, the jelly with all of that sugar, is not surprisingly, extraordinarily sweet, although you can still taste the prickly pear fruit through the sugar. Next time, I’m going to cut back on the sugar or use a substitute, such as blue agave nectar and adjust the recipe accordingly.

Whoever said that nothing worthwhile grows in the desert was just plain wrong!

My EatYourBooks cookbook collection

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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2 Responses to Life in the Desert – Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly !

  1. Thank you so much for the great article, it was fluent and to the point. Cheers.

  2. Taina Juart says:

    Thank you so much for the great article, it was fluent and to the point. Cheers.

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