There’s an old abandoned house on the bike path not far from where I live, with half its windows boarded up and the rest broken out. The roof is beginning to cave in, and every time I pass by I feel a twinge of sadness as I wonder about the people who built the house and planted the fruit trees lining the property. But for a while this summer, the sadness was trumped by joy and anticipation as the fragrant blossoms of spring swelled into thousands of prune plums, weighing down the ancient trees along the bike path.
Last year, I lamented the fact that there were no plums at the farmer’s market due to a late frost (and had to console myself with this mushroom tart). This year was the exact opposite.
The plums started turning ripe in mid-August, and they were everywhere I looked. I returned to the trees several weekends in a row, plastic bags bulging and cutting into my fingers as I trotted back down the bike path. My sister and I picked until we couldn’t carry any more, and we still didn’t even come close to making a dent in the crop. Runners and bike commuters stopped to gorge themselves on plums, and some of the old locals pulled their cars onto the property and loaded up boxes from the opposite side of the fence. All in all, we ended up processing just over 100 pounds, and there were still plums dropping off the tree when we finally cried uncle.
First on the to-make list was plum butter. I made it once a couple years ago, and it’s one of the best preserves I’ve ever tried. Tart and sweet, with complex notes of vanilla bean just below the surface. I love to spread it on toast, swirl it into plain yogurt, and put it in ebelskivers.
Plum butter doesn’t use pectin; it’s cooked down until very thick and then canned. I made several batches of varying thickness, and can tell you firsthand that they are all delicious — some are more like thin preserves, and others are so thick that I have a hard time spreading them. It’s tricky to get a very thick plum butter as you’ll need to stir it constantly at the end to keep it from scorching, but it’s well worth the effort. Even if you end up with syrup, I promise it will be delicious.
Last weekend, I got a text from my neighbor: “The chokecherries are ripe. Get them before the birds do!” And so my plans for the evening changed. I grabbed my buckets and headed across the street, where clusters of tiny cherries glistened on the bushes lining our dirt road.
Chokecherries are a wild cherry that is native across most of the United States, and I’ve been harvesting them ever since I was little. At family picnics I’d tuck clusters of the bright, astringent jewels into my pockets for later, only to be forgotten until laundry day when my mom would open the washer to find a pile of purple-stained dress shirts. There wasn’t much she could say; she got in trouble for the same thing as a kid.
Eaten right off the tree, chokecherries are extremely tart, and they’re mostly pit. But mixed with a whole lot of sugar, their delicious flavor comes out — imagine a much better version of the fake “wild cherry” stuff.
Chokecherries are easy to identify if you know what you’re looking for (namely, serrated leaves and small cherries hanging in clusters). But do a little reading first to ensure you’ve got chokecherries and not buckthorn, which would make for a truly memorable jelly (but not in a good way).
Whenever I harvest chokecherries, I tend to go a little overboard. I look at all those perfect little cherries, hours away from being stripped by the birds and the hornets, and I’m compelled to collect as many of them as humanly possible.
And then two or three hours later, sweaty and mosquito-bitten, I stand staring at 20 pounds of chokecherries that need to be picked through, and I wonder why I always get myself into these situations.
So if you’re going to be de-stemming 20 pounds of chokecherries, or even 5, there are a few things you’re going to need:
Ideally a helper, but only someone with good attention to detail and fine motor skills. They’ll only be creating more work for you if they miss a bunch of stems and/or blemished fruit.
That TV series you’ve been meaning to marathon-watch, books on tape, anything to keep your mind occupied for hours on end.
Cocktails and caffeine, but not too much of either. (Refer back to #1).
This time, I set aside the ripest cherries for a batch of chokecherry wine, and the less-ripe cherries for jelly (since they add pectin and help it set).
I rinse the cherries in small batches (about 1-2 cups) as I pick through them, then once they’re all clean I boil and strain them to make juice for jelly. Or syrup, as the case may be.
The first time I attempted a batch of jelly on my own, my Mom passed down a bit of chokecherry wisdom she got from my grandmother: “If you try to make jelly, you’ll get syrup, and vice versa. So if you want jelly, try for syrup.”
Fortunately, I like chokecherry syrup even better than I like jelly, so I was secretly glad when my first batch didn’t set. For the second batch, I used my neighbor’s tried-and-true recipe and ended up with a delicious, perfectly set batch of chokecherry jelly. So hopefully it’ll work like a charm for you too, but if you get syrup, that’s just part of the challenge.
And a few words about my canning setup: I do most of my canning outdoors now, and I highly recommend doing it this way. While it’s entirely possible to do all of this on an electric stove in a tiny kitchen (and I have, many times) it’s so much better to do all the boiling outside while the cool evening air drifts through the house. It works so well for me that I eventually got a second propane burner and hot water canner so I can have multiple batches going at once, and they’re already getting plenty of use this summer.
The only downside is the mosquitoes, and the fact that it can be a little hard to see the jars at night (but a headlamp fixes that problem).
Few things are as satisfying as lifting jars out of a hot water bath and listening to the *PING!* as each one seals. But picking wild cherries on the side of a road, and then turning them into something utterly delicious? Right up there.
Wild chokecherries grow across most of the United States, and they make a delicious sweet-tart jelly.
About 4 pounds chokecherries, de-stemmed (to make 3 1/2 cups chokecherry juice)**
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 (1.75 oz) box powdered pectin
**About 1/3 of your chokecherries should be underripe, as the additional pectin will help your jelly set. If not, you may end up with syrup, which is also delicious.
Clean 4 or 8 oz. canning jars with new lids
A 21.5-quart hot water canner
Canning funnel and utensils (tongs, jar lifter, etc.)
To make juice:
Place your washed, de-stemmed cherries in a large pot and cover with filtered water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Crush the fruit using a muddler or potato masher and hang it in a jelly bag to strain overnight, or if (like me) you don't have a jelly bag run the cherries through a sieve or foley mill. Allow the juice to settle for a few hours and carefully pour the top layer into another jar, leaving the sediment behind.
Sterilize the jars:
Put jars (a few more than you think you'll need) into a hot water canner and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and boil for at least 10 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and remove from heat. Put jar lids in the hot water and cover until you're ready to use them.
To make the jelly:
Put a few small plates in the freezer to chill (you'll use these to test the jelly). Measure out the sugar and set aside.
Bring your juice to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
Add the pectin and stir until smooth, then bring to a full rolling boil and add the sugar all at once. Boil for exactly one minute and remove from heat. Skim any foam from the top.
Dribble a small amount onto your chilled plate and put it back into the freezer for a minute. Then, pull it out and hold it sideways. If the jelly stays put, it's ready to process.
Process the jelly:
Remove your jars from the hot water bath and drain upside down on a clean towel.
Using a canning funnel, carefully ladle the jelly into your jars, leaving 1/4" of air space at the top. Wipe rims with a clean damp cloth and top with sterilized lids and screw tops. If you have a partial jar do not process it, just use it ASAP.
Carefully place jars in canner, adding boiling water to bring level 2" above jar tops. Bring canner to a boil and then process for 5 minutes, plus additional time for altitude (at 6.000 feet, I process mine for 15 minutes). Find your processing time here.
Remove jars from water bath and allow to cool. Check jars to make sure they have sealed, any jars that don't seal should be stored in the fridge and used first.