The Prickly Pear Jelly Quest of 2009

Warning: Making prickly pear cactus jelly is fraught with risks including, but not limited to: risks associated with driving, shopping for canning supplies, wandering the desert intent on finding the perfect cactus fruits (and therefore ignoring threats from rattlesnakes, gila monsters, tarantulas, javalina, range cattle, cliffs, arroyos, flash flooding, quick sand, and other desert perils too numerous to list), picking the cactus fruits, transporting the fruits, and washing, cooking, crushing and straining said fruits.  They are called "PRICKLY PEARS" for a reason!  Risks also include those associated with various activities in the KITCHEN, and we all know that more accidents happen in the kitchen than any other room in the house!

So...Engage in this activity at your own risk!  

Chris was up visiting during her fall break from school and we decided it would be fun to go in search of the perfect prickly pear fruits for jelly and syrup making.  At the end of September the fruits are usually ready in the Verde Valley so it's only about an hour's drive from home. We gathered the required equipment: clean plastic buckets, tongs and leather gloves, and headed south.  I had a particular patch of desert in mind near Red Tank Draw where Dave and I had ridden with the mules earlier this summer...

We had no trouble at all finding a great spot to pick prickly pear fruits, and in less than half an hour, and only a couple of cactus needle encounters later, we had 2 five-gallon buckets filled.

Filling 2 buckets may have been a bit compulsive...Apparently ONE five-gallon bucket of fruits yields slightly more than five gallons of prepared jelly and/or syrup. 
(Y'all can guess what you're getting for Christmas!)

After a stop at the grocery store for jelly making supplies, we headed home with our harvest.


OK, here are the step-by-step instructions for what we consider to be the
Very BEST Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly EVER!
Wash the fruits by running water into the bucket containing the fruits, overflowing it until the water is clear.  Drain the water out of the bucket by holding a lid against the top, then repeat the washing/draining process a second time.

Transfer fruits to a large pot.  Remember, the fruits still have those pesky needles on them so be careful not to touch them!  Fill the pot with enough water to just cover the fruits.

Simmer the fruits on the stove until quite tender; about an hour.

Turn off heat and allow to cool thoroughly.  If your is a very large pot (like our MONGO pot) it will take several  hours to cool, maybe even overnight.

Next you will need to crush, mash or blend the fruits to release the juice.  I transferred the fruits to a blender using a large cup to scoop them up and pour them into the blender. Again, remember the fruits still have those pesky needles on them!

Now it's time separate the needles and pulp from all that wonderful purple juice!  Set up a sieve lined with 4-6 layers of cheesecloth over a large bowl to catch the juice. Pour the crushed or blended fruit mixture into the sieve, straining the juice into a large bowl or bucket.
If you have a large amount of fruit to strain, you can hang the cheesecloth to drain and set up the strainer with more cheesecloth for consecutive batches.

 I strained the juice a second time through cheesecloth and a single layer of white paper towel just to be SURE all the little prickles are gone and the juice isn't cloudy...


For each batch of jelly you'll need:

2 1/2 cups of prickly pear juice

1 box SureJell powdered fruit pectin (1-3/4 oz)

3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 1/2 cups sugar

12 to 15 Red Hot cinnamon candies


Canning jars, lids & jar rings


Each batch makes about 4 cups of jelly.  If your jelly pot is large enough, you can make a double batch.


Wash and rinse jars; invert in a pan of boiling water for 10 minutes to sterilize while you're cooking the jelly.  Boil jar lids in a separate pot to sterilize and prepare for sealing.  (If you have questions about general canning processes, Google it!)

Combine juice and SureJell in a large, heavy pot, stirring until well mixed.  Heat to a boil.


Stir in sugar, lemon juice and Red Hots. 


Bring to a full, rolling boil; continue boiling, stirring frequently for 6 minutes (at 6900 ft. elevation; if you're at a lower elevation, you may need to decrease boiling time--3 minutes minimum).


Remove from heat and allow to cool just slightly.


Skim an foam off top of hot jelly mixture.


Using a heatproof ladle and a canning jar funnel, fill jars to within 1/2" of top. 


Wipe jar rims with hot water to ensure they are completely clean.


Place hot lid on jar; screw jar ring on snugly. Be careful not to burn your hands--jelly and jars are HOT!


Set jars aside in a draft-free location to cool.  As jars cool you will hear them "ping" when they seal.  Note: After initially tightening jar ring do not re-tighten during cooling/sealing process.  


Sometimes prickly pear jelly just WON'T gel. 
I think it must have something to do with seasonal growing conditions, ripeness of fruits, phase of the moon and alignment of the stars...
If that happens, don't despair; just call it "Prickly Pear Syrup"
and serve it over pancakes, waffles or French toast.

If you want to make syrup on purpose, just omit the SureJell from the above recipe.