In the mid 1980s we were visiting my in-laws in Utah. It had been an exceptionally wet summer and the high desert was in full bloom. We were quite taken with the beautiful cactus flowers and took cuttings from some of the cacti with the most attractive flowers. Since we were in the high desert, above 10,000 feet above sea level, we hope that the cactus cuttings that we took would survive our Appalachian winters. The claret cup and barrel cactus that we planted at our home in LeSage, WV didn’t survive. However, the prickly pear (Opuntia) or beaver tail cactus thrived in the poor clay soil and crowded out weeds which is a good thing since reaching into a bed of cactus to pull weeds is not a good idea.
When we moved from LeSage to Milton in 1997, we brought some prickly pear cactus cuttings with us and like before, they thrived. The cacti bloom all summer long. Some have large rose-like solid yellow flowers while others have red centers to the yellow blooms. In all cases, fleshy pear shaped fruits form on the edges of the paddles where the flowers formed. In our area, the pears take on a red color ranging from rust to garnet sometime around Veteran’s Day. Warmer and drier summers cause the pears to ripen earlier in the autumn.
We carefully collect about a gallon of the ripe prickly pear fruit. Even some unripe fruit in the mix will not hurt but the jelly will have less of a red tint and the flavor will be less intense. Although the pear fruits are less spiny than the paddles, they still have tiny needles that can be very irritating in your hands. I use kitchen tongs to pluck the fruit and place them in a large pot. The fruits get a good washing in cool water being careful of the tiny invisible spines. If the pears are very large, they can be cut into small chunks or placed whole in a stock pot with enough water to cover. Cook on medium heat until the pears fall apart to a seedy stew. This may take a couple of hours. During this time, the small spines on the fruit are destroyed by the heat.
If you have a food mill, run the cooked prickly pear fruits through. If you do not have a food mill, run them through a kitchen sieve pressing the solids with a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. If you wish, this liquid can be refrigerated and the process can be continued on another day. If you want to complete the jelly making process, measure the liquid from cook prickly pears. For each cup of juice, add two cups of sugar, five teaspoons of powdered pectin and two teaspoons of lemon juice. Cook this mixture over high heat until the liquid reaches the gel point which is about 220o at our elevation.
Pour the hot liquid into sterilized half pint jars and cover with lids and rings. Place the filled jars in a hot water bath and boil for ten minutes. The jelly jars can be stored at room temperature. If your fruits are very ripe, the jelly should have a reddish color. Less ripe fruit yields jelly produces jelly of varying shades of yellow. The flavor of the jelly is slightly citrus but unique and will be the talk of your family and friends.