It always makes me happy to watch the mockingbirds enjoy this fruit in the fall of the year, but I didn't know people could enjoy it just as well. After doing the research, I found that there is one basic jelly recipe all over the Internet, but people were reporting varied success.
For the sake of honesty, I will admit that my first batch of American Beautyberry jelly was a little less than perfect, mostly because I followed the recipe. But it was good as syrup. We enjoyed the syrup on vanilla ice cream, on pound cake which had been spread with homemade yogurt cheese, and on angel food cake.
So I tweaked the recipe a bit. Yes, I added apples and some lemon juice. I also changed the timing. When the all-important "timing" is mentioned in the original recipe, I completely ignore the second hand on the clock and look only at the jelly as it falls off the spoon - I am waiting for the jelly to talk to me and tell me that it is ready.
I harvested about half of the American Beautyberries from four bushes without regard to measurement, leaving enough for the birds. Never having picked these before, I found I was a little heavy-handed at first and squished quite a few before I developed just the right gentle touch required to coax the berries from around the stem. Love the sound as they plink into the stainless steel bowl. Learning from my experience with "wildlife" living on the berries, I placed the covered bowl in the fridge for the night. The next day as I watched some old black and white television shows, I carefully cleaned the berries, picking out any green bits of plant material and any berries which were underripe. The berries had a nice bath in several changes of cool water. Okay, now we cook them to make the infusion.
Place the berries in a heavy pan, just barely cover them with cold, filtered water, bring up the heat, and go pay some bills or make a phone call. About 20-30 minutes later you can mash the berries - use a potato masher, a wooden spoon, a clean 2 x 4 - whatever works for you. I use either my vintage 40s Samson masher, which lost the green paint on the handle years ago, or my Mom's old Ekco potato masher:
(This is NOT the time to use your immersion blender - no, not the food mill or the blender either; you will break the seeds and ruin everything!)
Line a colander with clean cloth (flour-sack dish towels work great) and place over a large bowl, pour in the mashed berry/water mixture, and let it drain without any further mashing or squeezing to get a clear jelly without cloudiness. At this point you can cover and leave the whole set-up in the fridge until tomorrow if you like.
Cut up 3 Granny Smith apples, place in a pan with water, and cook until they are soft enough to mash - time approximately 25 minutes. Give them the same mashing treatment and set them to drain in a separate colander setup. Yes, you people with the well-stocked kitchens and impressive normal coordination could have two pots on the stove simultaneously stirring with two long-handled spoons, but that won't fly in my kitchen. I am dyslexic, so it might just be flying all over the stove.
Pretty much everyone knows the drill about sterilizing jars, so I'll skip to the good stuff.
Using the basics of a recipe which may or may not have originated on the Eat the Weeds blog, possibly as an altered elderberry recipe, I started by measuring the Beautyberry juice into a very large, heavy pot. Didn't have quite enough, so I added the apple juice to measure a full 3 cups total. Add one box of powdered Sure-Jell (yes, I know my favorite pectin is Certo, but I was already messing with the recipe and didn't want to jinx it; besides, Certo is added at the end of the cooking and I'm not re-writing history here) and add the strained juice of one lemon. My mother usually added just a small piece of butter (from a cow, not from a chemical factory) at this point, not even a 1/2 pat, and it would keep the jelly from foaming too much.
Turn the heat on high and have a good long spoon to stir the juice. Keep stirring until the mixture comes to a full, rolling boil. If you have never seen a full, rolling boil with your own eyes, check several YouTube videos - it can be very frightening to see the jelly climb up and almost out of the pot (and can be extremely dangerous and messy if the pot is too small - ask me about my very first experience in my own mother's kitchen! No, she never did forgive me, sorry to say).
(You may want to shut off your phone for a while.)
Now you dump in the pre-measured sugar - carefully because that's hot stuff you are working with (this stuff can spit like lava; the scar remains on my right arm from the aforementioned incident). Keep stirring and don't stop for anything until the full, rolling boil happens again.
It is at this point that most recipes will tell you to watch the clock's second hand for exactly one minute. Some recipes might even say exactly two minutes. Don't believe it. Don't watch the clock. Watch the spoon. Lift the spoon horizontally above the pot, tilt the spoon slightly and watch the liquid coming off the spoon. Do this every 15 seconds and gradually you will see the jelly start to change. It might be one minute, or 1 1/2 or 2 minutes. Don't argue with the jelly. I have had some stubborn jelly that wanted its 3 minutes of fame. It's not rocket science; it all depends on the moisture and pectin content of the berries as well as the temperature of the juice mixture, the barometric pressure, humidity, altitude....hmm, not rocket science, eh?
My little trick was to use the apple juice. Most people who are a little short of juice will add water, and the recipe even tells you to add water. But by adding the juice of the unpeeled cooked apples, I increase the amount of natural pectin in the mix without watering down the juice mixture.
By now, you have all your jars and lids ready to go, so shut off the heat and use a clean spoon to skim off the residue from the surface of the jelly for about one minute. I put the skimmings into a clear jar as some usable jelly will settle to the bottom and provide good samples.
Fill your jars, keep the rims and threads clean, tighten the lids, and either:
- quickly invert the jars so they sit upside down for one minute, then return to the upright position, or
- process in a boiling water bath for 5-10 minutes.
A third option is to pour 1/8 - 1/4 inch melted paraffin wax on the surface of the jelly in each jar making sure the wax seals completely to the edge of the jar. That's going old school. Later you can add little circles of gingham cloth and tie with a ribbon.
Let sit undisturbed for 24 hours in a draft-free location as the jars cool.
What? I can't even have a taste until tomorrow?
Well, sure you can, there is a nice sample in that skimmings jar, remember?
How does it taste? Mmmmm, good and sweet, a little tart, kind of tangy. Oh, and the color...
Remember, even if you mess up with the timing, you may still end up with very colorful, tasty syrup!
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