Making prickly pear syrup

I knew those canning jars would come in handy some day.
(Syrup is not actually canned, but it looks nice!)

It wasn’t just my affection for prickly pear margaritas that led to today’s experiment. I blame the neighborhood birds, too.

This pear is for the birds! Or, already *was* for them.

I always assumed it would be a lot of work to transform the thorny pears into syrup, but watching the birds systematically and vampirically drain the fruit off the cactus in our front yard, leaving us with desiccated husks that rustled empty at the foot of the plant, somehow flipped a switch in my head. Plus, I woke up one day last year to discover that someone beat the birds to the punch and during the night had removed every last bud from our cactus, which is just rude.

Armed with barbecue tongs, I removed most of the larger pears from the plant, leaving the birds the smaller ones (and the fruit they had already started consuming). As you can see from the thumbnail above — as with all photos in the post, you can click on it to see a larger version in a new window — the pears often come with tiny thorns still attached; I laid the fruit out on the lawn and rolled them back and forth with a leaf rake — the kind with the jittery fingers, not the hard, sharp tines — which helped remove most of the spines.

Photo brought to you by the magic of my camera's “10-second timer” option.

After a quick rinse in a colander inside, I picked each pear up with the tongs again to examine for any leftover spines, which were easily removed with tweezers. Here’s when I started debating whether this whole process would be worth it — especially because a few weekends ago while trolling the aisles at Total Wine, I discovered Finest Call prickly pear syrup for like $4 a bottle. But there were fewer than two dozen spines to be removed out of the whole basket of pears, so the process wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

Don't they sort of look like new potatoes at this point?

Next step: the cooking. The pears went in a big pot with about an inch of water. (Some people prefer to peel the fruit first, since most of the flavor comes from the pulpy inside, but I was aiming for the easiest way possible.) After it went to boiling, I reduced the heat and let everything simmer for about 10 minutes. During that time the pears’ exterior became a little duller and grayer, which was a little disturbing to look at — especially because after it cooled, the next step was to mash them up. A juicer would have made things so much easier, but since I don’t have one, I used a handheld pastry blender: sharper than a potato masher, but still blunt enough to not yield prickly pear hash.

When you lose patience with the drip-drip-drip, you can squeeze the towel to hurry things along.

I poured the juice into a big measuring bowl, then in batches squeezed the pulp against the sides of a fine-gauge wire strainer to capture additional liquid without the omnipresent seeds. Then, for extra clarity, I again ran that liquid through the strainer, which this time was lined with cheesecloth — well, in my case an old dishrag, because I couldn’t find any cheesecloth hanging around.

At this point, I was nervous: This syrup was a beautiful magenta, yes, but it smelled … not delicious. And it tasted worse. Had I picked a peck of prickly pears prematurely?

That's not a reflection — that's white sugar being added to the pan.

Then I realized: Duh, sugar. Prickly pears themselves aren’t sweet — you need sugar (or an equivalent, like agave nectar) to ramp up the flavor. One recipe I found online suggests that you measure how much juice you have, then add sugar in a 1:1 ratio. I didn’t go that far, but it was close. Prickly pears also don’t have a tart/tangy flavor to counterbalance the sweetness of the sugar, so as an enhancer you could add lemon juice (as I did) or citric acid to taste. Then heat gently until the sugar dissolves and you’ve created a thickened, flavored simple syrup.

Looking straight down into one of two large measuring cups.

Finally, it was ready — a brilliant jewel-tone syrup with the right flavor and consistency. I took a full measuring cup outside in hopes of capturing how enticingly beautiful the end product turned out.  “Dammit,” I said at this point. “It’s totally worth making your own instead of buying the bottle at the store.” (Which is only 2% prickly pear puree, according to to the ingredient list.) Luckily, you can find prickly pears at Latin markets year-round. So you shouldn’t scavenge your neighbors’ plants, do you hear me?

I came away with just under six cups of syrup, which I stored in freshly washed antique pint jars with rubber-gasket seals and wire fasteners. One jar went over to my neighbors — one of the full jars, even, and not the 80%-full one that was my selfish first inclination. She told her kids they might use it on pancakes tomorrow morning — “or tonight for dinner,” she admitted to me with a grin. “It won’t last long.”

The other two jars are in our refrigerator; sadly, a few days ago I discovered that we have no tequila in the bar, so margaritas will have to wait.

WHAT SAM WORE: 7-12-11
The cap: Baseball cap by Adidas, from Sports Authority.
I’ve given up trying to find fitted caps that fit my giant noggin,
and have settled for adjustable ones like this one.
The shirt: “Grand Canyon NAIA National Champions 1988” T-shirt,
found at Buffalo Exchange. (Grand Canyon University won.)
The shorts: Cargo shorts by Mossimo, from Target.
The shoes: Running shoes by Nike, from the factory outlet store at Anthem.

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