Wild Cranberry Jellies

Here’s something for the Christmas plate, glowing red jellies to stand out against all those sugar cookies and chocolates.

Wild highbush cranberries grow on the banks of the creek below my house, and when I’m in the canoe I always try to remember where they grow so that I can return when the berries ripen. It seems that they move from year to year, up and down the creek, but that can’t be true. They’re rooted; it’s the creek channel that tends to shift.

If I wait until the leaves have fallen, the ripe berries glow siren-red against the gray and white backdrop. I give my load a good rinse, remove as many stems as I can possibly stand to pick (taking every single one would require OCD-like effort, which I try to keep at arm’s length) and freeze them in bags. Later on, I thaw them in a bowl in the refrigerator, to save the juice.
Among all of the wild fruit available here in the Two Inlets area, I’d say that wild cranberries are among the least popular. For one thing, they grow in cramped, inconvenient spaces, preferring the steepest of creek banks. And they have seeds. And as my neighbor declared one day across the counter at the Two Inlets store, as I was buying lids for potting up my cranberry jelly, “those wild cranberries,” she said,  her mouth in a bunch, “they just STINK.”
I like their fruity, tropical flavor, but my neighbor is right: in the pot they have a somewhat feral odor. Maybe this is because they’re not exactly cranberries (and thank you, Hank Shaw, for your deep woods-knowlege, and the correction) but actually a kind of Viburnum that belongs to the honeysuckle family. (The conventional low-bush cranberry is a Vaccinium, and a member of the heather family.) These two plants ripen around the same time, share a high acidity (and high levels of Vitamin C), and have been mistaken for twins for generations. When cooked, they taste just like cranberries, even if they emit a swampy plume when cooked. No worries, it disappears completely when it’s mixed with sugar.
And I mixed them with plenty of sugar.
My son, a self-professed “sourtooth” himself, loves tart jelly candies more than any other kind of candy, so I decided to make a batch of “pate de fruit,” a staple of the French mignardises plate, that array of tiny candies and cookies that you receive, gratis, at the end of a lengthy meal. In the professional kitchen, they are also known as “energy-sweets easily stolen from the pastry speed rack.” Easy to make and cheap to produce, I’ve known a few pastry chefs to look the other way at the sight of a hand snatching away a pate de fruit.
 I’ve never seen this cube made from wild cranberry, but it’s natural tartness was a perfect match. In searching for recipes that used common powdered pectin, which is easily found in any grocery store, I struck out, but was able to develop this perfectly squishy cube on my second try. (Compared to gelatin, pectin is pretty forgiving and really easy to work with.) I considered rolling the finished cubes in a mix of sugar and citric acid (Fruit-Fresh, found next to the pectin), for a stronger “sour-patch” effect, but in the end the cranberry itself was tart enough.

These jellies hold their sugar coats best if you cut them and let them dry on a rack for a day before rolling them in sugar, and better yet if you use sanding sugar. Should the sugar melt a bit before you serve them, just give them a fresh roll in the stuff.


Wild Cranberry Jellies

14 ounces wild highbush cranberries (12 ounces, 1 bag, conventional cranberries)
1/3 cup port wine
2/3 cup water
5 tablespoons powdered pectin
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups sugar, plus more for coating jellies (or use sanding sugar for rolling)

Rinse the cranberries and combine with the port and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, and cook over medium-low heat until the berries are split and soft, about 15 minutes. Crush thoroughly with a potato masher. Push the cranberries and their liquid through a fine mesh sieve, which should yield about 1 1/2 cups puree.
Return the puree to the clean pot, and whisk in the pectin and lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and cook for 1 minute.
Add the sugar, whisking to combine, and bring to a boil again. Cook at a rolling boil for 1 minute.
Pour the mixture into a square 8 x 8-inch pan. Cool completely before cutting into 3/4-inch squares. Leave the squares to dry for a day, and then toss in a bowl of sugar to coat.

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