My father grew up on a farm in rural Montana in the 1930’s (he was born in 1923). He was second to last of ten children. He used to tell me stories of growing up, one of which included how, as kids, they were so hungry for something fresh that they would eat chokecherries right off the tree. While there may have been some truth to the story (it was the depression, after all), I have also met his brothers. And given that they were the kind of brothers who would put a dead fish in your sleeping bag on a camping trip, my guess is a lot of the chokecherry eating was on a dare.
If you’ve ever eaten a chokecherry right off the tree, it’s not an experience you are soon to forget. They are quite bitter, even when fully ripe, and will suck the spit out of your mouth with their pucker. But when cooked down with sugar and love…ambrosia. This bushy small tree, Prunis virginiana, is native to the US, and is found throughout the United States everywhere but the deep south. It likes life along stream banks and is an important source of food for birds and other wildlife, including coyotes and bears.
My husband is a huge fan of chokecherries. He loves the trees, some varieties of which are cultivated as an ornamental. And he love love loves the jam and syrup. One of our first wild food forays, before we were even married, was harvesting chokecherries along the Clark Fork river in Missoula Montana. Prior to Google, that first batch of jam was based on the advice of an aunt (who still lived in the town my father grew up in). She explained how she would keep the seeds with the pulp, chopping them in a blender, and that they added an almond flavor to the finished syrup. I have since learned that the seeds themselves are poisonous (clearly not THAT poisonous), containing hydrocyanic acid (um…that would be cyanide). I can only assume that it boiled off (it has a low boiling point) in that first batch, keeping me from killing off my future husband. Gulp.
So now I don’t use the seeds, and I add a bit of almond extract if I’m looking for an almond flavor. After a bit of experimentation one year with several recipes, here is the one that I consistently use, found on a SureJell website. I like it because it consistently gels, isn’t insanely sweet (some recipes call for twice as much sugar as fruit), and doesn’t call for a lot of water, which just waters down that special chokecherry flavor.
Note that chokecherries are mostly seed. There is just not a lot of juice/pulp per cherry. But don’t let this intimidate you. They are easy to pick, and with a food mill, you can make fairly quick work of 4 lbs of cooked fruit. Personally, I like the pulp, but it makes for a more opaque jam. If you want a more clear jelly, use a jelly bag, and up the amount of cherries you start with, as your yield will decrease.
New to canning? I’m not going to give a lot of details about how to prepare your jars, secure the lids, and boiling water bath canning in general. But it IS important, and you DO need to know it. Please check out this site before you start.
Makes 7 (why do they call them half pint) jars – the original recipe calls for 6, but I consistently get 7 cups out of this recipe, and I hate when you have extra jam and no extra jar ready to put it in. If you don’t fill a jar completely, just stash it in the fridge and eat that one first
- 4 lbs ripe chokecherries (makes 3 cups prepared juice)
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 box powdered full sugar pectin (trust me, you don’t want the low sugar pectin on this one)
- 1/4 tsp butter (to reduce foaming – optional)
- 4 1/2 cups sugar – divided
- 1 tsp almond extract (optional)
Simmer cleaned and rinsed chokecherries with water in heavy bottomed saucepan, crushing with a potato masher once mixture comes to a simmer. Simmer 15 minutes. Run through the finest screen on a food mill (and expect a few seeds to escape and ping around the room). You can also strain through several layers of cheese cloth or a jelly bag instead, but your volume of juice will likely be reduced unless you squeeze the bag.
Measure exactly 3 cups juice into a large saucepan and add lemon juice. Taste (just so I can imagine your face).
Mix pectin with 1/4 cup sugar to help prevent clumping.
Stir pectin into juice in saucepan. Add butter if desired. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop when stirred) on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
Stir in the rest of the sugar (4 1/4 cups). Return to a full boil and boil for exactly 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add almond extract if using (I always forget this in my hurry to get stuff into jars).
Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/8 inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and threads and secure lids. Process for 10 minutes (the recipe says 5, but most jelly/jam recipes call for 10 – and it is an old recipe). Remember, 10 minutes is for sea level up to 1,000 feet. Your time may vary, depending on how high in elevation you live.
Enjoy on PB&J, ice cream, pancakes, yogurt, what have you. Also makes great unusual Christmas gifts.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we still have a bit of chokecherry pulp left in the fridge, and might just combine it with some blueberries for a blueberry-chokecherry jam.