A lovely, bright, vibrant jelly can be made from the berries of the Callicarpa americana. Yep, it’s All-American and easy as pie! These are American Beautyberries.
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. But iI did manage to make a tasty 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 propped up my legs and 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.
(Before you do this next step please look below for the update, thanks.)
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:
Line a colander with a 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 juice, 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 liquid 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. then 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. Just a small note here. When you add lemon juice it’s okay to use the bottled lemon juice as that has a consistent amount of acid whereas using an actual real lemon does not.
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 for the sticky mess, sorry to say.
You may want to shut off your phone for a while as you really have to pay attention to the liquid as it comes up to temperature. Dump in the pre-measured sugar – carefully because that’s hot stuff you are working with and 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 full 3 minutes of fame. This 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 recipes even tell you to add water. But by adding the juice of the unpeeled cooked apples, it increases 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, hand-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, or
– 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. Granny would be so proud.
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!
Originally published November 2013
When I first wrote this article it wasn’t so much a recipe as a recipe for potential disaster, but for those who asked for measurements I used 4 1/2 cups of sugar to 3 cups of juice, the juice of one lemon which I did not actually measure, one box of powdered Sure-Jell and less than 1/2 pat of butter. Please consult an actual recipe if you attempt to do this at home.
For those who prefer recipes that look as they do in cookbooks:
1 1/2 quarts beautyberries, well washed
2 Quarts filtered water
Boil together for approximately 20 minutes, mash to extract the juice from the berries.
Strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth or a flour sack towel.
Set a large, heavy pot on the stove. Measure 3 cups of juice into the pot, add lemon juice and 1 envelope of Sure Jell plus 4 1/2 Cups of granulated sugar. Stir. Cook over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat. Add a pat of butter. Stir and bring to a boil. You are looking for a full rolling boil. It may take 2 minutes or longer.
Remove the pot from the stove. Wait until the foam rises tot he top then skim off the foam.
Ladle into sterilized jars leaving about 1/2/inch headspace, wipe the rims and threads, add 2-part lids and hand tighten. Please consult a proper canning book for the best way to process the jars.
I learned something from my Plant Sister who lives in Thailand. She told me how to extract seeds. I used her method to remove the seeds from the beautyberries before I cooked them that way the seeds remain viable and can be shared, sold, or planted. Here is the method: Place some of the washed berries into my Oster blender with just enough water. Push a few buttons on the blender. The skin and pulp will rise to the surface of the water and the seeds will sink. Pour off the pulp and water, collecting the pulp in a sieve and the water in a bowl. Pour off the seeds – these will later be cleaned and dried. Reuse the same water to process the berries until all the seeds have been removed. Since I have well water, I used bottled spring water or filtered water for this. This same process can be used to remove the seeds from fresh elderberries.
Update: October 2018
Did some foraging and collected American beautyberries to make jam or jelly. I used the Oster blender to remove the seeds from the pulp so I could share the seeds with plant friends. Here is a dinner plate full of lovely seeds.