It’s time. The bushes are heavy with ripe Nanking cherries, and the birds haven’t managed to get at them all – Nankings are those small, brilliant red cherries that grow up against their branches, rather than dangle on stems like a Bing or Evans. A kind neighbour took pity on me picking cherries out by the road and brought me a bag she had picked from her back yard. This is what I call being neighbourly. (And yes, she got the biggest jar on her step this morning.) Nanking cherries are perhaps my favourite foraged fruit – and yet there’s not a lot you can do with them. They’re juicy but pit-heavy; I’ve heard of people pitting theirs to make pies, but can’t imagine what you’d be left with. I’m not sure I’m up to the task.
It’s much easier to dump all you can manage to pick into a big pot, add a bit of water, and coax them to release their juice on the stovetop, mashing with a potato masher to relieve the pits of their flesh before pouring the ruby sludge through a sieve into a bowl. What you wind up with is this brilliant red juice that can be sweetened into syrup to use in cocktails and sparkling water, or simmered with sugar, lemon juice and a bit of pectin (for insurance purposes) to make crazy lovely jelly.
A paper muffin liner makes an easy jar label – with a built-in skirt! And I sprayed some snap-on lids with chalkboard spray paint. I’m so Pinterest-y.
I’ve never attempted Nanking cherry jelly without pectin as a backup – mostly, I think, because the bushes are few and far between and I didn’t want to have to find more; also because most recipes out there call for packaged pectin. But this jelly sets up so quickly and easily – and is so solid – that I suspect it would work with less or even no added pectin. And if for some reason it doesn’t set, we already know the syrup could be put to perfectly good use – if not in Prosecco or a G&T, drizzled over pancakes – so that’s hardly a problem.
The problem with most jam and jelly recipes is that they call for a specific measurement of fruit, and when you’re picking your own, you’re not likely to come up with an exact number. Most recipes I found for Nanking cherry jelly called for around 16 cups, and I only wound up at around 13 because a kind neighbour took pity on me picking cherries out by the street and came out to share an enormous bag she had harvested from her back yard. But if you have less, you can still make jelly – just go by the quantity of juice you manage to extract, and add sugar (and pectin) accordingly.
Nanking Cherry Jelly
Put as many cherries as you’ve managed to pick into a large pot, add half a cup to a cup of water (less than a cup if you have under 8 cups of berries; a cup if it’s more?) and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook until the cherries soften and start to release their juices, mashing occasionally with a potato masher.
Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl – or use a jelly bag if you have one. Leave it if you want a clear jelly, or swirl a spoon around in the sieve to coax out as much juice as you can. (This is what I do.) When you get out as much as you can, toss the sludge with all the pits in it, and put the juice back into the pot.
Measure out about as much sugar as you have juice and set it aside. Add about 1 Tbsp. lemon juice per 2 cups of juice to the juice, and shake in some packaged pectin – I had about 5 cups of juice and used about half a package. (Most recipes call for a packet for 6 cups of juice; you can totally guesstimate here.) Bring the juice-pectin mixture to a full rolling boil, then stir in the sugar. Bring it back to a full, hard boil for 2 full minutes – this means a rolling boil you can’t stir down. Remove from the heat and skim any foam off the surface. Ladle into hot, clean jars, seal and cool.
Makes as much as you like.