Believe me, I’ve been there too. You find yourself in the presence of an abundance of some kind of foraged treasure- perhaps for the first time– and you collect more than you know what to do with. Most of the time these things can be preserved, and we can decide what to do with it all later. For some reason I always seem to envision this taking place on a January day that’s so nasty I can’t even go ice fishing.
Anyway, the time to decide what to do with all those chokecherries has come. If you’re like me, you’ve made a couple batches of pancake syrup and/or jelly, but there are still several bags of berries waiting down in the basement freezer. The good news is, chokecherry syrup and jelly are unique and tireless, at least in our house (I believe every forager owes it to themselves to at least try the pancake syrup). The better news is, you don’t have to restrict yourself to syrup and jelly. If you use your imagination a bit and have the patience to endure a little trial and error, there are lots of uses for your purple tree caviar.
Working with Chokecherries
I’m by no means a chokecherry expert, nor chef, nor baker. However, I have learned some things I think ought to be passed on. First, the chokecherry flavor, while unique and delicious, is not especially strong. As a result, it is usually best paired with other delicate flavors- pancake/waffle, pear, lemon, almond, etc. Second, chokecherries are not inherently sweet, and need a fair amount of sugar in order to begin to reach palatability. Thus, they seem best used in jelly, syrup, and dessert applications. Third, they can be harvested in various stages of ripeness. The younger cherries are redder in color and maintain much more bitterness. The older ones turn such a dark purple they can look black; the juice I’ve extracted from them is darker, less bitter, and may require less sugar to work with. Fourth, I have learned from various sources that the more ripe chokecherries get, the less acidic they are. This probably explains why my second attempt at making jelly failed, and why I can’t seem to get consistent results when working with chokecherry juice and gelatin. You may wish to consider the ripeness of your harvest when planning what to make with it.
The following are a few of the things I’ve done with my own chokecherry harvest this year. Along with so many others on the internet, I offer my own recipes for pancake syrup and jelly. Next I will offer my newer ventures with my own recipes, followed by a recipe for chokecherry pie. Since the foundation of chokecherry cuisine is the “juice” extracted from the berries, I will start with a refresher on that process.
Making Chokecherry Juice
When I want to make some chokecherry juice, one quart bag of berries comes out of the freezer and, once thawed, goes in a pot with several cups of water. Many sources will give exact measurements and times for simmering, but what I’ve found is that a quart bag will mix with about 6 cups of water and yield several cups of good, dark juice once it’s done. I will lightly mash the berries with a potato masher (and only lightly, because the pits contain a cyanide compound that you will not want to release) in order to break the skins and help them saturate the water with the chokecherry essence. I will usually simmer this for an hour or more, perhaps adding water, until I have the volume I need and the color I want- inky, dark purple. This is then strained through cheesecloth and used as the foundation for jelly, syrup, and all the rest.
This is my own recipe for jelly, using powdered pectin, with the juice/sugar ratio I like. The lemon juice is to help ensure the jelly firms up; without it, you can’t be sure your chokecherry juice is acidic enough on its own. Bring juices and pectin to a full boil in a large saucepan, skimming foam if needed. Add sugar and boil hard for 1 minute. Pour into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Clean rims, seal, process in water bath for 10 minutes.
- 3.5 cups of CC juice
- 5 cups of sugar
- 6 tbsp pectin (or 1 package)
- juice of 1/2 lemon
Yield: Just enough for 7 half-pints
Chokecherry Pancake Syrup
A person wouldn’t have to can the syrup or make this much at once; if you only want enough to try it, simply mix at this ratio (3:5). Heat the juice to bubbling in a small saucepan and stir the sugar in. To can, follow standard canning procedures and process in water bath for 10 minutes. A tiny bit of almond extract can be a nice addition, but is not necessary.
- 3 cups CC juice
- 5 cups of sugar
Yield: approx. 6 and 1/2 half-pint jars
This might be one of my best ideas ever. It’s not without labor, but everything worthwhile requires some sacrifice. Anyway, you must first make the lemonade.
- 2 cups of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1.5 cups sugar
In a small saucepan, heat the sugar with 1 cup of water, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved, remove it from heat and set aside to cool. Add 6 cups of water to the lemon juice you squeezed. When the sugar water has cooled off a bit, add it to the lemon water. Stir and chill. I started with someone else’s lemonade recipe, which had 1/2 cup less lemon juice and 1 cup more water. To me, it tasted a bit anemic. You could adjust it to your own taste, but I cannot vouch for how it will mix with the chokecherry flavor.
Next, make the chokecherry drink syrup. Combine:
- 3 parts (3/4 cup) chokecherry juice
- 1 part (1/4 cup) sugar
When the lemonade has chilled fully, it is ready. Pour it over ice and mix the drink syrup in. I found that 8 ounces of lemonade to 1.5 tablespoons of drink syrup is a good ratio. 1 tablespoon did not give quite enough chokecherry flavor, but 1.5 tbsp brought out the chokecherry while preserving the underlying lemonade flavor. To scale up, you’ll need 3 tablespoons of drink syrup for every pint of lemonade, or 3/4 cup per 1/2 gallon.
There are probably lots of ways to do this. I have tried mixing the drink syrup (from the lemonade recipe, above) with both ginger ale and lemon lime soda (Sprite, etc.). The following are general recommendations; feel free to tinker with the proportions to suit your taste. Of course, simply multiply the ingredients to make a full pitcher or punch bowl.
The lemon lime version seems to need more syrup to balance the flavors, but seems to end up fizzier:
- 8 ounces of pop
- 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of chokecherry drink syrup
When mixed with ginger ale, the chokecherry flavor comes out much more, and requires less syrup:
- 8 ounces of ginger ale
- 2 to 3 tablespoons of chokecherry drink syrup
Chokecherry-Pear Tarte Tatin
This recipe was adapted from other, similar recipes. It turns out pears and chokecherry go well together, and even my first attempt was nothing short of delicious.
- 4 firm pears
- 1/2 package (17.3 oz) of frozen puff pastry dough
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup chokecherry pancake syrup
- Roll pastry dough out onto lightly floured surface according to package directions. Roll & cut to slightly larger than the size of your skillet. Refrigerate on a plate.
- Peel, halve, core pears. Save one, cut the rest in half again.
- Melt butter in a 9-inch skillet over medium heat. Mix in sugar and stir until butter and sugar are combined, bubble slowly, and begin to darken in color. Mix CC syrup in. Remove from heat when this begins to bubble again.
- Put pear half in middle of skillet, cut side up. Arrange pear quarters around it.
- Place back on medium-low heat, simmering lightly for 5-10 minutes, until pears show signs of softening. Turn off heat.
- Place puff pastry dough over skillet contents, tucking around the sides of the pears.
- Bake in 375 degree oven until pastry is golden, 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven to cool 5 minutes. Turn skillet over into pie plate or suitable serving dish to cool. Ideally served still warm.
This recipe comes from the booklet “Fruits of Your Labor,” a compilation of recipes for chokecherry, juneberry, currant, and more, from the Colorado State Forest Service. The pie I made retained some of that less-ripe flavor from the juice; it might work better with the juice from black-ripe chokecherries. Overall, I’d have to rate it “OK,” but I’m glad I tried it. Maybe someone with more expertise could tweak it a little and bring it up a notch or two.
- 2 cups chokecherry juice
- 3 level tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup sugar
- small pinch of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 (9-inch) baked pie shell
Mix cornstarch into cold chokecherry juice, combine with sugar, salt, almond extract in small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. Cool. Pour into pie shell, chill well. Serve with whipped cream.
For more general information on chokecherry harvesting, including information pertaining to habitat, identification, and season, visit my previous blog post: Foraging in Minnesota- Focus on Chokecherries