Experiments in prickly pear



I just finished reading The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver; a book about Mexico and Frida and food. It’s the sort of rambling, saga type novel that I often struggle to get into but every time the book lost me (by changing countries or skipping sections of the narrative or not having Frida in it for ages at a time) it managed to loop me back in again. I liked it a lot. So much so, that last week when I went to the grocer, it inspired me to buy prickly pears. I texted my mum about this (she has also read the book) and she told me I was crazy. This is possibly true.


I’ve long wondered what exactly possessed the first person who ate a pineapple. Pineapples are openly hostile – deciding to cut one open and eat it, still seems like a mistake every time I do it. Pineapples, it turns out, have nothing on prickly pears. Despite the fact that the prickly pears I bought had the spines removed, they were still covered in all these hair-thin needles that worked their way into my skin like splinters. I was not, I’ll admit, completely convinced that this was a thing I should have anywhere near my kitchen and/or mouth.
But then you cut them open (having washed them a heap and while wearing gloves) and you discover that prickly pears are just so pink. They’re gorgeous. Just completely incredible. I’ve tried and failed to think of something to compare the taste to. It’s subtle. Vaguely grassy in the way that dragon fruit and pomegranates are but much sweeter and gentler. Also kind of savoury? They taste pretty good.
Google suggested that a good thing to make would be cactus candy. This looks to be a sort of Turkish delight style gummy sweet? It looked easy enough? I was sure it would be fine that I couldn’t really find a recipe and would have to make it up. It would be easy! What could do wrong!
You might have guessed by now that this is not a post about how to make cactus candy because I actually have no idea. The way I attempted to make it was to peel, chop and blend a bunch of prickly pear and then simmer it with a bunch of jam sugar (which has pectin in it). This, quite logically, made jam. It did not set into quivering cubes of jelly. I tried cooking it down again, adding more sugar, heating it to a higher temperature. This basically succussed in making the whole mixture less pink and more orange. I put it into silicon moulds and tried setting it, in the fridge, in the freezer. I tried rolling the gooey mess in icing sugar and leaving it to dry out. None of this worked. What I had made did not at all resemble candy.

I also just completely trashed the kitchen about four times in this whole process. I have learned that failed cactus candy is incredibly sticky and tends to just get everywhere. So much mess, you guys. So much mess. I am extremely proud of myself that every single time I trashed the kitchen, I cleaned it up right away. I am very impressive.
I tend to think of cooking experiments (especially of the sweet variety because I am worse at them) as an exercise in self-esteem. Failures build resilience and adaptability. Also if you are not in a good head space, sometimes they can make you cry. Failed cooking experiments, much like broken crockery, are like a sort of litmus test for my current mindset. Failed cactus candy did not make me cry. I was very calm and came up with creative solutions. I’m doing pretty good at the moment, thanks for asking.
In the end (after two days of experimenting) I decided to ditch cactus candy. Instead I made jam drops and cordial. Luckily (and not intentionally) everything I made still alliterates: cactus cookies, cactus cordial, cactus cocktails.

I made the jam drops using the Donna Hay recipe (in ModernClassics 2). The cactus jam oozed out of the biscuits and set hard, like toffee. They are not the most attractive or structurally sound biscuits I have ever made but they taste good. The cactus has a slightly savoury taste that actually works really well. Often jam drops are just unrelenting sweetness. These (while, look, still sweet) are chewy and a tiny bit bitter. Cactus cookies: good.

I made cordial by diluting a bunch of the failed candy down with some water. I added a little bit of food colouring to make it pink again which felt like cheating but, in my defence, the syrup was pink before I tried to make it into candy. I mixed it with tequila and soda water. Then garnished it with mint and some watermelon I’d soaked in rose cordial. Tada! Cactus cocktail. Oddly (like the cookies) it wasn’t that sweet. Despite having just so much sugar added to it, the syrup was pretty gentle. In a turn of events which surprises nobody, cactus (cordial) goes pretty well with more cactus (tequila). 
I think if I buy prickly pears again, I will probably go straight for cordial. I liked it best. Or maybe make jam on purpose? Even then, the whole process (even without the failed candy elements) is still pretty fiddly. I feel like it’s something I’d like to experiment with more but I’d probably need a decent excuse to do it? Like making presents. Or a party. 
In conclusion, if anyone wants to come to mine for a cactus party, I would be up for that.

Further reading

December – home

I spent the first minutes of 2018 on the beach. I’ve never actually spent New Year