Most everything that happens in the kitchen is fun, but some things are just for fun. Today’s “just for fun” project was making syrup from prickly pear cactus fruit.
At first glance the dangerous parts of the Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia) appear to be the long bristling thorns on the plant itself. The fruits look innocent enough, however the spots scattered across the surface of the fruit are actually clumps of extremely fine, almost invisible, spiny hairs that are ready and able to penetrate your skin and make your life miserable.
I spent a few years of my squandered youth dwelling in the mountain desert wilderness. In those primitive circumstances I would use a small stone to rub off the prickly hairs while the fruit was still attached to the plant. It could then be safely plucked and eaten.
Now, with civilized implements at my disposal, I use kitchen tongs to pluck the cactus apples and drop them into a paper bag. A small torch works perfectly to scorch the spines and render them harmless. The clumps of tiny spines can be seen to glow under the flame. The skin starts to sweat out the purple juices and becomes easy to peel.
Cactus apples are chock full of seeds which are hard as rocks. I chopped and cooked the fruits to soften them, then strained out the seeds using a food mill and wire strainer.
To keep all the ingredients in the arid desert neighborhood I added agave nectar to the dark purple juice and let it simmer and reduce until it coated the back of a spoon.
I was looking for a viscous molasses consistency but ended up with a nice thick syrup which is not overly sweet. The flavor is subtle but deep and not overpowering. This is a syrup I would like to always have on hand, so I must make more of it while the fruits are abundant and free for the taking.