There are such things as happy accidents, even in the kitchen. This is the story of one.
I have been cleaning out the freezer to make room for the current crop of berries: raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, loganberries. I always freeze these berries before making jams or other kinds of preserves from them for a couple of reasons. One, I’m too busy in the summer when they’re ripe to deal with them; two, they render more juice after being frozen and thawed. So in my quest to make more space in the freezer, I found a quart bag and gallon bag of rhubarb which I’d sliced and frozen I will not say how long ago. Let’s put it this way—I considered throwing it away, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Surely there must be some way to use it, I thought. I started trawling the internet for rhubarb jam recipes, but all of them called for fresh stalks, and I wasn’t sure how frozen would work. Then I came across a couple of rhubarb syrup recipes. Ooooh, that should work, thought I. While I was in Denver with my daughter, we’d paid a visit to the Ikea store and found some rhubarb syrup for making cocktails and spritzers. It was very good. So the thought of using my old rhubarb for syrup struck a chord. The recipe I settled on is at http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-rhubarb-syrup-pantry-recipes-from-the-kitchn-84304#recipe.
However, as usual, I can’t leave well enough alone. I had eight cups of previously frozen rhubarb, and I put it on to cook with less than the amount of water called for in the recipe because when it thawed, the rhubarb released a lot of water. I used the amount of sugar called for in the recipe but doubled it because I had twice the amount of rhubarb. And I threw a vanilla bean in the pot because I have some beans that must be used soon, and because I saw a rhubarb jam recipe that called for a vanilla bean, and I thought, why not? I got the rhubarb, sugar, vanilla bean, and water simmering on the stove and went out to pull beets. (I also pickled beets the day I made the cranberry-rhubarb butter.) By the time I came back, the rhubarb had really broken down. As in, it was thick! How was I going to make syrup out of this stuff? Also, it was an unattractive beige-y green color. I wanted it red. Most of my rhubarb is not red, so I am used to the greenish color in pies, but in a syrup, I wanted red. Also, if I was going to make jam out of the pulp, as suggested in the recipe, I wanted it to be a toothsome color. Beige-y green is not toothsome. So I threw in a handful of red plums from the orchard tree and a handful of boysenberries Dennis had just brought in. They made no difference at all to the color and no discernable difference in taste.
What did I have, bar food coloring, to turn this rhubarb mess red? Well, beets, but I didn’t think that combination would taste all that great. I went back to the freezer. Didn’t I have a bag of cranberries in there somewhere? Yes, I did. I’d bought extra cranberries at Thanksgiving and frozen them, thinking I’d try some kind of cranberry jam at some point. I had about a quart. I started throwing them in by the handfuls, hoping to see some change in color, until I had thrown in the whole bag. At that point, I tasted the mess and decided that it needed more sugar, although I could have lived with it as it was. I added another cup of sugar. I still wasn’t satisfied with the color, so back to the freezer I went. Wasn’t there a bag of whole cranberry sauce in there? I made too much at Thanksgiving and froze the extra in sandwich bags, then put them in a gallon bag to keep them together. I’d been using it up one bag a time with roasted Cornish game hens. Yep, there it was, the last bag, about a cup and a half of cranberry sauce (which is just cranberries, sugar, and water). I threw that in the pot as well, and finally, as it melted, I had a nice reddish color.
All right, what was I going to do with this stuff now? It had been cooking for some time at this point, and was looking very jam-like, but fibrous, from the broken down rhubarb. It tasted delicious, and at this point, I knew I had a winner in the taste category, but I wasn’t sure what the final product would be. I decided to see if I could get a little syrup out of it, because I thought it would please my daughter. I couldn’t find my jelly bag (remember, I’ve been gone from home for a month—I found it later that day at the bottom of a basket of clean laundry, and for the life of me, I still can’t remember what I used it for before I left!), so I had to improvise with some nylon tulle stuffed into a cone colander. I left the cranberry-rhubarb stuff dripping and went on to work on my beets.
After a couple of hours, with the beets boiling, I returned to the stuff. I had about 2 ½ cups of red syrup in the bottom of the pan under the colander—good enough, says I. I removed the syrup, bottled it in a jar, and got it processing in the water bath canner, while I started rubbing the solids through the colander. I do this the old-fashioned way, with a hardwood pestle. I gave my Squeezo Strainer to my son. I just like the process with the pestle, the way I grew up doing it with my mom.
I ended up with 7 1/2 pints of what I’m calling vanilla-infused cranberry-rhubarb butter. That’s because the consistency of it reminds me very much of apple butter and pear butter: smooth and spreadably thick, rich, glossy, and, by the way, delicious. The pectin in the rhubarb and cranberries thickens and glosses up the butter, just the way apple skins and pear skins do with those kinds of butters. It’s tart-sweet, just the way I like preserves, and you can taste both the cranberries and the rhubarb. Who knew that would be such a great combination? I didn’t. But, yum. Here’s the recipe, should you be inclined to try this yourself. And by the way, the beets turned out beautifully too. You can see some of the heirloom beets in the front row of the pic below, cranberry-rhubarb syrup and butter on the right.
Vanilla-Infused Cranberry-Rhubarb Syrup and Butter
8 cups sliced rhubarb, along with any juice (mine was frozen, then thawed)
4 cups cranberries (mine were also frozen)
1 ½ cups of homemade cranberry sauce (see directions below)
1 split vanilla bean
5 ½ cups sugar
3 cups water
Boil all ingredients together until rhubarb and cranberries are soft. Taste and add more sugar by ½ cup measure until desired sweetness is reached. Remove vanilla bean. If you wish to render syrup, pour the fruit and juices into a jelly bag and hang until it stops dripping. Syrup can be processed as is in sterile pint or half-pint jars in water bath canner for 10 minutes, or thickened by boiling and reducing, then processed for 10 minutes in boiling water bath canner.
For butter: Strain the fruit mixture through a cone colander or other strainer to remove fibers and cranberry skins. If the resulting mash is not thick enough, it can be reduced on the stove top or in the oven until desired thickness is achieved. (I recommend a 300-degree oven, as reducing on the stove top leads to splatters on walls, as my kitchen will attest.) Reheat to boiling, spoon into sterile, hot pint jars and process in water bath canner for 10 minutes. Always adjust processing times for your altitude, if necessary.
Now, if you’re not making whole-berry cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, why not? It’s simple, delicious, and you will know exactly what three ingredients go into it!
Homemade Cranberry Sauce
12 oz. bag of whole cranberries
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Heat water and sugar to boiling, add cranberries, watch ‘em pop! Bring to boil, lower to simmer for 10 min. Remove pan from heat and cool to room temperature to allow sauce to thicken before refrigerating. This stuff keeps forever in the fridge, and it can be frozen and thawed months later.