Tag Archives: ice cream

Horsecrippler Ice Cream Project, Episode One

Backstory: a few years ago, the big Triffid Ranch project, before the gallery, was attempting s culinary project involving Echinocactus texensis, the barrel cactus commonly known in West Texas as “devil’s pincushions” or “horsecripplers.” After confirming that their other name, “candy cactus,” was due to the bright color and shape of their fruit, and not because the fruit was used to make candy as commonly claimed, the grand experiment involved using horsecrippler fruit as a base for homemade ice cream. The experiment was inconclusive, but intriguing enough that the intention was to try again. The setup and opening of the gallery intruded on future plans to try again, and the project remained fallow. We now go to the next part of the tale, already in progress.

By the beginning of 2018, all the signs of a potential bumper crop of horsecrippler cactus fruit were all there. The previous summer had been hot but not brutal, and winter temperatures were cold enough to encourage dormancy but not so cold as to stunt or kill the cactus. All of that went out the window in mid-March, when a series of cold fronts brought temperatures down to about freezing, throwing off schedules for blooming and fruit set. A trip to the area around the town of Mineral Wells confirmed the absolute worst: normally, one of the only times when horsecripplers were easy to spot in situ was around the end of May, when the fruit ripened and those little neon red bombs made the rest of the plant visible. An extensive search through the area turned up nothing: when horsecripplers don’t want birds to find their fruit, they don’t want to be found at all. The only ones found were right next to residences where they were a potential threat to people and animals, and the fruit were tiny and green. The same situation was true of the horsecripplers in cultivation by the greenhouse, and it looked as if that late cold killed the crop for the season. Plans for horsecrippler ice cream were dashed for 2018.

Echinocactus texensis

Well, that was the idea. Horsecrippler season was just delayed this year, by about two weeks. Suddenly, every last cultivated horsecrippler that flowered earlier in spring looked up, checked the clock, and screamed “We’re late!” A week before, a couple of green fruit the size of raisins were all that could be found. Now, big, fat, juicy ripe fruit, easily removed from the cactus. The first stage of the Ice Cream Project could begin.

Items needed:

Horsecrippler cactus fruit

Kitchen tongs

Cutting board and sharp knife

Smoothie maker or blender

Cheesecloth

Freezer containers

The two things to remember about gathering cactus fruit are that the purpose of that fruit is to transport seeds, and that the bright colors of most cactus fruit aren’t necessarily there to entice humans. The descriptive name “candy cactus” probably referred to the look of the fruit, not the taste, as fruit on the plant looks like a cluster of wrapped candies. The wrapper, officially known as the corolla, is the remnant of the bloom, and it has a definitive purpose here. Horsecrippler seeds are best spread by birds as they eat the fruit and spread the seeds in their dung, so the idea is to attract birds with bright coloration while dissuading everything else. The corolla does a masterful job of dissuading, as it has all of the softness and mouth feel of a dried thistle bloom. The fruit doesn’t have actual thorns or hairs the way prickly pear fruit does, but that corolla is still too sharp and spiky to grab with bare hands. That’s where kitchen tongs come in handy: a slight twist and ripe fruit just pulls free.

Now the real fun begins. While the corolla makes a handy pull-tab when removing the fruit, you definitely don’t want chunks of it in the next stage. To the cutting board all of it goes, to cut off corollas and any squishy or bruised parts and wash what’s left. A handy tip: when disposing of the corollas, don’t add them to your garden unless you really like pain. They tend to survive months in the garden, just as spiky as they were when dumped there, so try to bury them either deep enough or enough out of the way that they won’t turn up with a random raking. Your feet, knees, and hands will thank you later.

With access to a cutting board and sharp objects, now is a perfect time for a bit of botanical anatomy. Horsecrippler fruit really don’t have enough pulp to make it worth the effort to skin the fruit the way you would with prickly pear, and the peel actually adds what subtle flavor it has. In addition, the pulp is full of small but very tough seeds, the better to pass through a bird’s gizzard, and helping yourself to the pulp now is very much like chewing a spoonful of very sticky aquarium gravel. To continue requires removing those seeds, and that requires…

(*in Red Green voice*)…the cactus preparator’s secret weapon: a smoothie machine!  In actuality, any blender will work well, but aside from sentimental reasons (I picked this up in Tallahassee the same exact weekend I encountered my first carnivorous plant in the wild), having a stirring stick that can push down and stir fruit without opening the top is awfully handy. After the fruit is washed and dried, just drop everything in here and blend away. A little warning though…

THIS is why you don’t want to use the spout on a smoothie maker. Prickly pear seeds are large enough that they’re filtered out by the spout opening, allowing the resultant juice to drain out through the spigot. Prickly pear fruit also produces a lot more juice: horsecrippler fruit have proportionately more peel and pulp, so capillary action keeps the juice bound up with the rest of the pureed pulp. A little juice will escape, with enough seeds going along with it that closing the spout is nearly impossible.

Likewise, don’t bother putting the pulp into a colander or strainer. Even if adding additional water or other fruit juice, the pulp will just suck it up and refuse to drain. The best option is to pour the pulp into cheesecloth, and squeeze out the juice into a freezer container. The temptation will be strong to taste that juice, and that’s when you discover why prickly pear and dragonfruit are the only cactus fruit commercially raised for food. “Subtle” is a nice way of describing the flavor, with a touch of starchiness. The main attraction is the neon color, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this. Just pour that juice into freezer containers if you aren’t going to use it right away and freeze it: from previous experience, it freezes well and keeps for months. As for the remaining pulp, you can attempt to grow new horsecrippler cactus from the seeds (a longterm venture, as horsecrippler cactus are VERY slow-growing), or you can set out the pulp and seeds to delight the local songbirds. Set up a platform near your cat’s favorite window, and get double satisfaction from watching happy birds and listening to anxious and nearly incontinent cats. Win/win.

As for what to do next, well, that’s a reason to check back for Episode Two. It’s going to be a busy weekend.

One for the books: horsecrippler cactus ice cream

It’s one thing to debunk the story of the horsecrippler cactus Echinocactus texensis getting the nickname “candy cactus” because it was used for making candy. The real test is to see if horsecrippler cactus fruit juice adds any significant flavor to an existing sweets recipe. To that end, the Czarina, our old friend Mila, and I became probably the first humans on the planet to try horsecrippler cactus ice cream.

Horsecrippler cactus ice cream

Truth be told, it wasn’t that big a deal. The reality is that while the cactus fruit juice made an excellent colorant, the juice had almost no flavor on its own. When submerged in ice cream ingredients, the only way to tell the difference between it and commercial food coloring was that the slightest aftertaste of fruit kept appearing while eating it. Even after letting it set in the freezer overnight, the final ice cream was a novelty, but had no particular reason to make it again other than for that novelty. It might be possible to get about 50 pounds of fruit, puree and press it for the juice, and then reduce the juice into a syrup, but there’s no real guarantee that the syrup would be distinctive other than for the novelty, either. Worse, to get that amount of fruit requires a commercial growing operation, and the fact that horsecripplers need about 20 to 40 years of growth before they bloom pretty much kills that market before it starts.

It wasn’t a complete loss. If nothing else, I can state with authority that if anybody tried to make candy from horsecrippler fruit, it was purely as an option to fend off starvation or scurvy. I can also state that horsecrippler fruit puree makes a very handy alternative mix for henna tattoos, Easter egg dyes, and countertop refinishing kits. I’m now tempted to take the last of the fruit still on the cactus, slice it into quarters, drop it into 750ml bottles of vodka, and give these out for holiday presents when they’ve finished steeping. But for a new taste sensation? We’ll try it again with prickly pear when those fruit ripen at Halloween.

Killing Rumors, One Experiment At A Time

In an essay reprinted in the collection Bully For Brontosaurus, the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould brought up the seeming anomaly of referring to the early “dawn horse” Eohippus (known today as Hyracotherium) as being the size of a fox terrier, and how this strange analogy kept perpetuating through science textbooks and popular science writing for nearly a century. The question wasn’t so much wondering why this was repeated over and over by lazy writers, but wondering “why an obscure dog breed like a fox terrier, and not an animal commonly encountered by average people, such as a cat?” (The story of this analogy is a fascinating look into palaeontology in the late Nineteenth Century, and this alone is worth the cost of the book’s purchase. Don’t just stop there, though: the title essay still makes an excellent point twenty years after its publication. But I digress.)

This sort of repetition without verification runs through many natural history references, particularly any such references involving Texas natural history. By way of example, while engaging in further research into the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis, most of its common names make sense. “Horsecrippler” is both self-explanatory and extremely accurate, and “Devil’s footstool” works as well. However, it was also referred to as “candy cactus” in many areas of its range, and popular guides declared with authority that “early settlers used to make candy from the fruit.”

Now, speaking from experience, there is such a thing as cactus candy. Specifically, it’s candied prickly pear fruit or sometimes young prickly pear pads. In fact, entrepreneurs make a whole list of interesting food items from Opuntia cactus fruit. These can range from toasted halved fruit, commonly called “tuna” through the state, to jellies, syrups, and even margaritas. Considering the voluminous output of Opuntia fruit when it goes ripe in October, that’s not surprising. The problem comes when well-meaning amateurs hear about prickly pear jelly, figure “I can do this, too,” and fire up the old double boiler to make a batch with a bushel basket of fresh fruit. That’s when they discover a very valuable lesson: there’s not that much in the way of flavor in cactus fruit.

Now don’t get me wrong. Based on what few nutritional estimates are available, cactus fruit is good for you. The problem is that it’s generally not intended for us mammals. Much like chile peppers, the main vector for cactus seeds is the gut of any number of birds, all of which spot the bright colors on ripe fruit and rush down to take advantage of the bounty. Since birds are rather lacking in taste buds, their interest in the fruit comes from the color, so natural selection didn’t swing on flavors. Today, the only commercially raised cactus fruit come from either Opuntia or the various dragonfruit species (Hylocereus spp.), and even dragonfruit junkies such as myself would never describe them as particularly vibrant in flavor.

But the “candy cactus” appellation kept gnawing at me, so it was time to experiment. Trying a sole ripe fruit was a chore, as it combined a thick rind with tough black seeds with all of the flavor and consistency of freshly washed aquarium gravel. It was just sweet enough, though, that I could see this being used to make candy, if only one collected enough fruit. This spring’s odd weather produced enough fruit, and all of the E. texensis at the Triffid Ranch went mad this year.

Cactus fruit on the plant

As another sign that the cactus needs bird and not mammal sowers of its seed, ripe horsecrippler fruit is both attractive and repellent. The attraction comes from the brilliance of the rind, obviously, but it’s not easy to reach. The shriveled corolla from the bloom is as spiky and irritating as a dried thistle bloom, and a lot stronger. Meanwhile, the fruit itself is covered with tufts of what looks and feels like freshly spun fiberglass, and I imagine that it tastes much the same. I could see, and have seen, crows and bluejays ripping apart the fruit to get at the pulp, but I could see the corolla stopping anything short of the hungriest cow or pig.

Fruit on Davros

As I mentioned, this was a good year for horsecrippler cactus fruit. Even the monstrous cristate cactus we nicknamed “Davros” bore fruit this year. These were kept separate from the rest: most popular reports on cristate cacti note that any seed they produce is nonviable, and this is going to be tested next. Considering what I learned next, it’s understandable that I plan to verify any assumption about this plant with direct observation.

Plucking cactus fruit

Between corolla and micturating hairs, E. texensis fruit isn’t something you want to grab with bare hands, and most cactus-resistant gloves are a bit too clumsy for something as squishy as these. Anyone who works with cactus knows that a pair of standard kitchen tongs belongs in the toolkit, and they came in extremely handy during harvesting. Get a good grip on the corolla of a ripe fruit, wiggle a bit, and it pops free like a bad tooth.

Plucked cactus fruit

A closeup of a plucked fruit shows its various anti-mammal defenses. Those spines and hairs could still be stuck in my hand.

Gathered cactus fruit

Okay, give twenty minutes to denude the horsecripplers, and the bounty shows a basic flaw in the logic of these being used for candy. These cacti are kept in special soil mixes and fertilized on a regular basis, so they produce significantly more fruit than what a typical horsecrippler in the wild grows every spring. In fact, from personal observation, I’ve never noticed more than three fruit on a wild horsecrippler at any one time. Considering that horsecripplers spread out over a large range, anyone wanting to collect these for candy would have to walk a lot to get enough to make it worth the time. Either the candy finally produced was the greatest taste sensation ever produced in this state, the diet of a typical West Texas settler was so insanely monotonous that horsecrippler fruit was a godsend from a steady menu of chicken-fried steak and pinto beans, or…or the nickname “candy cactus” came from the fruit’s vague resemblance to wrapped candies and not from the flavor after all. Well, time to test.

Washed cactus fruit

After chilling the fruit in the refrigerator overnight, it’s time to see what we can get out of them. Before anything else, washing is vital, as it washes away those irritant hairs along with bird crap, bug crap, dust, dirt, air pollution, and the occasional dead stinkbug hiding within the fruit. Rinse it a bit, and it’s time for processing.

Snipping cactus corollas

As mentioned before, the seeds in horsecrippler fruit have all of the appeal and attractiveness of fresh aquarium gravel, and they’re about as easy on the teeth. I’ll bet that they’re chock full of vitamins A and D from oils therein, but without a metate, said oils are a bit hard to access. Therefore, this experiment involved pureeing the fruit, straining out the seeds, and working from there. Since the corollas are about as delectable as the seeds, each and every one needed to be snipped off with a pair of kitchen shears beforehand. That’s another reason why washing the fruit beforehand helps out, as it softens the spines and edges on the corollas, making this activity a lot less onerous than it could be.

Smoothie machine

For the actual pureeing, I had several options, but the best involved an old smoothie maker I purchased a decade back. Not only did it have blades specifically designed for liquefying fruit of all sorts, but it had a convenient stirring rod to help get chunks of fruit into the path of the blades. Even better, it also had a spigot for draining off the juice if the pulp and seeds floated to the top.

Cactus fruit in blender

Drop in the fruit, close and lock the cover, turn it on, and we get…

The smoothie maker aftermath

…glop too thick to pour through the spigot. However, it has a great color, suggesting a high nutritional content, and it can be poured into a strainer.

Pureed cactus fruit

Well, so much for the idea of the seeds floating to the top. The whole mix went into a fine strainer to draw off the juice, with the hope that it might produce enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Cactus juice

Yeah. Sure. After draining overnight, all that effort produced maybe a cup of juice, with said juice being about as appetizing as the seeds. This might improve when heated to break down starches into sugars, but anyone expecting an insane flavor sensation might want to keep walking, if you know what I mean.

Drained cactus pomace

There’s also the pomace, which isn’t enough to put to some particularly innovative use as with grape pomace left over from wine production. However, the tangling with the smoothie maker blades probably scarified the seeds to where they’re more likely to germinate, so they’re getting dried and then spread in the original ranchland where they originated. The experiment was a failure, but at least it might help perpetuate this fascinating cactus in the wild.

Well, the initial experiment was a failure, but there’s still that juice to work with. If nothing else, it’s going into a batch of homemade ice cream, and a select group just might be the only humans ever to state, with photographic proof, that they’ve eaten horsecrippler cactus ice cream. That sound you hear comes from the heads of a whole herd of obsessive foodies, all popping like ripe zits.