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.
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.
Horsecrippler cactus fruit
Cutting board and sharp knife
Smoothie maker or blender
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.