When I was studying abroad in France, some family friends took me out to dinner at Apicius, a devastatingly good restaurant. When they brought dessert, there were a few things that they served regardless of what we ordered, and one of those things were these little square raspberry things coated in sugar. They were soooo good. But that’s not all; they were the mysterious puciunin that my then-boyfriend used to tell me about (his Piedmontese grandmother called them that). I had tried to figure out what they were, but try googling puciunin – hardly anything comes up. Sure enough, I saw them again at a store in the airport in France (and bought them, of course!), and that was when I found out what the rest of the world calls them: pâte de fruit. Fruit paste, in other words.
They’re not as schmancy as they sound: they’re just overcooked jam. But try these and you may start calling jam undercooked pâte de fruit, because really, what better way is there to eat your fruit? (I’m just so sad that a lot of the nutrients break down at the temperatures required.)
When I got home I tried making them. Several times. I never got quite the consistency I wanted. Puciunin should be a definite solid, but not rubbery. They’re not like jello, either. They’re just right. I made some apple ones that were a little too firm, some apple ones that were too soft, some strawberry ones that were too firm, some pineapple ones that were too soft.
The problem is that pectin is the gelling agent, and pectin is very finicky. It needs just so much sugar,
just so much acid, just so much heat. But the fruit you’re using has an unknown amount of sugar, acid, and even pectin. I considered buying a refractometer and ordering the brand of fruit puree that you can use to eliminate these unknowns, but eventually it occurred to me that I could (more inexpensively) just buy some low-sugar pectin and see if that helped. Low-sugar pectin is still kind of finicky, as you can’t use too much sugar with it, but trust me, these things do not suffer from a lack of sweetness. I’ve also noticed that both kinds of pectin have an acid in their ingredient list, and so I wonder if the acid included in pâte de fruit recipes is actually necessary.
So the other night I found myself with a lot of cranberry juice left over from my cranberry fondant (yes, that’s how long I’ve been sitting on this post), and it was so delicious, except for the fact that the acidity or astringency or both made it undrinkable. But I could tell that it would be delicious if I could get it under control! I thought, you normally make pâte de fruit from puree, but juice could work. It might not have quite the same consistency, and you shouldn’t make this substitution in a recipe you have without taking into account that the juice will have less pectin than the puree, but still… And so, I gave this a shot:
- 2 1/2 cups cranberry juice (not juice cocktail)
- 2 cups sugar (Ok, to be totally honest, I didn’t write this down and I’m not sure if I actually used 2 cups. But it must have been in the ballpark…I know, big mistake.)
- a pinch of cream of tartar
- a packet of low-sugar pectin
I boiled the juice and sugar for a few minutes and then added the acid and pectin. Then I boiled more, and more, and more, continually testing it by spooning a little onto a pyrex pan kept in the freezer (my candy thermometer is being shipped to me
with a bunch of my other stuff that wouldn’t fit in my suitcase). In the end I sort of chickened out – it was just shy of perfect, and I knew if I cooked the pectin too far it would break down and not gel at all, so I stopped there, and poured the whole thing into aforementioned pyrex pan. I let it cool on the counter and then stuck it in the fridge. The next day, I cut it into squares and spread them out on a plate so the sides could sort of dry. They don’t end up feeling dry or anything, they just get a little firmer and less sticky. I think it would have been even better if I had had the patience to flip them over and let the bottoms dry, too. Finally, I tossed them in sugar (sanding sugar is preferable, but I just used regular granulated). This was the test: the bottoms ended up, not visibly wet, but wet enough that the sugar didn’t look white anymore. The other sides stayed dry and white. So I guess that’s the trick to keeping them from weeping and dissolving the sugar and getting sticky: cook them enough, and let them sort of dry out for a while first.
I wish I had added even less sugar, because the wonderful acidity of the cranberries is a little lost. I also think I should have cooked them just ever so slightly longer; but still, I think these pass as pâtes de fruit, and that is a triumph! Who would have thought my most successful try would be the one where I just used juice?