Serious technique creates fun, one-bite jelly gems

Pastry chef Jillian Rosenberg of Aka Bistro adds sugar and pectin to raspberry puree. Pastry chef Jillian Rosenberg of Aka Bistro adds sugar and pectin to raspberry puree. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2011

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The French jellies called pates de fruit (pronounced paht-deh-frwee) are jewel-toned squares with a tender-chewy bite and intensely fruity flavor. A coating of sugar crystals gives them a delicate crunch and delightful sparkle. A waiter might set down pates de fruit after the desserts have been cleared, or at the very end of a meal beside the check. The little homemade candies charm diners.

Jelly candies and fruit slices, those half-moon-shaped candies popular for decades, are standard Passover treats because the ingredients comply with food restrictions of the weeklong holiday. Think of pates de fruit, a centuries-old technique that is enjoying a revival now, as the next rung on the confectionary ladder. Where half moons are sparkling grape juice, the French candies are Champagne. The recipe is a precise and precarious balance of fruit, sugar, pectin, and acid. I turned out wiggly, stiff, grainy, and mealy pates de fruit. One batch never gelled, but it could be eaten with a spoon. (Delicious!)

Pates de fruit are one of the many sweets that pastry chef Susan Abbott prepares as one-bite desserts at Cambridge’s Rialto restaurant. “It’s a little thank you to our customers’’ says Abbott. At Aka Bistro in Lincoln, the little jellies accompany the bill. “They’re fun and unexpected,’’ says pastry chef Jillian Rosenberg. She might offer cassis-mango, guava-passion fruit, and raspberry-apricot. Assistant pastry chef Catherine Sheehan’s pomegranate-grapefruit-lychee trio are a big hit.

The technique is similar to jelly making, but the fruit requires extra gelling in the form of pectin. You simmer a fruit puree with pectin, add sugar, then pour the mixture into a pan to set. Cut into squares or shapes, then coat with sanding sugar or granulated sugar.

From these pastry chefs and others, I learned some of the tricks and pitfalls.

Lesson 1: Pastry chefs have access to fancy fruit purees imported from France (you will have to make your own smooth, seedless puree), apple pectin (not available in retail food stores), citric acid (substitute lemon juice), and glucose (use corn syrup). Order these online or make the substitutions. An acidic ingredient like lemon juice helps strengthen pectin’s gelling power. Glucose or corn syrup prevents the sugar from crystallizing.

Lesson 2: The chemistry behind pates de fruit is determining the right amount of pectin. Pectin, used in jam and jelly making, is derived naturally from citrus peel and apple pomace. Other fruits contain pectin in lesser amounts, which can occasionally affect the balance.

Lesson 3: Not all pectin is created equal. In supermarkets, you’ll find only citrus pectin, both powdered (Kraft’s Sure-Jell and a natural product called Pomona’s Universal Pectin) and liquid (Certo Liquid Fruit Pectin, also from Kraft). I had no luck using Sure-Jell. Initially, I had varying degrees of success with Pomona’s, but called the company. It’s marketed by Workstead Industries of Greenfield (it’s made in Denmark). “It’s a family business,’’ says co-owner Connie Sumberg, who has experimented with pates de fruit. Pomona’s is a low methoxyl pectin, which gels in the presence of calcium, as compared to high methoxyl pectins, such as Sure-Jell, which require large amounts of sugar and some acid to form a gel. (Pomona’s comes with a little packet of calcium powder that you mix with water and add to the fruit puree before cooking.) A low methoxyl pectin, says Sumberg, “frees people to get a good gel without having to use a ton of sugar.’’ It gels fairly quickly and does not need extended cooking.

Lesson 4: This is candy. You might be shocked at the amount of sugar, which is essential to making pectin perform and giving the jelly structure and density. Pastry chefs who love the taste of natural fruits use plenty of sugar here. Rosenberg, however, doesn’t add extra sugar to tart fruits. “I like to let the fruits’ acidity come through,’’ she says.

Final lesson: Each ingredient plays a crucial role. You’ll be rewarded with pates de fruit that look and taste professional. They’ll make a fine gift for your Passover seder host.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at