My mom never bought us Count Chocula or FrankenBerry cereal, on account of her own German sensibilities, no doubt, though once a year, she caved to a chorus of pretty pleases from my sister and me and bought us a box of Froot Loops.
She did it reluctantly. We loved her all the more for it.
There was one treat that defied the odds, though, in our home. My mom’s best friend from high school, now living in Florida as the wife of an American soldier, came to visit one early 1980s March Break.
She brought the best junk food with her — every sugary, marshmallow-filled, fibre-free cereal that we only wished as Cheerios-eating children we could get in Canada. And she brought Fruit Roll-Ups before they made their trek to grocery store shelves north of the border. We were fascinated by the leathery fruit in all its stickiness and claims of real fruit content, curled up tightly in plastic wrap, like miniature edible Persian rugs. But our real fondness was the roll-up’s sister, the Fruit Bar. It was a thicker version of a roll-up. A heftier serving of fruit leather.
And my father, in all his German sensibilities, who one might think would have eschewed such a filling-loosening treat, loved fruit bars more than anyone I knew. I can remember sharing them with him, sitting on an old, sun-bleached black vinyl boat bench that he’d salvaged and made our stoop on the rocky shore outside our cabin on Lake Huron.
I’d pull one end and he’d pull the other. It would stretch like dough, thinning and becoming almost translucent before finally splitting into two droopy, misshapen globs of dried fruit. Like pulling on a wishbone, there was always one loser whose piece was much smaller than the other’s.
Thanks to the battle that had just ensued, the newly divided fruit bar would stick to our fingers like our legs stuck to the boat bench in the summer heat. We’d chew and chew the dried fruits of our labour, licking our fingers afterward. Well, I did. My dad and those German sensibilities — he just used a napkin.
This weekend while visiting my mom in Waterloo, I was reminded of those fruit bars, which just didn’t have the staying power with sugar-craving consumers that Fruit Roll-Ups did. They were only around for a few years, much to my dad’s chagrin, I’m sure.
I came upon thicket after thicket of highbush cranberries behind my mom’s house. I was sure I’d hit the paydirt and began researching uses for the wild berries, which, depending on the variety, can taste just like their bog-raised counterparts. A fact sheet from an Alaskan university trotted out all kinds of options from the obvious (sauce!) to the who’d-have-thunk possibilities like fruit leather. That’s what I would make — along with sauce — and I’d combine the jewel-toned berries with Bosc pears, making the kind of fruit leather that a father and daughter would pull apart on an old vinyl boat bench and enjoy together. So I grabbed my clippers and off I went, only to discover that the highbush cranberries taking over the greenspace behind my mom’s house were a variety known for being unpalatable. They tasted like medicine, like accidentally biting down on an aspirin or Tylenol, or getting a chalky antibiotic pill stuck to the roof of your mouth on its way down the gullet. It was bitter. Blech-inducing. So disappointing. But I returned home to Niagara still inspired, if without a highbush cranberry muse. With Bosc pears abounding and some Ginger gold apples in a care package my mom sent along, I was determined to make fruit leather and stretch it like Gumby, wrap it around the tip of my finger and bite it off ravenously. As I chopped apples and pears and sauced them, spread separate batches into baking pans to test different variations bound for my toaster oven-turned-dehydrator, I couldn’t wait to enjoy the results on my black vinyl kitchen chairs. There, I would pretend I was back on that boat bench, wresting sticky fruit leather from my dad’s grip. Only this time, I’d get the bigger piece. And I’d wipe my fingers with a napkin afterward. German sensibilities, you know.
Fall fruit leather
4 cups mixed apples and pears, chopped and peeled (you can use other fall fruit, such as cranberries or quince, in this mix) 1/2 cup water 2 tbsp fall flower honey (I used some I found on a recent trip to the Finger Lakes but check out Rose and Ken Bartel on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Their son is just finishing up a batch of fall honey). 1/2 tsp lemon juice 1/4 tsp cinnamon Peel and chop fruit, put in saucepan over medium heat and add water. Bring to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until fruit chunks start breaking apart with spoon. Purée with hand blender or in a food processor, ensuring fruit is a smooth sauce with no chunks. Add honey, one tablespoon at first, then add lemon juice. Test for sweetness. If you want it sweeter, add the second tablespoon of honey or leave as is. Add cinnamon. Line a small baking pan with parchment paper. Pour purée onto parchment, spreading evenly. Put in toaster oven on 150°F for up to 12 hours. Check regularly after eight hours. Fruit leather should be sticky, shiny and slightly firm but should peel away from parchment easily. Roll up in parchment and store in air-tight container in the freezer.