Last updated on December 9th, 2018
Just when we’re mourning the end of the summer growing season—roasting squash instead of grilling corn, picking apples instead of raspberries—an intriguing fall fruit pops up in the markets to goose our senses.
The cape gooseberry, also known as the ground cherry, Aztec or Inca berry, or husk tomato, is a burst of sunshine, a late-blooming addition to the roster of sunset-hued produce making its way into our baskets this time of year. (It’s also the namesake for one of the most coveted Pyrex patterns, dontcha know?)
A little bit of confusion reigns over the nomenclature: unlike the European gooseberry, which is a cousin to the currant and is something I imagine Veruca Salt demanding for dessert, the cape gooseberry is South American in origin (though popularized after its cultivation at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, hence the “cape” in its name) and a relative of the tomatillo.
It’s not surprising to learn these facts about this unusual fruit’s lineage; the golden berries, encased in paper lantern husks, look like the tiniest yellow cherry tomatoes imaginable and share a similarly savory-sweet balance of flavor. Riper, more orange ground cherries tend to be sweeter than the early-picked, more yellow ones, but all are intriguingly tasty.
Ask five different people how a ground cherry tastes and you’ll get five different answers—some find its earthiness to be most prominent, others detect notes of pear and fig, others think it’s more of a tropical taste.
Some might even find a candy-like sweetness. When I served this ground cherry compote (recipe below) as part of a dessert course at a recent pierogi and beer dinner in support of Pierogi Love, I was told that the compote had “jelly donut” undertones—which was a comparison and a compliment I’m happy to accept!
Those who fall within the Venn diagram of bakers and gardeners love to add easy-growing ground cherries to their edible homestead lineup. My proficient gardener sister grows them specifically to transform her haul into jam every autumn, and even my black thumb managed to cultivate a few plants a few summers ago.
The fruits will take their sweet time all summer, the husks finally drying from green to delicate beige as they ripen anywhere from August to October here in the Northeast.
Since ground cherry plants are perennials, the roots will hang out and re-sprout the next spring, giving you ample opportunity to play around and find new ways to eat these strange little orbs—starting with this sweet autumn compote.
Spoon it over ice cream or cheesecake, swap it out for syrup over pancakes or waffles, swirl it into yogurt, serve it with goat cheese and crackers, or you know, with pierogies.
- 1/2 pound (8 ounces; 227 grams) husked ground cherries (1 dry pint will yield between 4 and 6 ounces by weight, so this is a good time to get a kitchen scale to see how much you’re really working with!)
- 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces; 50 grams) granulated sugar
- zest of 1 small lemon
- 2-4 tablespoons water
- 2-4 tablespoons maple syrup
- Add the ground cherries, sugar, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons water to a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally as the sugar dissolves into the liquid and the fruit starts to soften.
- Continue to simmer the compote for about 10-15 minutes, stirring every now and then; add the remaining water if the compote starts to stick and burn. The ground cherries should be very soft but most should remain whole, surrounded by a loose fruit syrup.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the maple syrup, starting with 2 tablespoons and adding more to taste.
- Let cool slightly before serving, or pour into a heat-safe container like a mason jar and refrigerate for up to 1 week.