Cherry Season – a Memory, and a Recipe for Real-Deal Brandied Cherries
By real deal I mean the cherries are fermented in the hooch, not simply given a quick bath.
Most popular recipes for brandied cherries require only combining the fruit with brandy and sugar. Couldn’t be easier, and it’s delicious after sitting around for only a couple of days. Then after you put it in pretty jars and age it a while the cherries turn leathery and the liquid tastes just like cough syrup.
I made a lot of this stuff myself before I discovered that if you take the longer route, using less brandy and letting the mixture ferment, you end up with two good things: a fortified spirit that resembles port and firm, slightly velvety cherries that taste like themselves except for being drunk.
Once those get into the jars they last for years, gastronomic money (and gift material) in the bank. Obviously great in drinks and desserts – after a rich meal, they’re a great dessert all by themselves – but also wonderful in rice pilaus, with rich meats like pork, duck and salmon and chopped, just a few, in mayonnaise dressed potato salad with lots of dill and sweet onions. Try it before disbelieving me.
CHERRIES IN BRANDY
Be warned they take several weeks to be ready. Actual work time is about 20 minutes.
For 4 half pint jars (feel free to multiply):
1 pound very firm dark sweet cherries, with stems if possible
1 c. sugar
about ½ c. good but not spectacular brandy or cognac
1. Rinse the cherries, then spread them on a towel-lined cookie sheet and let them dry completely, turning from time to time. Sterilize the jars and lids and the tip of a coarse needle.
2. Prick each cherry all the way to the pit 3 or 4 times and pack them snugly but not tightly in the jars, leaving about 3/4 inch headspace at the top. Upper layers should go in stems down so stems don’tpoke above the liquid at the end.
3. Cook sugar and water in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then raise the heat to medium and let the syrup bubble gently until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
4. Pour the hot syrup over the cherries, filling each jar half full (there will probably be syrup left over; save it refrigerated for sweetening iced tea and lemonade). Add brandy to the jars to bring the liquid ¼ inch from the top. Cherries should be completely covered; remove one or two if necessary.
5. Put lids on the jars and screw the rings on tightly. Shake gently from side to side to mix the liquids; thump the jar bottoms on the work surface to resettle the cherries, then undo the rings, leaving the lids in place.
6. Set the jars in a deepish rimmed pan to catch any overflow and set the whole works in a cool dark place ( See note).
7. Once a week, repeat step 5. The liquid will bubble as the cherries ferment, more or less theatrically depending on the sweetness and moisture content of the cherries and the coolness of the storage place. Keep checking until the bubbling stops, which can take anywhere from 10 days or so to more than a month.
Note: Sometimes the cherries do not bubble. There could be several causes: slightly too much brandy or sugar being the most common. And sometimes there’s no cause at all; just the cherries being balky. They’re being transformed in there regardless and should be done in about a month whether they bubble or not. As long as you don’t see mold, they’re fine. Fish one out with chopsticks, cut in half and taste the center. When it tastes alcoholic the process is complete and it’s time to tighten the lids and put them away.
8. When no more bubbles are rising, the cherries are done. Remove lids and wipe the jars, being especially careful to get the rims completely clean. Rinse, dry and replace the lids, put on the rings and tighten securely, then apply labels and store in a cool place, where they will keep indefinitely. Liquid darkens as they age and will be the color of fine old Port at about the 3 year mark (which gives you an idea about the ones in the picture).
Note: The refrigerator is too cold. Ideal temperature is around 50 degrees, a temperature that doesn’t exist in most modern homes in the summer – or the winter, come to think of it. One more reason to be friends with somebody who has a cellar. Or one more reason to buy an inexpensive “wine cellar,” aka small refrigerator with thermostat. Fifty degrees is also ideal for storing cheese, ripe stone fruit and ripe avocados, so you can get plenty of use out of it even if you don’t drink much.
The memory , which comes flooding strongly every year at this time, is of being able to buy enough cherries to make dozens of jars of brandied ones and plenty of cherry preserves. I just spent a small fortune on a week’s supply for eating fresh and I’ll probably keep doing that long after it’s insane instead of just fiscally unwise, but somehow spending a great deal more so we can have quantities of homemade cherry preserves is probably not going to happen.
In the old days, at the height of the cherry season both of our big local supermarkets offered the fruit in 20 pound boxes at a greatly reduced price per pound. They still weren’t exactly cheap, but they were certainly affordable. No more. For the last ten or fifteen years I haven’t been able to get them even by special request. Is this one more curse of prepackaged produce ? A catastrophe in the cherry orchards? If any of you have light to shed on this, please shine it in our direction.