TJ and I drove out to Hicks Orchard a few weeks ago and picked over 20 pounds of sour cherries. My primary interest was in making Sour Cherry Conserve (so popular at the farmer's market last year it sold out in a single Saturday; two loyal customers got into a bidding war over the last jar; they were only half joking – I settled the matter with a dinner invitation), but I also wanted some extra cherries to mess around with. A recipe for pickled cherries in an old Joy of Cooking had caught my eye, and I was also curious to infuse my own liqueur.
If all you know of cherries are the fat sweet ones commonly found in markets, sour cherries straight from the tree can be somewhat alarming. They're tart, and not much else. But expose them to heat, sugar, alcohol, even vinegar, and the compounds that produce the distinct flavor most of us recognize instantly as ‘cherry’ are freed.
I don't know why sour cherries aren't more readily available. I read recently that, while sweet cherries are what's most often found at market, sour cherries are grown in much greater quantities here in the United States, but are processed rather than sold fresh. Perhaps they're more perishable? Unfortunate, because the flavor of sour cherries is, to my mind, far more compelling.
I put up a case and some of cherry conserve, using just 20 pounds. I used a pound for pickled cherries, and two for cherry liqueur.
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The pickled cherries (pictured above) are easy to make and even easier to love – a perfect balance of sour and sweet. Pit a pound of sour cherries and put them in a large glass jar* with distilled white vinegar to cover. Let stand for 24 hours, then drain off the vinegar and add white sugar equal to the volume of cherries. Seal the jar and agitate it gently to distribute the sugar. Let sit in a dark, cool place for two or three weeks, agitating the jar every day at first until the sugar is dissolved. Thereafter, agitate the jar every two or three days. The Joy of Cooking advises canning the cherries after a week, but I've simply kept them sitting in the dark and figure the combination of acid and sugar is sufficient to prohibit bacterial or fungal growth. I served these with a homemade pâté last week, and they were a perfect counterpoint.
I had some success making Quince Liqueur last fall, and even better results with Vin d'Oranges this spring, and suddenly I find myself wanting to cover any old fruit in booze and let it sit for a while. My cherry efforts proved particularly rewarding.
I took 2 pounds of my sour cherries and tossed them (de-stemmed but with the pits intact) in a 3-liter jar* with 2 quarts of vodka, 2 cups of sugar, a split vanilla bean, and 5 whole cloves. This jar sat on the same dark cool shelf as the pickled cherries, and I agitated it daily for a few days, then every few days for a few weeks. That gorgeous liquid in the picture was carefully ladled off the top this afternoon. It is, in a word, exquisite. Pure cherry flavor, sweet but not syrupy, with a hint of bitter almond from the pits. I'm sure there are all kinds of specious things I could do with it; you won't catch me doing anything but carefully sipping it straight from a dainty little glass. It's too damned good to do otherwise with.
*For all these projects, I use Luminarc jars with a rubber seal and wire bail – I've amassed a huge collection of them in a variety of sizes over the years, and use them for everything from storing flour and sugar to culturing cream for butter.