The Jewels of Summer: Cherries

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The single best reason that I know of to grow a pie cherry tree is to stand and gawk at it in full fruit on a sunny day. Even my dwarf North Star cherry, which is only two years old and no taller than I am, looks so stunning in the summer sun, with cherries glowing like Russian enamels, that I spend some time just standing there taking it in. But once you’re ready to stop looking and start eating, there are the cherries. Sour or pie cherries are of course perfect for pies, and they also make excellent jams, cobblers, etc. If you want a lot of good well-tested recipes, get yourself a copy of the British classic Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book.  But I decided to make cherry liqueur this year, and so far the results are very promising. Remember, besides being economical and ecological and virtuous, this urban homesteading stuff is an awful lot of fun.

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Click here for the recipe!

You will need: sour cherries, a large glass jar, vodka, sugar, cherry pits. Quantities of all items will depend on how many cherries you have.

Get a clean jar with a wide mouth, size depending on how many cherries you have. I used a half-gallon canning jar. Wash the cherries and put them in the jar. This can be done in stages, ie use as many cherries as you have now and put in the rest when they ripen. Pour in enough vodka to cover the cherries. Add 1/2 cup of sugar for each ppint of cherries. You can make it sweeter later if you want to. The sugar will not dissolve for  a long time, so don’t worry about that. Now you need some cherry pits, about a dozen of them for each pint of sour cherries. You can either cut the pits out of some of the cherries that you plan to macerate, or (the fun way) you can buy a few of the nicest sweet cherries you can find, eat them, and save the pits. They add important elements to the flavor, so I don’t advise omitting them, but see below for further discussion. Crack the pits in your large mortar and pestle or put them between two kitchen towels and crack them with a rolling pin or hammer. Add the crushed pits to the jar. Now cover tightly and let it sit, undisturbed, for a month. You can open it to add more cherries, sugar, vodka, and pits, maintaining the correct proportions. After a month, drain off the liqueur. You can simply drain it, producing the clearest product, or you can put the cherries in a sieve and press hard on them to extract the juice, making a cloudier but tastier liqueur. I prefer the latter. Taste and adjust the sweetness, pour into a clean bottle, cap tightly, and let it sit in the refrigerator for another month. Enjoy chilled in liqueur glasses on special occasions, and remember the ruby-studded tree as you saw it in June.

Regarding the pits, they contain (1) intense bitter-almond flavor, and (2) cyanogenic glycosides. I see hysterical warnings about them on the Internet, but they are a traditional flavoring for fruit cordials, and are used crushed as a seasoning called Mahlab in the Midle East and Eastern Mediterranean. The wild cherry tree that mahlab is made from is a different member of the genus Prunus, but the glycosides are the same. Used in the quantities given here, I don’t believe that they do me a bit of harm, and they add a wild, rather rose-like note to the flavor. Make your own decision. If you are concerned, and even if you are not, I do recommend reading the very interesting post on Cherry-pit Ice Cream on Eggbeater. The sheer amount of culinary ingenuity in the world never ceases to amaze me.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sheila Varty on July 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Do you pit your the sour cherries before you put them in the jar? How did yours turn out?


    • Posted by wooddogs3 on July 10, 2009 at 3:44 pm

      There’s no need to pit the sour cherries going into the jar, but because the pits within the cherries are whole, they won’t give any of the bitter-almond flavor and fragrance of the kernel within the pit. You don’t need too many cracked pits. One to two dozen per large jar is plenty.


  2. Posted by Sheila Varty on July 10, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Please send response to above by email as well. Thanks!


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