Sour Cherry, Balsamic and Vanilla: Syrup & Leather

The all-too-short cherry season was even shorter in the Hudson Valley this year: many farms lost most, if not all, of their entire crop due to a rainy Spring preventing pollination (bees do not buzz about doing their pollinating duties in the rain), and causing fruit to drop and split. I managed to squeeze some cherry picking into a busy 4th of July weekend but I traveled far afield to do so, to Belltown Hill Orchards in Glastonbury, CT (thanks to @fixmeasnack on Twitter for pointing me in Belltown’s direction). Sadly, despite arriving on Saturday morning of that long weekend, we were underwhelmed with Belltown’s offerings: we found a grand total of three (3!) ripe sweet cherries after an hour of picking and instead paid $4.99/lb for 3 lbs of underripe sweets (which I then attempted to ripen for over a week in a brown paper bag containing a few apples). We fared little better with the sours, which were also underripe and/or picked out: nevertheless I snagged about 4 lbs worth and optimistically hoped that the underripe fruit would make a tart, pectin-filled jam.

Such is the life of a local eater: some years you are swimming in cherries and others, well, you are lucky to find a few pounds. For my precious hoard of sours, I knew I wanted to make a special preserve: something rich, flavorful, decadent. Julia had mentioned a sour cherry-white balsamic jam on Facebook that sounded a.ma.zing: I went even more umami with dark balsamic and a touch of vanilla. I rinsed my glowing treasure carefully (as far as I know, Belltown sprays their cherries: my go-to no-spray cherry orchard, Fishkill Farms, did not open for picking at all this year), pitted 2 lbs with my favorite OXO pitter, and tucked them into a bowl with sugar, vinegar and vanilla to macerate overnight. Or, you know, five nights. Oops.

Life got busy: work, garden, birthdays, CSA, random trips to Maine. So those cherries sat in the fridge for nearly a week before I got around to making jam. And then I pulled them out of the fridge, all set to fire up the canner and the preserving pot, despite the hot & humid weather, and what do you know? The syrup had leached all color out of the cherries: they were a really unappetizing pale pinky/flesh color. In fact, they looked like nothing so much as a B-movie horror prop: wrinkled severed fingertips floating in fake blood corn syrup. Have you ever had this happen when macerating in sugar? I’ve seen it in alcohol but never before in sugar. Maybe it was the vinegar, maybe the long macerating time, but I knew one thing: the beautiful sour cherry preserves in my mind were not going to happen. This was food too ugly to eat. On to Plan B: syrup & leather.

I drained the syrup away from the severed-fingertip-cherries: the syrup was a lovely deep maroon color, with a tart, smoky, almost-savory flavor, an undercurrent of vanilla saving it from becoming completely savory. Really delicious and I can see it working equally well in a cocktail, over ice cream, or as a meat glaze. The colorless cherries went into the food processor with a little cherry juice, some orange juice concentrate and a bit of extra vinegar for a truly fantastic fruit leather: tangy, sour, sweet. I’ve eaten three or four helpings and I’m not even a fruit leather fan. I guess the moral of the story is: life is unpredictable. Sometimes you are rolling in cherries, sometimes you are happy to get a few pounds, and sometimes you have severed-fingertip cherries that still need preserving. Make it work for you: you may just discover a new favorite.

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Sour Cherry, Balsamic and Vanilla: Syrup & Leather

INGREDIENTS

  Syrup

  • 2 lbs sour cherries, rinsed, stemmed & pitted
  • 1 and 1/2 cups (12 oz) sugar (organic turbinado)
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

 Leather

  • drained cherries
  • 1/3 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 2 – 3 tsp basalmic vinegar
  • water as necessary
  • canola oil spray

METHODS

  1. Day 1. In a stockpot or Dutch oven, combine cherries, sugar, vinegar and vanilla. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Transfer to a heat-safe bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Day 2 (or 5). Strain juice into a stockpot or saucepan, reserving cherries. Bring juice to a boil over high heat, reducing until juice becomes thick & syrupy, about 10-20 minutes (218 degrees F). Transfer to a clean jar or bottle: store refrigerated once cool.
  3. Transfer cherries to the bowl of a food processor, adding any additional cherry juice. Add orange juice concentrate and balsamic vinegar; process until smooth, adding water if necessary for a thick but pourable liquid.
  4. Spritz the solid trays of a dehydrator lightly with canola oil (for ease in removal), then pour the sour cherry mixture onto trays, shaking slightly to coat the tray evenly (fills two round trays). Dehydrate at 135 degrees F for appoximately 18 hours until leather is no longer sticky to the touch. Alternatively, pour onto a lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet and dehydrate in a low oven for 6 – 10 hours.

Yields about 1 pint of syrup and 12 servings of leather.

OPTIONS

  1. The syrup is safely acidic for water bath canning should you desire long-term storage.
  2. White balsamic would yield a pretty, rosy-hued syrup, but I do like the heartier flavor of dark balsamic. Should you go with white balsamic, I would steep a whole vanilla bean, or scrape out the seeds, rather than using the vanilla extract.

STORE

Syrup: refrigerated in a clean bottle or jar for up to 2 months. A sterilized bottle will extend storage life, or syrup can be canned and stored for up to 1 year in a cool, dark, room-temperature spot. Leather: I store refrigerated in the summer as the heat/humidity makes leather really sticky, however, in good weather leather is room-temp stable for months.

SEASON

Early summer.

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64 comments

  1. I do not have a dehydrator, nor the room for one, but I’ve seen several recipes call for a “low oven.” My oven only goes as low as 170… Would that be okay? I’d love to try making fruit leather for those rotten kids (who will probably wrinkle their noses at something so naturally colored – don’t even get me started on the 5yo who won’t eat homemade applesauce because there were pear skins in it).

    • Hi Casey,

      The low oven bit can be interpreted as “as low as your oven will go.” 150 to 170 seems to be the norm: I know some people will crack the oven open a bit to go even lower. I have to admit that I haven’t actually tried to make leather in the oven, since I do have a dehydrator (which lives in the garage: I hear you on the space!), but I’ve seen similar instructions frequently. I think the important part is just to watch it carefully until you have a sense of how long it takes.

      FYI, Concord grapes or bluberries make a really pretty leather: mine tend to turn out brown because I add red berries + orange juice concentrate. But you can skip the OJ, or add cranberry or grape juice concentrate, for a prettier color that your son will eat. :)

      • Kathlene Audette

        I’ve made leather in my oven at the same time as I was making it in my dehydrator. It worked perfectly with the oven slightly open, although it cooked a little bit faster than the leather in the dehydrator did. Since ovens vary so much, I recommend checking the leather frequently when you’re first trying this method. I’ve definitely overcooked it before and have it go from leathery to crunchy. When this happens, I’ve chopped it up and added it to oatmeal for hiking trip breakfasts.

        By the way, using the canola oil is a good tip – I will definitely try that, as one problem I’ve had is having a hard time peeling the leather.

        Best,
        Kat

        http://livinglocallyslc.wordpress.com/

  2. Oh man, if we had know you were on the hunt for cherries! Our picking this year was fabulous, with about 22lbs of sweet, black and sour cherries at Tougas Family Farm in Western Mass. Most of those are in the freezer, waiting their fate on a cooler day. We love all of your ideas, and your are total inspiration for our canning this year.

    Keep up the fab ideas!

  3. I did try to scope out the cherry situation in & near Boston, as I was there a couple of times in June, but visiting friends and soccer games always seem to take priority. :) I’ll think of you next year though, should we have another sad cherry season (although fingers crossed that we don’t suffer a bad season 3 years in a row!)

    Enjoy the cherries!

  4. Hello, I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your blog. Sometimes the best things happen by accident. I have several cherry trees in our apple orchard and I’ll give your syrup a try next year.

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  6. Love these ideas. It’s always nice to have a way to save projects that got away. I’ll definitely try this – our cherries look really good this year.

  7. Someone should make those little bees some tiny raingear! ;-) I had the color drain out of the strawberries I used to make ice cream last week–that was in sugar, as well. This year has been weird weather-wise here, so I thought maybe it had to do with the increased heat or humidity, but what do I know?

    You’ve rekindled my latent desire for a food dehydrator. I used to watch the Ronco infomercials as a kid. I was an easy sell, but I didn’t have a credit card!

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    • Thanks for the tip, Marieliza. I had heard that, but only after I went to Belltown, and Samascott is nearly 3 hours from me… I think I’m holding out for next year. But thanks!

    • Yay for more cherries! And yes, absolutely, should be easy to cut in half. My sours were pretty underripe, though, so you might want to start with just 1/2 cup of sugar and then taste & adjust as you like.

  9. Great title! I clicked on to see how leather fit into this food blog. Wasn’t familiar with the term the way you use it. Sounds delicious but not sure that I could make it.

    Congrats on your being Freshly Pressed.

  10. Greetings from a fellow Hudson Valley food blogger! Fantastic photos and recipes (except for those carnitas). You went to far too much trouble. Check out Paula’s Peck’s recipe in The Art of Good Cooking. Questions: Why pork and not beef? What’s wrong with seafood? Do you just not like it? I, too, support local farmers and artisans to the extent possible. However, Irena Chalmers reminds us:

    If we insist on eating locally, we will have to forego coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, spices, salt and pepper and cork for the wine bottles…just a thought.

    • Hi Phyllis,

      Thanks for your note. Yes the carniats were disappointing: but I’ll nail ‘em one of these days. Just need lard I think :) As for beef & seafood: beef I can’t eat anymore. My Mom was a vegetarian for many years, and ‘converted’ when I was 11, so I ate very little beef in my teens. At some point, I lost the enzyme necessary to break down the main protein in beef: my body literally cannot digest it. I could work my way back into it, eating tiny little amounts at a time, but I just haven’t had the desire. I may try to do so soon, however, as the all-white-meat diet gets very difficult when you travel abroad. Seafood? I just don’t like it – never have. Blame it on growing up in Gloucester, MA, one of the biggest commercial fishing towns on the East Coast. All that access to fresh fish year round, and I just can’t stand the stuff. Isn’t that always the way. :)

      And, if you check out my “my local” page, you’ll notice that I eat MOSTLY locally. If it grows here, I source it here. Therefore, no Florida tomatoes for me. But I drink coffee, eat chocolate, enjoy French wines, spices, citrus, olive oil… this is why I don’t really call myself a locavore. I’m a mocavore: mostly local. And while there are dozens of good reasons to eat locally, not least of which supporting your local small farmer: I mostly eat seasonal, local food because it tastes the best. It’s a hard habit to break when you eat as well as I do.

      Hope that clears thing up – and hope you are surviving this crazy Hudson Valley heat wave!
      Kaela

  11. kat

    Oh yum! Thanks for such a great find! Looks so tempting! I’ve always wanted to make my own fruit leather since the premade stuff is loaded with unnecessary amounts of sugar. Btw your pics look amazing!! Thanks for sharing! I’m new to blogging and love that there is a foodie community! If you have time, please check out my blog: http://shecooksandheeats.wordpress.com/. And of course! Any advice would be so great :)

  12. Wow nice recipe, i’m a foodie person but i don’t really know well how to cook. Gotta show my mom this recipe, and persuade her to make one for me!

  13. Yu Kim

    What a beautiful blog! I almost want to take the syrup and mix it into some gin and tonic! Yes, summer = please yourself cocktails. I’m typically not a fan of the fruit leather, but this looks quite fresh and thick.. only if I could just buy these!

    Keep up the great work!
    Yu

  14. Wow! I could imagine the taste on my tongue just by your writing. Excellent. Your description reminds me of the Chinese preserved fruits of my small kid time (sweet, sour, addicting). The pictures are also pretty amazing. From one food person to another, Congratulations.

  15. I am so taking notes for sources of cherries next year. I openly admit we normally only pick apples and pumpkins every year, although we’ve come home with the stray peach, Hubbard squash or berries on occasion. I am dying to try sour cherries though after watching all the blogs publish lovely pictures with mouth-watering descriptions. I just never realized people grew them for you-pick since we are so far north.

  16. reviewsquare

    Oh my! That looks good! Gonna have something new to do for breakfast or lunch :))) Thank you!

    I’ve got some recipes on my blog, too, if anyone’s interested.

  17. Nice save, Kaela. I have noticed that the color starts to leach from wild blackberries if I macerate them for a day. I imagine they’d be spooky looking if I let them go for a few days more. I’m experimenting with fruit leathers today so I wanted to come and peek at yours. It looks great. I like that you used orange juice for a little sweetener.

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  21. I stumbled across this recipe while trying to figure out what to do with my remaining 6lbs of tart cherries (I started with 40lbs). Oh my goodness! What a treasure! I tripled the recipe and used all 6lbs. The syrup was wonderful on our French Toast and I canned the remaining 2 pints. And the leather is in the dehydrator now. I LOVE the flavor of the cherries + balsamic + vanilla and since I froze about 20lbs of cherries I’m totally going to make a jam with this flavor profile.

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