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.
- 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
- drained cherries
- 1/3 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
- 2 – 3 tsp basalmic vinegar
- water as necessary
- canola oil spray
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The syrup is safely acidic for water bath canning should you desire long-term storage.
- 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.
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.