Few things are more representative of the Russian (and my native Azerbaijani) culture than home-brewed black tea, accompanied by a saucer of sweet, fragrant whole-fruit preserves, prepared by simmering unpitted cherries, raspberries, and other seasonal fruit in syrup until the latter has reduced and taken on the flavor of the now-candied fruit. A small amount is then served alongside a cup of hot, unsweetened tea to be eaten with a spoon between the sips. If you have never experienced this particular delight, I really recommend that you give it a try.
Here’s where I would like to make it really clear that I spent a better part of my childhood and adolescence pining after these, because my mom happened to be a rare Azerbaijani woman who simply could not make them. After I came to America and settled on our farm, plentiful with fruit that it was, learning how to put things up became my first important goal as a housewife – in part to provide for my family, in part to break my mom’s spell of fear in the kitchen. Pregnant with my first child and without any internet connection, I spent that first summer canning and freezing and pickling, teaching myself as I went with the help of a few different books. I’ve felt like an expert ever since.
The cherries that I used in this particular recipe are special, though. They came from a cherry tree outside my kitchen window, planted especially for me by my husband for my first Mother’s Day.
It took the tree the full seven years to produce a crop large enough for a couple of batches of preserves, but I did not mind waiting – I knew I had the benefit of time, thanks to choosing a steady, settled life on this particular piece of land. I didn’t plan to move and had no doubt that I’d be there to gather the first crop. This summer I was, at last, able to do it.
So, you see, I simply had to do something special with this very special batch, and few things are more special to me than tart cherries in sweet syrup. I didn’t have a recipe, but preserves are not complicated, and it only took me two tries to come up with this nostalgic, classic version. Here it is:
Classic Russian Sour-Cherry Preserves
Makes one pint.
You will need:
- 2 cups of ripe, unpitted tart (pie) cherries, stems removed (if you don’t want to be spitting the pits out as you eat, which, to me, is an integral par of the experience, go ahead and pit yours)
- 3 cups water
- 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice, fresh-squeezed or from a bottle
1. Mix sugar, water and lemon juice in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot and start heating it up over high heat. As soon as the sugar begins to dissolve, stir in the cherries.
2. Bring everything to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and continue simmering over medium to medium-high heat (it will need to be reduced to low towards the end) for approximately thirty-five minutes, or until the fruit is dark in color and the syrup has thickened to your desired consistency.
Let me illustrate:
This is about how much you want it to be boiling. When your pot contents begin to look like this, the preserves are done (note that I have never seen the value of removing the foam, although some people certainly do it).
Here’s how to test your preserves for doneness:
Place a tablespoon of syrup into a clean bowl and stick the bowl in the freezer for a couple of minutes. When you take the plate out, smear your finger across the now-chilled syrup. See how my finger is leaving a clean path? This is about how thick I like it to be. If you prefer your syrup thinner, cook yours for less time and start testing it earlier.
If you find that your syrup ended up being too thick, don’t worry – you can thin it back to the necessary consistency by stirring in a little water and repeating the cold-plate test.
The preserves will keep in the fridge for several months. Serve them with strong, home-brewed black tea, and a plateful of nostalgia.