missing maraschino

In dessert, food on 02/05/2009 at 11:27 am

We here at jeju are big fans of home-made. I believe in almost all instances, home-made is better than store-bought. (The other half disagrees whole-heartedly when it comes to yellow cake mix, but that’s about it). Sometimes I probably take this a bit to extreme (hand-dying yarn in beet juice), but often this propensity treats us very well. Take for instance the wonders of homemade dumplings, steamed bread, or any fresh broth or soup. I’m in the process of making two homemade varieties of vanilla, so why not try to re-create the traditional maraschino cherry?

I know what you’re thinking – those bright red (or blue, green, yellow, purple, orange), syrupy-sweet, cherry shaped blobs are not worth it! And you would be right if I were making the item designated by our federal government (“cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor”) as a maraschino cherry. But I’m not. I’m enchanted by the older, more nuanced version. If I had more money I would cultivate my latent mixologist, (pre-Prohibition throw-back varietals would be my specialty) but until then, I’ll start with the real maraschino cherry.

Pre-Prohibition, before we got all crazy with the colors, maraschino cherries were classified as “marasca cherries [a sour, small cherry from Croatia] preserved in maraschino liqueur;” everything else was an imitation. Because the original, which was probably originally brined in sea water before soaking in maraschino liqueur, has been around for ages, variations abound. My favorite might be the brandy-soaked version – a nice garnish for both desserts and drinks. The typical store-bought maraschino cherries were even being developed before Prohibition really gave them wings, using sweet Royal Anne cherries, sugar and almond extract to imitate the liqueur-soaked version.

Maraschino liqueur is made from the pits, stems and skin of the marasca cherries. It’s clear, somewhat sweet, and smells slightly of almond. It is also really hard to find. I scoured the wine and liquor stores near my apartment before one day wandering into an old wine store on Madison Ave. that, incredibly, stocked two different kinds.

Sour cherries, the other traditional ingredient, are also hard to find. Their season is very short, a few weeks in most parts, and very few stores carry any frozen. One of the few places where I can find sour cherries for much of the summer is at the farmers market in Madison – but no such luck at the various farmers markets here. I did find frozen sour cherries once, and I tried this recipe with them. They tasted great, but because the cherries were frozen, they were misshapen, and looked like little dark red blobs. So while sour cherries work best to approximate the original, because marasca cherries are small and sour, I’d stick with whatever firm, fresh cherries you can find at a farm stand or grocery store. They’ll hold up in the liqueur longer and will still taste great.

I’ve found 3 different variations on the simple maraschino cherry recipe. All use a 1 cup maraschino liqueur to 1 pint pitted and de-stemmed cherries ratio, and all are very simple.

First option: Dump cherries into a clean mason jar and cover with liqueur. Shake and let sit and sit and sit – for at least 3 weeks. Cherries with continue to take on flavors as they age, so they’ll be good as long as you can keep them around.

Option two: Start by simmering liqueur in a small sauce pan. Remove from heat and stir in cherries. Pour juice and berries into mason jar, cool and store in refrigerator. While faster than the first recipe, you really must let these sit for at least 2 days for the flavors to start to meld. They will also get better with age.

Option three: Brine the cherries in salt water first and then soak in maraschino liqueur.

I’ve only tried the first method so far and it worked just fine. I will be working on the others as soon as I can get some good fresh cherries. My maraschino liqueur is ready to play.

Real maraschino cherries will not disappoint – the flavors are complex, and make a wonderful addition to any drink, dessert or impromptu midnight snack. It’s time to take back real food, and this is a great place to start. Yum!

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