Hands down, cherries are my favorite part of summer. I usually can’t bring myself to buy them out of season because they’re just never as good. And the second best thing to fresh cherries in season is preserved cherries for the other 11 months of the year! I had so many plans. Aside from the usual suspects like bourbon cherries, I was set to make maraschino cherries, savory preserves, syrups and more. You can imagine my disappointment when I arrived to the market and learned my plans to bring home buckets of cherries wasn’t happening this year.
Quite pleased with my first batch of spicy tomato jam (I’m convinced I could have made another jar if I didn’t sample it so much), I still had about 4 pounds of tomatoes left over from my two bushel canning projects and craving for more. What I wasn’t up for was the 5 hour cooking, babysitting, tomato splattering all over my stove again. I was convinced there had to be some shortcut. Lots of people make tomato jam. Busy people. Sane people who don’t work all day then stay up canning until 2am (a fact I will not confirm or deny). So what was the secret?
In February I went to my first ever BK Swapper event. My jams, jellies and caramel sauce traded well for a bounty of goods but what I remember most was the tomato jam. Sweet, sticky, with a bit of heat to round things out, it made ketchup seem so bland and basic. It took a few months for me to open the jar, but once I did it was gone in a matter of weeks. Never have I gone through a condiment so quickly. It went on everything from burgers to toast to grilled chicken. I’ve never been good with names or faces so I had no idea who made this delicious jam. I searched the BK Swappers Facebook page for clues but nothing. With much despair, I realized if I ever wanted to enjoy this yummy jam again, I’d need to make it myself.
I read somewhere that apricots are one of the only fruits that improve in flavor through cooking. I never want to believe such a thing could be true. All winter I indulge on dried apricots and apricot preserves, savoring each bite. When apricot season finally rolls around, after almost months of strawberries and a brief flirtation with cherries, I gladly shell out the $4 a pound for the petite fruit, rushing home like a child to enjoy my treasure.
The thing about apricots is they’re so small. Where as one peach may keep me satisfied, I need 3-4 apricots to do the same. I break open the first fruit, discard the pit and bite. Hmm, a little squishy–I must have picked an over ripe one. The next, firm but flavorless, another dud. After 3 or 4 apricots, I start to realize that cooking fact might have some weight to it. I’ve never enjoyed apricots fresh from the tree, but even the best looking specimens brought home from the greenmarkets never seem to achieve the flavor I expect compared to the jams, pies and crisps.
Almost all fruits can be put up in simple syrup. No need to search for fancy canning recipes, just can as is with anything from a super light syrup (10%) to heavy syrup (50%) and save them for a winter cobbler or pie. I put up peaches three years ago when I started canning and honestly it was pretty awful. I hadn’t yet mastered the skill of blanching, essential for easy peel peaches. They still tasted like peaches but were soft and squishy when I opened them a few months later. I had to drain the syrup and peaches for a good hour just to remove enough moisture so they wouldn’t soak through my pie crust. It was still a summer pie in the middle of February, but I was not impressed. It was then that I swore off whole fruit canning. I’m a perfectionist, and if I couldn’t do it perfectly (the first time…) I figured jars of jam and a freezer full of berries was plenty good.
I was perfectly content with my decision until my friend and I opened up a jar of her sour cherries from last harvest. There was no need for cobbler. We put together an elaborate cheese plate to serve them with but found eating them by the spoonful out of the jar was most effective. I pleaded to take home one of her last jars and poured its fruit and syrup contents over generous bowls of vanilla ice cream. Pure magic. I knew I wouldn’t be lucky enough to keep stealing her canned cherries (did I mention she’s 4 states away?) so I’d have to suck it up and go back on my “no whole fruit” canning rule. Of course, being me, I couldn’t just use simple syrup. There had to be a twist.