Thanks MCM Emballages for the wonderful jars!
If you’ve ever had an Italian ‘Nonna‘ (grandma), you might have memories of peeking in her pantry, and spotting several jars in her cabinets or on her shelves. As a kid, if I peeked behind the curtain-covered pantry under the stairs, I could see, amongst the jars of jams and vegetables sott’olio, jars filled with cherries floating in a mysterious liquid. When they opened those jars, we kids would get a whiff of pungent alcohol smell and immediately step back.
We have always had fruit trees at the farmhouse, and one way to deal with the surplus of fruit (especially cherries, of which we still have 5 trees) was putting it in jars either as jam, in syrup, or, ‘sotto spirito‘ – preserved in spirits. My grandma did not bother much with them: they were just dumped in jars with 90 C° alcohol, and left on their shelves for up to several months. But now it is time to discover new flavors, and have some fun experimenting and crossing the border our grandparents left us at.
Even now that I am an adult, I can definitely state that my love for alcohol never went very far: I do enjoy some occasional good wine when out at a restaurant, and that is pretty much it. But what wonders do these liquors in sweets and baking! Adding some rum to cooked fruit that is going to go into your next cake, or some Italian ‘Strega’ liquor to ricotta or cake batters brings everything to such a higher level.
And the same occurs when jarring fruit: alcohol, which will eventually get less and less sharp as the jars sit, will leave your fruit floating in a rich, mellow, intensely flavored syrup that is just to die for. Even these spiced cherries preserved in grappa liquor are a delight, once the strenght of the alcohol wanes a bit.
Here are a few things to know in order to get your preserved fruit pantry started:
WHAT IS THE BEST FRUIT TO PRESERVE THIS WAY?
Though this method is great with all kinds of fruit, the best kinds are stone fruit (peaches, apricots, cherries, plums…), as well as berries, pears, chestnuts. If using citrus, it should not be sliced, just divided in wedges.
WHAT CAN IT BE USED FOR?
Though this is not the most kid-friendly recipe, it makes for a great adult treat: use it to top ice cream and desserts, for cocktails, and to flavor cold drinks. The preserving liquid will be sweet and rich with the flavor of spices and fruit, so it can be also used to enrich drinks and desserts, used for cakes and baking, flavor creams and custards, and even cooked down to achieve a full-bodied syrup to use as topping.
ISN’T IT DANGEROUS TO SKIP STERILIZATION?
fruit in spirits is never sterilized, and for two good reasons:
We all know that home-canning can be a bit risky because of botulin, a bacteria that can develop in jarred goods and be very dangerous if ingested. Botulin is completely annihilated at over 212 F° / 100 C°, but it also never develops in a acidic or alcoholic environment. Just like lemon juice, Alcohol acts as a strong sterilizer, AS LONG AS IT IS OVER 45 C°. It is even better if cooked down with sugar, which acts as a preservative. It is very important to not over-fill the jars and make sure that all fruit is covered in liquid.
If something funny develops in your jars, you’ll know immediately: it will smell odd and turn a weird color, so be careful in that case.
LIQUOR YOU CAN USE
90 C° PURE ALCOHOL – pure alcohol is the simplest to use, as all you have to do is put the fruit in the jar, cover with alcohol, and that’s pretty much it. Alcohol so strong will kill every bacteria, but it might be overpowering for those who never tried fruit in spirits. It also has the downside of not being useful after you open the jar, as the absence of sugar will not make it suitable for any other use and you’ll have to eventually toss it.
All other liquors should be combined with syrup for best results.
RHUM – It adds a sweet, caramel-y aroma and goes well with every fruit, especially pear, apple and peaches.
BRANDY – brandy is made by distilling grapes and left to age in wood barrels until caramel-y and rich of wood scents. It goes well with most fruit, especially oranges and clementines.
COGNAC – Cognac is a variety of Brandy, used especially for peaches, but also gread for dried fruit (especially figs) and mixed fruit salads.
GRAPPA – Grappa is an Italian liquor made by distilling what is left of the grapes after wine is made. Each kind of grape makes a different kind of grappa, and it is one of the most common liquors in Italy. It is intensely alcoholic and perfect for all preserves.
FLAVORED LIQUORS (Limoncello, cordial…) – These delicious liquors tend to have quite a low C° level, so they are best used as add-ins to alcohol and syrup rather than as a vector liquid. Limoncello can be added for a lemony flavor, St.Germain provides a flowery scent, and so on. adding about 15% – 20% of these to your jars can create some great flavor twists!
You can add whole spices, dried citrus rind, dried herbs and flowers or even dried fruit to the liquid to achieve some even more interesting flavors! Add them at the very last moment, right before closing the jars, and make sure any addition is fully covered in liquid.
SOME RULES FOR PRESERVING IN SPIRITS:
1. Use clean jars: It is very important to use clean jars with fitting lids. It is a good idea to sterilize the jars by boiling them for 15-20 minutes, then fully dry them in the oven at 50 C° / 122 F° for about 30 minutes. this is the only real effort you’ll have to put into making this! For this post, I am using Weck Jars.
2. Make sure any part of fruits and spices are completely covered in liquid. Uncovered parts will oxidize and change color, and might eventually develop molds. Check your jars every day for the first few days to make sure the liquid level has not dropped.
3. use fruit that is slightly on the unripe side: if the fruit you are using is too soft, it might get mushy. This does not mean that fruit that is already rather soft (like berries) doesn’t do well in alcohol, but it will get a bit softer over time.
4. Make sure the fruit you use is perfectly washed and dried. A few drops of water will not ruin the liquid (unlike vegetables preserved in olive oil, where it is crucial that no water gets in), but it will water down the syrup and reduce the sterilizing power of the alcohol.
5. The fruit you use should have no brown spots or evident blemishes. In case of fruit with thicker skin, like peaches or kiwis, it is best to peel it first. When preserving whole (uncut) fruit, pierce each fruit with a needle so that the liquid can penetrate.
This particular recipe I’m sharing is from Angela Frenda’s new book, ‘Racconti di Cucina‘ (Kitchen Stories). It is a really well-built book, full of nice stories in every chapter. It is, alas, not vegetarian-friendly at all, but the photos are so beautiful and the chapters so enjoyable that it is a pleasure to read regardless. I also love how this book has an ‘international’ kind of layout: many Italian cookbooks do not exactly shine for aesthetics (though I still love them for their useful content), but this is conceived exactly like a book in the US would. It is a win-win for me and I’m happy to have it in my bookshelf!
As soon as I saw this recipe I thought of our surplus of cherries and decided it would be a perfect fit for the blog. You will also find more ways to preserve fruit in the Hortus Cookbook – working on them right now!
NOTE: If you can’t find grappa or you find it too expensive for this purpose (which will likely be the case), I suggest you sub with another kind of strong liquor that is more familiar to you. It could be pure Vodka, or Brandy. Just choose something that is possibly beyond 45 C°.
- 2 and ½ pounds whole cherries, possibly with stalks on
- 2 and ⅓ cup Grappa or other strong liquor (see suggestions above)
- 1 and ¼ cup water
- 1 cup whole brown sugar
- 1 tsp Vanilla extract per jar
- A ½ inch piece cinnamon bark per jar
- 3 to 5 whole cloves per jar
- Prepare the syrup: combine the water and sugar in a pot and simmer for a few minutes, until the sugar is well dissolved and the syrup looks shiny. Let cool.
- Wash the cherries and thoroughly dry them. cut the stalk short but leave it attached. pierce each cherry with a needle, and arrange them in the sterilized jars up to ¾ of the height.
- Combine the alcohol with the syrup, and fill each jar up with the liquid. Lastly, add the spices and vanilla to each jar, and close well. Leave to steep for at least 3 months, and up to 6, shaking the jars once or twice a week for the first month.
As I was jarring these cherries, my grandma walked in, smiling as she always does when she sees me do something that seemingly only belongs to the past three or four generations. She looked at the jars, took them in her hands and said ‘Oh, how many I’ve made when I was young! The leftover liquor was so good on cakes. I am glad you did not forget about these. I hope people never will.’
And I told myself that I’d do my best to perpetrate all things that she taught me and that are good, pristine and honest as she was.