You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one. -Elizabeth Strout (My Name is Lucy Barton)
If you’ve read your fair share of world literature or seen a lot of classic movies, you might have noticed that novelty isn’t always the name of the game. Dickens eternally had an axe to grind with the justice system, Dostoevsky liked to explore the aftermath of crime, and Kurosawa often relied on the conflict between personal perception and reality/objective truth. This isn’t to say that any storyteller fails to deviate from his or her central preoccupation or cannot explore a topic from different angles; after all, if you look at the collected works of Jane Austen, you realize that there is more than one way to tell the story of courtship and marriage. Before getting too far ahead of myself, I should make clear that I am by no means comparing myself to any of the great authors/auteurs of the world. It’s more that, as this is the anniversary month (7!) of this little blog, I’ve realized that, while I am now free of both my dissertation and academia (perhaps not entirely in spirit, but that’s a topic for another day), I’m perhaps no closer to solving the essential question that has long served as a motivating factor in my keeping this blog alive: how to record a life–or, as we used to ask over and over again in my undergraduate Chekhov seminar, “What’s worth telling?”–as well how to live a relatively happy, thoughtful and fulfilling one with good (not always healthy/healthful) food and work/life balance. As far as a blog’s ambitions go, this is small fry (I do not aim to break the internet with cutesy cakes or cat memes, nor do I consider my plates and bowls ‘props’), but it is, in a way, your bread and butter story of adulthood and the constant realignment of expectations and identity.
Take, for example, this very post: if all had gone as planned, I would have finished the story of our 2015 road trip by now, not to mention have written about a few recipes that have long been on my (ever-growing) list of posts to write. Considering that I have yet to do either of these things, it’s possible that I lack the proper discipline, or that there are simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Though this latter statement is, in fact, true, I would also say that it’s nice sometimes to be swept away by the unexpected, sometimes a cocktail that speaks to the best of spring or a birthday cake creation that goes better than expected. Not only can one not always live according to plan, but there is also the fact that some stories are best told at certain times (what is worth telling right now?) and, in the case of some of these more seasonally driven recipes, there are very short windows in which to tell them.
Sour cherries just happen to fall into this category and, given their fleeting season, represent what I would call the holy grail of summer fruit. I never had much luck finding them in California, either because of their general availability during the drought or maybe the sheer demand, and our first summer in Delaware involved our missing the entire cherry season (not that I am complaining, as Greece and Portugal provided us with plenty). But, after learning that sour cherries are rather abundant in Delaware, I had vowed that this year would finally be different and that we would go and pick some at a local orchard. Although there was a brief moment when it seemed that the best laid cherry-picking plans, what with the Greek’s beam time at the national lab, our impromptu lab-related road trip to Illinois and back, and the fact that, as of this past Monday, he was again leaving, this time for a weeklong trip to California (let’s be honest here: while I am happy to do things alone, nobody goes fruit picking alone), would again go awry, I am happy to report that we made it. As the sun beat down this past Sunday, which also happened to be our (second) first wedding anniversary, we arrived at the orchard with forty-five minutes to spare. While you might think that this hardly gives you enough time to pull a few cherries, a fairly delicate procedure, off the trees, we managed to amass no less than 10 pounds in 45 minutes. And because I happen to become rathe shameless at orchards, when I heard the sound of one of the little carts the employees drive up and down the rows of trees, I stopped it and asked the driver if he wouldn’t mind driving me to the patch of sour cherry trees. Yes, for a brief moment, I embraced the use of a golf cart, rather than depending on my own two legs, which means that I kind of pulled a Donald…but, in my defense, time was of the essence and the sour cherries were waiting.
Of course, it is a little crazy to buy that many cherries right before your husband is leaving for a weeklong trip and the shelf life of cherries is short. It is also crazy to buy that many cherries when you will be the only one around to pit them and to eat any pie that might feature them. But maybe when it comes to fruit, we are simply not sane people. While the Greek, like all Greeks, has a soft spot for sour cherries, I happen to have a thing for preserving fruit, which means that, come the winter, I can not only dream of summer, but can reliably taste it, too. This makes us a good pair and, when we got home from the orchard, we set about tackling our treasure. By the time the Greek departed on Monday, we had already made one batch of cherry butter (sidenote: in all the preserving books I have, you’d be hard pressed to find many interesting recipes for cherry jam, whereas you can easily find fifteen for anything related to strawberries) and a batch of sour cherry spoon sweet (glyko vissino), which, as both my own experience shows and Diane Kochilas writes in The Country Cooking of Greece, is “the most popular” of all spoon sweets. A spoon sweet (glyko tou koutaliou), in general, refers to the Greek way of preserving and serving fruit (see this and this); the fruit is preserved with a thick sugar or grape must syrup and, when guests come to your home, you offer them a spoonful of fruit with syrup on a small crystal serving dish with a glass of water. It is but a sampling of something sweet with something cool to wash it down. I went rather crazy for them the first summer I was in Greece–you can also eat them with yogurt or on ice cream–and continue to be fascinated by the variety (even nuts, flowers and vegetables can be preserved this way) that you can find. And if you get enough syrup, as you do with this recipe, you also get the added benefit of vissinada, a drink that consists of sour cherry syrup, water and ice.
The sour cherry spoon sweet, in addition to being the most popular, is probably also the best, as it straddles the line between sweet and sour. Of course, given the amount of sugar you use when making it, it is undeniably sweet, but, given the tartness of the cherries, it strikes a welcome balance. When making it, I did consider adding vanilla, another spice or even splash of alcohol, but after one year of being married to a Greek and almost seven years of a being in a relationship with one, the Greek love of tradition must be rubbing off on me. I literally thought to myself, “You can’t do that, it’s all about the flavor of the sour cherries,” as if by adding a hint of vanilla I would have been committing blasphemy. Truly, I surprised myself. At the very end of the process, though, when adding the citrus juice, I did, as a small act of rebellion, opt to add a little lime, as well as lemon. For those Greeks shaking their heads in wonder, I would call this both something resembling progress and deference to tradition. Is this not the essence of Greekness itself?
Sour Cherry Spoon Sweet (Glyko vissino) and Sour Cherry Syrup (Vissinada)
Slightly adapted from one of my favorite preserving books, Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke
Yields 3 8-ounce jars (half-pint jars) with cherries and syrup, as well as an additional 10 ounces of syrup
If you’re wondering why I followed Diana Henry’s method instead of Diane Kochilas’ or Vefa’s, the reason is simple: it was a more streamlined, unfussy recipe, which, after pitting two pounds of cherries, is exactly what you want. The one thing I would say is that the yield I got was both greater than (in the case of the cherry spoon sweet) and less than (in the case of the extra syrup) than was promised. For me, though, I’m happier with the extra cherries, although the syrup does make for an awfully refreshing summer drink.
2 pounds sour cherries, stemmed and pitted (if you don’t have a cherry pitter, you can always use a bobby pin or a sewing needle, although, in either case, do not wear white; also, be as gentle as possible, as you want the cherries to be whole, rather than halved)
4 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups water
juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 lime (latter is heretical and thus optional)
Add the sugar and water to a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven (you want something that has a lid) and slowly bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
After the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat and let simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pitted cherries and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, then cover and let sit for at least 18, or up to 24, hours.
After leaving the cherries to infuse the liquid for the allotted time, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon. Then, heat the liquid slowly, bringing it to a boil. In the meantime,, preheat the oven to 250 F and wash several small jars and a bottle in warm, soapy water. Set the jars and bottle on a clean cookie sheet and place in the oven for 20 minutes, then remove and set on a rack. Keep stirring until the liquid reaches 230 F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and, with a spoon or a tea strainer, skim off any scum that has risen to the top.
Return the fruit to the syrup, then gently stir in the lemon and lime juice. Ladle the cherries and syrup into the sterilized jars and seal; add the remaining syrup to the sterilized bottle and seal. Once cool, refrigerate both for up to four months–if they last that long.
Serve the spoon sweet with yogurt or ice cream or on its own a la Grecque. For the syrup, mix it with water or sparkling water and ice.