Monday, July 30, 2007
Sour Cherry & Almond Spoon Sweet
Spoon sweets are as integral to the culture of hospitality in Cyprus and Greece as mint tea is in Morocco – though the tradition of spoon sweets is centuries and probably milennia older. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a home in either country where, upon entering, you aren’t offered a small crystal dish with a tiny silver spoon of syrup-soaked fruits. The only accompaniment is a cool glass of water, into which the last few drops of syrup are stirred once the fruit has been eaten. The ritual is so prominent that a spoon sweet set is still a part of most bridal trousseaus.
And there’s something fascinating about an ancient tradition, still upheld today, that requires a sweet, homemade preserve to pass over the lips of a guest upon entry into one's home – remarkably, most spoon sweets are still made by the family of the house, even though they can be bought in food stores now too.
Spoon sweets differ from jam in that the fruits are almost always tart or bitter before cooking, they are usually kept whole, and they are preserved in a spiced or herb-rich syrup boiled down from their own juices and some sugar or honey – though long ago, grape must was the sweetener. Popular choices include apricots, grapes, quinces, figs, pomegranates, and cherries. Vegetables are often used too – especially small eggplant and tomatoes.
And the preparation is not limited to the obvious choices here – cooking something in syrup can be a wonderful way to transform the seemingly inedible into something delectable. Citrus peel or small whole citrus fruits and unripe nuts all make beautiful spoon sweets. I have a jar of black walnut spoon sweet – the nuts still in their shells, mind you – that was boiled in a mastic and raki or “fire water” syrup for 3 days and nights by the chef who gave them to me.
The unifying theme is that the fruit, vegetables, or nuts should retain their original (or enhanced) flavor and shape, which is what I love most about spoon sweet. And sour cherries are a perfect candidate this time of year. This looks to be the last week for cherries here – most certainly for sour cherries whose season is quite short, but the Samascott Orchards stand at the market still has a dwindling yet reassuring heap of them.
I like sour cherries paired with the gentle crunch of almonds and the earthy spice of cinnamon and star anise. You might try your spoon sweet over yogurt or ice cream, tucked between the layers of a sponge cake, or poured into a little bowl on a cheese board. But best of all is my new favorite breakfast: toast spread with a soft goat cheese and drizzled with a few still-plump fruits in their astonishingly fragrant syrup.
Makes 1 Pint
1 very clean pint jar
4 cups pitted sour cherries, cleaned and carefully picked over (buy 2 lbs of fruit to account for stones and bruised pieces)
½ cup blanched almonds
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp brandy, raki, or grappa
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
2 pods star anise
Preheat the oven to 500 F
Sterilize your jar by putting it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. Carefully remove with tongs, and be careful not to touch the jar. As I’ve said before: hot glass looks the same as cool glass!
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring gently but continuously. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, for 8 – 10 minutes until the cherries are slightly wilted.
With a slotted spoon, remove the cherries and almonds to a sieve over a bowl, but leave behind the cinnamon and star anise. Raise the heat to medium and reduce the liquid for 5 minutes. Pour in the cherry juices that have accumulated in the bowl, and reduce for another 5 minutes or until well-thickened.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Remove the spices and discard. Stir in the cherries and almonds and spoon into a sterilized jar or jars. Keeps in the fridge for 4 – 6 months.