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Sour Cherry Vanilla Jam

This was one busy weekend. Saturday, D and I drove down to Charlottesville for a R. and S.’s wedding. The couple are Indian, and their wedding officiant said theirs was the most traditional South-Indian wedding he’d ever done. Everything – from the chairs, to the umbrellas protecting against the sun, to the guests’ saris – was vibrantly colorful. The bride, decked in red, gold, and loaded with jewelry, henna, and fresh flowers, was breathtaking. Between various prayers, customs, and games (yes, games! Like, see how quickly the bride and groom can throw rice on each other…beyond fun), the ceremony alone was over three hours; fortunately, it’s customary to mill about. Guests roamed the grounds, and eventually moved their chairs to the shade on the periphery of the ceremony. The whole thing was wonderfully informal. Plus, there was an endless supply of fresh juice set up in back – we’re talking guava, mango and spicy green mango, watermelon, you name it – and, of course, plenty of chai tea. The wedding took place at Castle Hill Cider, a winery with a gorgeous barn overlooking hills and a pond. There are many worse things to do than roam those beautiful grounds, drink fresh juice and chai, and watch a happy couple get married. It was a memorable day.

Sunday morning, bright and early, I headed out to the ‘burbs with my dad and our friends J. and B.’s kid A. to pick some berries. It was sweltering – especially in those strawberry fields, which get absolutely no shade – but we stuck it out, and I came home with 3 pounds of sour cherries, 3 of strawberries, and a big tupperware of beautiful, sweet blueberries.

The blueberries were the easiest to pick by far. There were plenty of them, and they grew on bushes about waist height. Every bush was loaded with plump, ripe specimens, which we happily popped into our buckets.

Cherries were harder: most of the trees were picked over. Fortunately, they had a ladder in one of the fields, so we climbed into the trees and picked beautiful, gem-red cherries from the top branches.

By the time we rolled around to strawberries, we were pretty beat. But the berries – wow. They tasted like hot jam. We nibbled a couple, drank a lot of water, and soldiered on. The spoils were worth every minute.

The produce are well on their way to deliciousness. I did manage to keep a few strawberries and a few cherries for pie, but that’s it. Between 8 jars of various jams and plenty of nibbles while I was cooking, most of the berries have been used. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite recipes from this round of preserving. First up: cherry vanilla jam.

I think this jam is my favorite of today’s projects. I’ve been folding it into yogurt, shmearing it on toast, and — let’s be honest – eating it with a spoon. Just three ingredients produce a jam with surprising complexity, and the whole thing is done in under an hour.

Now that the day is done, the A/C is high, and I’m showered and clean, I’m so thankful to have all those jars popping away on the counter. They’ll be a welcome burst of summer sunshine when it gets cold again.

Sour Cherry Vanilla Jam

Note: The recipe here is scaled for an urban kitchen: 2 pints of cherries yield roughly 1 1/2 pints of jam, which I preserve in three half-pint jars. Perfect for a small household. If your jam doesn’t quite fill that third jar, that’s okay. Don’t process it; just stick it in the fridge and use it first.

2 pounds (2 pints) sour cherries, rinsed and pitted
2 vanilla beans
1 1/4 cups sugar

Put the cherries in a medium-large pot (stainless steel, cast iron, and enamel all work). Use your hands to mash and squish the cherries, breaking up the fruit and releasing their juice.

Slit vanilla beans lengthwise and use the back of a knife to scrape the vanilla seeds out of the beans. Put the seeds into the pot with the cherries. Halve the beans crosswise (so they fit in the half-pint jars) and add them as well.

Add the sugar to the cherries, stir to combine, and set over medium-high heat. When the cherries begin to bubble, reduce heat to medium low. Cook until jam reaches 220 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you’re looking for big, syrupy bubbles and for most of the liquid to have evaporated. If you want to be sure you’ve achieved the proper texture, tuck a plate into the freezer when you start the jam. To check for doneness, put a few drops of the jam onto the plate, wait 1 minute, and taste. If the jam has firmed up somewhat, it’s done.

At this point, you can transfer the finished jam into jars and refrigerate them, or you can process them for shelf storage. To process jam, sterilize your jars and lids in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove with tongs. Use a funnel to fill the jars most of the way with jam, leaving at least 1/4 inch of headspace. Top with the lids and a screw cap. Return to the pot of boiling water, making sure jars are completely submerged with water when standing upright. When water returns to a boil after jars are added, set a timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, jars are finished processing. Turn off heat, let cool for about 10 minutes more, then carefully remove jars with tongs. Set on the countertop and leave untouched until all jars’ lids have snapped into a vacuum seal (you’ll hear a little “pop!” when that happens). If any jars didn’t seal, you can either reprocess them within 24 hours, or store in the fridge and eat first.

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  • Chanie June 13, 2012,

    Ok, so how do I reconcile being anti-single-purpose kitchen gadgets, (ie – a cherry pitter) and wanting to make this, and other delicious cherry recipes? In the past, I’ve done some with a paring knife (for a delicious apricot cherry crumble), but there may be a limit to my patience.

    • rivka June 14, 2012,

      Chanie, I share your resistance to single-purpose kitchen tools, but I’ve made an exception for the cherry pitter. Honestly, here’s no going back. With just a paring knife, cherries are such a pain to pit that I probably wouldn’t make any of the delicious jams, tarts, cakes, and more that I do with a pitter. It’s small, it collapses fully, and it’s cheap. I’d say take the plunge.

  • Sara July 12, 2012,

    I have a bunch of these pitted beauties in my freezer. I saw some for sale, overbought, but had no time to make the jam, but I’m sure you know how hard it is to get your hands on sour cherries. I love it stirred into yogurt as well. And I have two cherry pitters–a little one and a big one with a clamp that is really fast. No going back.