Give your love a cherry
Homemade maraschinos are a whole new ball game
When you hear the words “maraschino cherry,” what comes to mind? A hot fudge sundae topped with snowy-white whipped cream? A fizzy “mocktail” for kids? A simple jar of glowing red spheres?
Believe it or not, until I was doing my research for this issue’s Stone’s Soup Corner, I’d never eaten one myself. As a kid I always abandoned the sweet glossy cherry at the bottom of the glass and tossed it off the top of my ice cream sundaes. Why would I want to ruin a warm fudge-y dessert with neon fruit? Just to be clear, I wasn’t a fan of the nuts or whipped cream either. I’m a purist.
It’s not that I don’t like sweets. I love sweets. Just not ones (or any foods, for that matter) that glow.
What the world has come to know as maraschino cherries originated in Croatia, where the local Marasca cherry was soaked in “maraschino” liqueur made from the cherries as a method of preservation. Because of the limited production of the Marascas, they were considered delicacies reserved for royalty and the rich.
Introduced into the US in the late 19th century, American producers experimented with other, more widely available cherry varietals and less-expensive ways to produce the maraschino flavor, including the addition of almond flavoring. A professor at Oregon State University eventually “codified” a recipe for replicating the flavor of the traditional cherry, using a brine to “cure” the cherries, then adding artificial color, flavorings and sweeteners. Whether Prohibition in the US caused or sped up the demise of the alcohol-soaked version is widely debated.
Most modern maraschino cherries are first preserved in a brine solution usually containing sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride, which bleaches the fresh cherries, then soaked in a solution of food coloring (including FD&C Red 40), high-fructose corn syrup and other flavorings. The result is the sticky, treacly, glowing red balls that are ubiquitous on store shelves, in mocktails and (dis)gracing the top of hot fudge sundaes today.
Not to mention literally dying the “honey” of neighboring bees the same garish red as the cherries when one unscrupulous maraschino manufacturer in Brooklyn illegally dumped its waste into surrounding waters in a widely reported story from 2010.
Actually, I was never a fan of fresh cherries, either, until we moved into a house with two very healthy cherry trees. Eating cherries fresh off the tree is an amazing experience, if you can beat the birds to them. It must be some special bird-sense, because they always seem to know the exact day the cherries become perfectly ripe and will strip that tree in a matter of hours.
When we are lucky enough to get to them first, we always have way too many cherries to eat before they spoil. That got me thinking about ways to prolong the enjoyment. The result is this simple recipe for preserving cherries that uses only natural ingredients with names you can pronounce.
Have fun making these with your kids—they love to run the pitter! Then use them to liven up these classic drink recipes, or plan an ice cream sundae party as the spring days start to lengthen and warm up. And don’t forget the whipped cream and nuts!