Preserving fruit under alcohol and sugar is an age old preparation, and an enjoyable one at that. The liqueur infuses the fruit, the fruit infuses the liqueur and the sugar adds a bit of sweetness that takes the edge off the strength of the alcohol. Marco’s nonna used to make these in the summer during the height of cherry season and then serve them to anyone entering the house as a welcome — the ultimate sign of good old fashioned hospitality.
It’s not only an Italian tradition, but in Russia and Poland, where cherry orchards abound, they have a similar preparation where the cherries are used to infuse the liqueur – not so much the other way around – where the cherries are cut in half to expose the flesh and better infuse the alcohol, so you are left with a deep crimson-coloured, cherry-flavoured vodka for sipping.
Here, the cherry is the hero, but in fact (and this is one of the things I really like about this), you could really think of this recipe as giving you two things: the boozy cherries, plump and sweet as the day they were picked, and the deep, tinted liqueur to drink in sips from a small, chilled glass once all the cherries are eaten.
Artusi has a similar recipe in his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. It’s for visciole in guazzo, or sour cherries in spirits. His recipe is interesting though as he doesn’t actually add any liqueur to the jar of cherries, but he lets the cherries make their own. After picking over the cherries and pulling out any that are not-so-perfect, the imperfect ones are squeezed to make juice. The whole cherries are piled into a crystal jar, sugar poured over the top, followed by the juice and a stick of cinnamon and it is then left, without being touched, for two months to macerate.
This is a little bit quicker, and definitely boozier, but it still takes a little patience (a little over a month) before it is recommended tasting them. Consider putting the jar at the back of the cupboard where you can forget about it for a while – the longer it sits, the better, and this does last a very long time.
Cinnamon is the most wonderful spice paired with cherries (like in this sour cherry and cinnamon sorbet) but a few cloves are also nice, or long strips of lemon peel.
Note: In Italy, you can easily buy 190º proof (95% alcohol) in the supermarket for the purpose of making homemade liqueurs or for using in desserts, but this isn’t available in many other countries. When using a 190º proof alcohol, the syrup serves to dilute the liqueur to something similar to vodka or limoncello – in other words, something around 20-40% alcohol. You can also use other liqueurs, namely those with neutral fragrance and flavour like vodka, or something that goes nicely with cherries such as brandy (Miss Foodwise has a lovely recipe for brandied cherries). In this case, you don’t need to make the syrup as the alcohol content is already reduced, but simply pour the sugar directly over the cherries once positioned in the jar, followed by about 350 ml of vodka or brandy, or enough to cover.
Ciliegie sotto spirito (Boozy cherries)
- 500 grams cherries
- 150 ml pure alcohol (see note above)
- 200 ml water
- 100 grams granulated sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and heat to a simmer or until the sugar is dissolved. Remove and let cool completely.
Wash the cherries, picking through them as you go and discarding any that are past their prime, and pat dry. Keep their stems on if possible. Place them in a large jar (or several smaller ones, which make nice gifts), along with the cinnamon stick, broken in pieces if needed. Pour over the alcohol and the cooled sugar syrup. Ensure that the cherries are completely covered with liquid. Close the lid tightly and keep in a cool, dark place (I like the refrigerator for this job but the back of a cupboard is also good) for at least 40 days before trying them.
Serve the cherries as they are, in little glasses with some of the liqueur, use them in cake or tart recipes or eat them with ice cream.