Once you've had a taste of love, you shouldn't settle for anything less.
Last year, I fell in love pretty quickly. It was a bit of an accident, really. I was at a bourbon bar with my lovely friend Emily, trying to decide what drink to order when my eyes landed on the old fashioned. Was it a complicated drink? Absolutely not. Had I had it before? Sure. Yet despite all the complex and fancy cocktails on the menu, something made me order it... and, looking back now, I'm pretty glad I did.
When the bartender came back with our drinks, I noticed that something seemed off with my cocktail. At first, I thought I ordered the wrong thing because my old fashioned was missing the neon glow of the red maraschino sunk in the bottom of the glass. Instead, skewered on top was a dark, almost black cherry. Curiously, I picked up my glass, examined the skewer, and tentatively popped the cherry in my mouth.
From that moment, I was smitten. This was not the overly-sweet, almond-flavored maraschino I had grown up with. This one cherry seemed to erase the memory all of the bright red Shirley Temple Maraschinos of my youth. It was rich, decadent and most definitely, adult. I don't remember much of what was going on around me or what Emily and I were talking about because the world around me seemed to blur and the only thing in focus was the cherry flavor that seemed to be on an intense date with my taste buds. To put it briefly, it was love at first bite.
When I found the Luxardo cherries in a store a week later, I was immediately both excited and disappointed. I had been to several different liquor stores trying to find them, so when I finally saw them on the shelf, I was elated.... until I saw the price tag. $16 for a smallish jar. Sixteen dollars! For cherries! I mean, sure they were the best cherries I'd ever eaten, but were they really worth that much? And, at that price tag, could I ever justify eating them straight from the jar?
It turns out, I totally could (though not without reminding myself how much they cost so I didn't eat the whole jar in one sitting), though once the first jar was gone, I couldn't bring myself to splurge on another one without first trying my hand at making my own version as soon as cherry season rolled around.
As I started experimenting with different recipes, it became apparent pretty quickly that my cherry standards were at an all-time high. Like real love, once you've had someone treat you with thoughtfulness and the utmost care, you shouldn't settle for someone who doesn't show you respect or can't be bothered to call you. The same went for my cherries. I wasn't going to settle for some lackluster, watery imitation or a corn syrupy mess. I wanted cherry gold. To get there, I did a LOT of research before I actually cracked open the Luxardo. And, like online dating sites, had a lot of misses before finding something close to what originally made my tastebuds swoon.
If these cherries had a match.com profile, their headline would be "Small, Dark & Handsome." Add that to the fact that they're surrounded by a rich, viscous syrup and it makes for one dangerously delicious combination. As I poured through the recipes, I feared that this combo, like real love, would be impossible to replicate. A number of the recipes claiming to produce Luxardo-like cherries yielded a watery cough-drop tasting syrup. Other recipes just submerged the cherries in straight booze. A common caveat was that the cherries would lose shape, color and texture from boiling in the simple syrup, but called for it anyway. The Art of Drink set out to fix these issues with the addition of phosphates and additives, but that was a bit too complicated for me (I'd still suggest reading it if you like geeking out over ingredients and food science!). I set out to produce cherries that wouldn't lose their color, shape or texture, had a thicker syrup and tasted similar to my favorite cherries without verging on cough syrup. Overall, I think I came pretty close!
After spending a weekend in my kitchen with several different kinds of cherries and processes, here are the results of my experiments:
Batch 1 - Sweet cherries with a recipe calling for cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, vanilla, etc. The flavor of the cherry didn't stand out and the syrup tasted like cough syrup. I also boiled the cherries for 5 minutes in the syrup and they got too mushy for my liking.
Batch 2 - Hungarian sour cherries (jarred) with just cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and lemon juice (recipe below). I had a jar of sour cherries in my fridge and wanted to use them up. I added the cherries into the simple syrup right after turning the heat off and gave them a toss. Their color was faded to begin with and would've faded more had I cooked them in the simple syrup. Flavor was better with sour cherries, but the color/texture was still off.
Batch 3 - Fresh sour cherries and the recipe below. This was the winner for sure. I played around with the temperature of the sugar syrup because I wanted to have a slightly thicker syrup but also have enough of the Luxardo flavor without thinning out the syrup (or adding corn syrup). I added the cherries last to preserve their texture/appearance. The syrup isn't nearly as thick as my beloved Luxardos, but it is thicker than the watery recipes I started out with and it doesn't involve corn syrup, so I consider it a happy compromise.
Takeaways? Use fresh sour cherries if you can, jarred sour cherries (or frozen) in a pinch. Obviously if you can get amarena cherries (which are the kind Luxardo uses), they'd be your best bet. I found that I liked adding the alcohol at the end so the flavor doesn't burn off. Additionally, adding the cherries at the end, rather than cooking them in the syrup will preserve their texture, but the flavor will improve the longer they hang out in the jar. So if you want a cherry that tastes boozy all the way through from the get-go, you may want to boil the cherries in the syrup for five minutes and then let them cool so they're good to go immediately.
If you've made your own cocktail cherries before, leave your own tips in the comments. Happy cooking! :)
Homemade Luxardo Cherries
- 1 lb sour cherries, washed & pitted
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla bean, split but not scraped
- 1 1/2 T lemon juice
- 1/4 cup Luxardo liqueur
Before we begin: We'll be canning these bad boys, so be sure to sterilize two pint size mason jars + lids and metal rings in boiling water for 15 minutes and let them hang out in hot water while you prepare the cherries. If you're new to canning, I suggest starting with this great guide from Marisa at Food in Jars, who explains sterilizing jars way more succinctly than I ever could.
- In a medium sauce pan, combine sugar and water. Heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add in cinnamon stick and vanilla bean and continue to heat until mixture reaches 220F.
- Turn off heat and remove vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. Discard.
- Stir in lemon juice and Luxardo liqueur until combined.
- Add the cherries to the hot syrup. Gently toss to combine.
- Carefully ladle the cherries and syrup into sterile jars. Wipe off any spillage from the rims of the jars with a paper towel dipped in hot water (go ahead and use the water you boiled the jars in. I won't tell.). Place the lids on and then screw the rings on until they're just tight.
- Allow the jars to cool to room temperature. They should make a popping noise as they seal. Once the jars are cool, check to make sure that they have, in fact, sealed. If for some reason the lid didn't, just put the jar in the fridge and use it within two weeks or so. Sealed jars will keep for a while.
- Serve with homemade bitters and some rye in an old fashioned, spoon over ice cream, or indulge your inner cherry addict and eat straight from the jar. No judgement here :)