I was always one of those kids who, when dining out, would stalk every cocktail drinker at the table for their maraschino cherry. I was also one of those kids who, when lucky enough to be served a cherry in her mocktail, would snatch it quickly off the top and pop it in her mouth like a pre-drink appetizer, then watch as her sister would leisurely sip away at her drink, cherry falling lower and lower in the glass as she tauntingly saved the best for last. I worried, for some reason, that if a cherry managed to reached the bottom of such a tall glass, it would be out of reach forever and, with that, any miniscule possibility of a successful bribe to receive it, gone for good. Imagine the look on my face when our good friend arrived at our door last week with a bag full of fresh, hand-picked cherries. The exact cherries that become, in fact, the magnificent maraschino.
Literally, the name maraschino refers to the Croatian marasca cherry and the maraschino liqueur made from it. When the cherries are preserved in the liqueur, they are known as "maraschino cherries". The impossibly red cocktail cherries of today that we all know (and I love) typically use a sweet cherry variety rather than the sour marascas and are preserved in a brining solution instead of liqueur - a far cry from their historical origin. It is likely (and quite sad) that I have never actually tasted a true maraschino. Feeling a bit fooled, and a lot ripped off, my initial impulse was to make my own maraschino cherries but, after considering the two years necessary to mature the distillate (never mind having to track down an ashwood vat), I quickly vetoed the idea (you know me and my instant gratification issues...). Yes, I could have easily run out an bought a bottle of maraschino liqueur to pour over the lot, but it seemed to me like cheating.
|cherries and pits|
Having recently made rustic apple tart, I eliminated the idea of baking a pie and, wanting to give a portion of whatever I ended up making back to the friend who provided the cherries, crossed off the question of crisp (though, if Andy would have been coming to visit, surely the outcome would have been different). Still, even without a plan, I knew that, regardless of what I ended up doing with the cherries, they would need their pits removed. Armed with my makeshift cherry pitter (an unfolded paperclip - seriously! - hold the cherry in one hand and, with your other hand, insert the paperclip into the point of the cherry where the stem once was, slide it down along the edge of the pit until it reaches the bottom, run the paperclip around the circumference of the pit to loosen it from the fruit, squeeze the pit out with the hand you are holding the cherry with, repeat. repeat. repeat. repeat....) I went to work. With numerous cherry pitting sessions spread across multiple days, I had plenty (PLENTY.) of time to think up something spectacular to do with them.
|paperclip cherry pitter|
I felt like I was finally getting somewhere with my cherry pitting efforts when Saša managed to scavenge my 'already pitted' bowl to whip up a warm prošek cherry sauce (he bribed me with ice cream - what else could I do?). Rather than considering my once again empty bowl a 'two steps back' scenario, I used the sauce as a trial run taste test to see what these ruby red beauties could do (I know, as if anything over ice cream could ever be considered 'two steps back' - but I had to give him a hard time for swiping them, right?) They held their shape when heated, had a slightly tart flavour and bursted with juicy deliciousness when you popped them in your mouth. More like an oversized blueberry than a miniture version of the giant cherries that come off our British Columbia trees, I was reminded of an insanely delicious berry bar that I'd once had in a random coffee shop in Calgary - a bar insanely delicious enough that I'm still thinking about it ten years later.
|a juicy mess|
I found a recipe online for Willow's Sour Cherry Bars. According to the recipe posted by Kathleen Williams, Willow is a local caterer in Wenatchee, Washington. While I don't know Willow, I do know Wenatchee - and I know that Wenatchee knows cherries. I put my faith in Willow and gathered my goods. I'm glad I did.
I won't go in to great detail about how to make these sour cherry bars, as the recipe is already provided in a nice, easy, printable format - probably much easier to deal with than trying to follow my blah blah blah. What I will do for you though, is let you in on my tweaks and edits - just in case you trust my judgement and want a few tips from someone who has tasted them.
|simple hand-cut crust|
My first suggestion is to double the crust. Why? it didn't seem like enough for me once I patted it into my pan. I ended up making a second batch and patting it over the first. Super glad I made that call as these are pretty sticky little treats and they need something substantial to hold the gooey topping.
My second thought (which was my initial instinct) would be to reduce the amount of sugar. These were pretty darn sweet to be called sour cherry bars. I stuck to the recipe as written, and perhaps my 'too sweet' was a result of doubling the crust (maybe double the crust but omit the second amount of powdered sugar?). I really don't know... but next time I make these (and there will be a next time) I will definitely pull back on the sweet.
Finally, listen to Willow when she warns against chopping fruit to finely - you definitely want to maintain the integrity of the fruit. Not wanting to lose the pop of my berry like cherries, I decided to keep them whole (another good choice on my part) and, with every bite, they would burst in my mouth like little cherry bombs.
|straight from the oven|
I was a bit concerned when I pulled the pan from of the oven; the cherries now hidden beneath a brownish crust. My fears melted as I later cut into them, the crust sinking down to reveal the glistening cherries, leaving just enough baked sugar on top to add a touch of bronze spackle (like a butter tart filled with fresh fruit!). They were perfect for sharing (meaning they were easy to cut, store and transport - they were, admittedly, a little bit hard to part with). I'll take Willow's suggestion and try peaches, plums and rhubarb, but really am looking forward to the next marasca season; I was pretty pleased with these cherries on top.
|sour cherry bars|