Elisa phones to tell me that the amarene – sour cherries – are ripe and plentiful on her huge tree, and invites me to pick as many as I want. I love sour cherries in jam, dessert sauces and in a crostata, so off I go with a big bucket.
Picking amarene is the easy part, albeit sticky. With a slight tug, ripe amarene come easily off the stems into my hands, occasionally squirting a bit of juice into my face. After about an hour of sticky picking I’ve got a half a bucket filled – more than a gallon of beautiful ripe amarene.
Somehow I forgot to figure pitting into the jam-making equation. This is the type of job that one traditionally does with a handful of chattering relatives, so that the work goes quickly and you get caught up on all the family gossip. Unfortunately, I am alone today, so pitting, is well, the pits. Though the pits come out easily, juice spatters across the counter and leaves sticky red drops across the kitchen floor. I solve this by holding the cherries down in a pot when pitting, which results in spraying red droplets onto my formerly clean shirt.
After an hour and a half of steady pitting, the amarene seem to have multiplied by the thousands. Emanuele shows up and gasps at the alarming red splatters in the kitchen that look like a sloppy murder scene. He graciously decides to help for the last 30 minutes, and wisely changes from white linen into an old red T-shirt. At the end of the pitting session, I freeze a kilo (2 pounds) of whole pitted cherries for future use, while the remaining 4 liters (8 cupfuls) are destined for sour cherry jam.
Using a cooking method I adapted from David Lebovitz’s blog, first put a small white plate in the freezer (with a metal tablespoon). Then, put the sour cherries in a pot with 2 TB of fresh lemon juice and cook over high heat until soft about, 20 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to make sure they don’t burn. Measure the amount of cooked cherries and jam (being careful not to splatter any hot juice on your skin), and add an equal amount of sugar. Use a deep pot so the jam doesn’t boil over.
If you think this is a lot of sugar, let me assure you it’s not. I hate overly sweet jam that doesn’t taste like fruit, but the beauty of amarene cherries is that they are very sour, so you can add lots of sugar and still have a thick jam that is tart and fruity. In fact, equal amounts of sugar and fruit may still be too sour for some sugar lovers, but this is the proportion I generally use when the amarene are perfectly ripe.
As the jam cooks, stir it frequently so that it doesn’t burn. As you and the whole kitchen heat up with cherry scented steam, just think of the facial cleansing you’ll be getting and what nice clean pores you’ll have along with your jam. Soon the thick cherry fug will waft out the kitchen window alerting your neighbors to your jam-making. (When they come begging for a taste, remind them of their absence during pitting. )
When the sour cherry jam begins to thicken and lightly coats the cold metal spoon, shut off the heat, place a spoonful of jam on the cold white plate and pop it back into the freezer to cool. If the cooled jam wrinkles when nudged with your finger, it’s done. Otherwise, cook for a few minutes longer. (Less time is needed for cooking an amarene dessert sauce, a great accompaniment to panna cotta. Amarene dessert sauce should be thinner than jam and made without the lemon juice.)
Ladle the hot amarene jam or dessert sauce into clean canning jars, wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth and seal with a new clean cap. (I use very small jars so that in case I am enticed to give any as a gift there will still be enough for me.) If there is any jam leftover that doesn’t fill a jar, immediately toast a piece of bread and slather it with the warm amarene jam. Revel in the intense cherry flavor-this is the moment when all that arduous pitting was worth it.
Amarene jam makes a fabulous crostata, raising this humble Italian dessert to new heights of glory. Here is a recipe for crostata di marmellata di amarene, or sour cherry jam tart.