Fishing the sticky-sweet, hot-pink orb from the bottom of a soda glass was a rite of childhood. But set aside that store-bought variety and make your own, with fresh cherries -- and a few fresh ideas for showcasing them.
I miss maraschino cherries. I know they are deeply unfashionable -- ersatz, lurid neon red and candy sweet. But they remind me of being a kid. In particular, they remind me of childhood Shirley Temples -- the pink, imbibable bribe my sister and I got to sit still at our parents' favorite steakhouse while they enjoyed their surf and turf. We would devote considerable effort to fishing out the cherry, the prize at the bottom of the fizzy Cracker Jack box.
I'm not the only one to miss the humble garnish: Writer James Villas once admitted that, in the backlash against Red Dye No. 2, he resorted to carrying his own supply of maraschino cherries in a small Advil bottle.
"A Manhattan or whiskey sour without a cherry looks naked and ugly," he wrote. "And how dangerous can those tasty sweet cherries be when, for heaven's sake, they haven't hurt Shirley Temple all these years?"
I have to admit, although grudgingly, that those hot-pink orbs now seem too sticky-sweet to me. But with cherry season upon us, I'm gearing up to hit the market and make my own, from-scratch, very grown-up maraschino cherries.
Around the country, those same clever bartenders who make their own grenadine and brew house-made ginger beer are also making proper maraschino cherries, whether soaked in Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, brandy or another liqueur. So I asked a bartender buddy for his recipe: "Cover a bunch of cherries with Luxardo and let it sit as long as you dare," he said with a wink. "Two weeks minimum, though."
Some people add sweeteners or flavorings such as cinnamon or almond oil, he said, and I was instructed to leave the pits and stems intact and let alchemy work its magic for the best effect.
In fact, this minimalist recipe is closest to the original concept from the golden age of cocktails. Consider this excerpt from a 1910 newspaper story:
"A young woman engaged a room at a fashionable hotel and, after ordering a Manhattan cocktail, immediately sent for another. Soon she was ordering them by the dozen. The management interfered and someone was sent to expostulate with her; also to find out how she had been able to consume so many cocktails. She was found surrounded by the full glasses with the cherry gone."
I relate to that young lady. However, her story doesn't have a happy ending: The growing temperance movement frowned on booze-soaked cherries, and soon manufacturers began to churn out nonalcoholic, sweetened cherries similar to the ones we know and love/hate today.
As we're now returning to the romance of speakeasy-style bars and pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes, I'm ready for post-Prohibition cherries.
So when cherries hit their gleaming, dark-red luscious best, I bought a carton at the market, washed them well and enshrined them in a Mason jar full of Luxardo. Some recommend authentic Marasca cherries, if you can get them from Europe, or naturally bright-red sour cherries -- nature's inspiration for Red Dye No. 2. I went with sweet cherries instead.
That's the easy part. Waiting, on the other hand, can be ridiculously difficult. With the ultimate self-restraint, I waited a full hour before plucking one from the liquid to try. Result: a highly alcoholic piece of fresh fruit.
So I waited a few more days (OK, it wasn't intentional; I simply forgot about them) and tried again. Better. The fruit had mellowed and softened, though it still appeared smooth-skinned and ripe. I detected a faint almond aftertaste, which I later learned was from the cherry stone.
As instructed, I allowed the fruit to rest a full two weeks, and eagerly returned to the jar. Bingo -- maraschino cherries, perfectly preserved, with a rounded, brandied flavor and pronounced, lingering cherry-almond aftertaste. It's an authentic taste and texture very far from the candy-pink specimens found on supermarket shelves.
I promptly bundled some cherries, still bobbing in the liqueur, to bring to my sister for making grown-up Shirley Temples. Childhood nostalgia is grand, we agreed, but adult indulgence is way better.