One bright summer morning a few years ago when I was shopping at the Farmers Market in Cable, Wisconsin, a small carton of bright red cherries caught my eye.
“Pie cherries?” I asked.
“You bet,” said the young woman sitting behind her table, “I have one tree, but it gave us a lot of cherries this year.”
“How much for the carton?”
She looked a little uncomfortable as she answered, “Three dollars.”
She relaxed when I asked whether she had any more. I already had thoughts of a cherry pie like my mother used to make.
The cherry vendor retrieved two more cartons from below the table. One was only half full. “I’ll take them all. How much do I owe you.”
“Would seven dollars be okay?” Soon I was on my way back to the cabin with my treasure.
A day later and home in New Richmond, I called our friend Rich to ask if I could borrow the cherry pitter that he and his wife Audrey had bought on one of their many visits to Door County, the cherry district of Wisconsin. Rich had loaned it to me a few years earlier when we brought back cherries from Michigan.
The cherry pitter worked great, but pitting nearly three pounds of cherries convinced me that it was too hot to bake a pie. Thus came the inspiration to make a sour cherry jam that would taste like the best part of a cherry pie—the cherries.
Mom called them “pie cherries.” She bought a large tin can of frozen pie cherries every year from a man with a refrigerator truck who stopped at our house. He was from Door County, which is probably why I used to think that Wisconsin was a leading state for sour cherry production. However, though Wisconsin does grow a lot of sour cherries, we rank far behind Michigan and even behind Utah, Washington and New York.
We didn’t have a big chest freezer when I was growing up, so we had a flurry of cherry pies after the cherry man had left. Mom did keep some in jars in the refrigerator freezer, and although I don’t remember it, she may have made cherry jam. The recipe below is not from my mother, but I am sure she would approve of it.
As with all jams and jellies, preparing the fruit is the hard part. Once that is done, it takes only a few minutes to make the finished product. Here is the way to do it.
4 cups pitted and chopped sour cherries
4 3/4 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter
6 oz. Sure-Jell fruit pectin
1/4 -1/2 tsp. almond extract
Wash and sterilize enough jars and lids to hold at least seven cups. This recipe makes about six cups of jam, but it is wise to have that extra jar in case you have a tablespoon or two of jam left over after filling six jars.
Sterilize the jars by washing them thoroughly and inverting them in a nine by thirteen-inch baking pan that has about an inch of water in it. Set the pan on the range, bring the water to boiling and simmer the pan for a few minutes, tipping the jars slightly to allow the hot air to escape. Turn off the heat and transfer the jars to drain on a cooling rack a few minutes before the jam is done.
Wash, stem, and pit the cherries. Chop them into small pieces, an eighth to a third of an inch dice.
Measure the sugar into a bowl and set it aside. Have the bottle of almond extract ready for use.
Put the cherries, pectin and a half teaspoon of butter into a Dutch oven or soup pot over moderate heat. Stir the mixture almost continuously until it comes to a rolling boil. A rolling boil is one that keeps bubbling when you stir it.
While the chopped cherries are heating, put a small saucepan with enough paraffin in it to make two thin layers of paraffin on the jars on a burner over very low heat. Be careful not to heat the paraffin more than just to melt it.
When the cherries have come to a rolling boil, stir in the sugar, bring the mixture back to a rolling boil and boil for one minute, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat, add the almond extract and stir for a minute or so. If necessary, skim off any foam. There is seldom much foam on this jam.
Using a dipper and a funnel, fill the hot jars, leaving one-third to one-half-inch head space. If necessary, use a piece of moistened paper towel to remove any dribbled jam from the inside of the tops of the jars.
Use a tablespoon to put a thin layer of melted paraffin on top of the jam in each jar and allow the jars to cool without moving them. After the jam is completely cooled, add a second thin layer of paraffin.
NOTE: This year, someone beat me to the cherry lady’s table at the Farmers Market, so I had to make do with unsweetened frozen sour cherries from the supermarket. They worked fine and were already pitted, so making the jam was a snap. However, after I chopped and measured the fruit, there were a few cherries still left in the package.
Since I didn’t want to waste those beautiful cherries, I just risked it and added the two extra tablespoons of chopped fruit to the mixture. I added another tablespoon of sugar and two tablespoons of cold water that I used to rinse some pieces of cherry out of the measuring cup. All went well because cherries have a lot of natural pectin, but be careful not to overdo this.
It is important to measure things exactly for most jam and jelly recipes to ensure the proper proportions needed for jelling. In particular, do not try changing the proportions of ingredients for chokecherry jelly or orange marmalade. I speak from experience.