Two weeks ago, to the day, I was in Budapest. It was glorious. Despite all the traveling I’ve done, this was my first foray into what I always considered Eastern Europe and I loved it. Budapest is a beautiful city, a delight to walk about with interesting architecture, delicious 100-year-old coffeehouses and a wonderful history tinged with the smallest hint of WWII melancholy. I was traveling with two friends and we did all the things you’re supposed to: visiting historic sites like the Parliament Building and various monuments and markers, took a good soak in the Szechenyi public baths amongst their bright yellow ornate wedding cake-like buildings and paying proper respects at all the requisite churches and synagogues. But I made sure to squeeze in some of the things I do every time I travel – at least one market visit and some intense pastry research. There even was a trip to an outdoor museum that houses sculptures from the former communist regime. You have to get a little bit of historic communist propaganda in while visiting Eastern Europe.
Side note: The United Nations Statistics Division classifies Eastern Europe as: Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. This definition encompasses most of the states which were once under the Soviet Union’s realm of influence and were part of the Warsaw Pact. However, according to the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (yes, apparently this really is a thing), the area is classified a bit differently and Hungary isn’t actually in “Eastern Europe”; rather it falls into the “East Central and South-East Europe Division” along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, and Ukraine. So, having visited Croatia, Greece and passed through Bosnia, it appears that based on this definition I have been to that region but maybe not technically “Eastern Europe” per se. Maybe? But what I want to know is do I now have to refer to my rather thick “Eastern European arms” as “my East Central and South East Europe Division arms”? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Fodder for further thought.
While wandering through Budapest’s Central Market (on three different occasions), amidst the endless paprika displays and hanging sausages, were some of the most beautiful stone fruit, artfully arranged into high piles. Two of my favorites – apricots and sour cherries – were on abundant display, quickly snapped up by Hungarian grannies with sharp elbows whom I imagined had plans to make fabulous jams and pastries. How I wanted to follow them home! Buying perfectly ripe fruit and eating it fresh, while quite wonderful, doesn’t have the same enjoyment for me as cooking sometimes. So I had cherries on my mind when I later said to my friends, “Cherries are in season. I need to eat something with cherries.”
Lo and behold, just a few hours later at lunch, they were serving meggyleves as a special. Perfect! Cold cherry soup may sound odd to our Western ears but it is a very traditional Eastern European soup, especially in Hungary, and is served as either the appetizer, soup, or dessert on warm summer nights. I promptly ordered a bowl along with a tall cold beer, thinking both would help assuage the summer heat. The soup arrived, a deep dark reddish pink with a few whole cherries bobbing about in the slightly thickened broth. I took a sip and was surprised by the flavor – bright, slightly sweet with a hint of cinnamon. I liken it to liquidy cherry pie filling but much less sweet. It was interesting, very interesting. Actually, I very much enjoyed it.
While I was traveling, I noticed from my weekly email updates that my favorite farmer had sour cherries earlier than expected back home. Oh no. Usually only available for a short window of time, I was afraid I might miss them but there wasn’t much I could do. Hungarian cherry strudel eased my pain. Upon my return, I hit the first market I could right at the opening bell with my fingers crossed. You never know – one market day, they’re there. The next, they’re gone. As I hurried over to Farmer Pete’s stand, I saw them. A whole table’s worth. In fact he had 5 different kinds of cherries – 2 sour, 3 sweet. Wow.
I bought a half flat of Montmorency and Baleton sour varieties and smiled happily. I lugged the heavy box to work, stowing it atop a cabinet for the day, carefully transported it home and slid it gently into my fridge. A lot of work just to get some damn cherries and I hadn’t even pitted them yet. Now, I adore sour cherries (hence my freak out) but I didn’t have a plan. In my haste to find them, I hadn’t given much thought on what to do with them. Over the weekend, scrolling through my trip photos I remembered that lovely soup. Sure, why not? It would be perfect on these blazing hot summer days.
I started with a recipe Saveur printed some time ago and made adjustments based on my rather fresh memory and personal preferences. Saveur recommends all kinds of substitutions – canned cherries, frozen cherries, sweet bing cherries. No. This should be made and always made with sour cherries, preferably fresh. You need that sourness, that acidic counterpoint, otherwise the soup will be all wrong. Canned cherries doesn’t seem right either. And while frozen sour cherries may be fine if that’s all you have – use any liquid that accumulates as the juice in the recipe – you won’t have any big plump cherries floating about because the freezing will have collapsed their cell structure.
So I propose, and stick with me here, that you make this the way the Hungarians do. During that precious 2-4 week window when sour cherries are fresh and plentiful at your local farmers market. Is that just crazy? I don’t think so.
As for the rest of the recipe, I think it needs just a little sugar to highlight the cherry flavor, some liquid (cherry juice would be best but water will suffice), a cinnamon stick and a few lemon slices. I like it partially pureed, pulling out a few cherries first to keep them whole, and I add a hit of sour cream at the end. As far as I could tell, the version I had in Budapest didn’t have any sour cream or dairy for that matter, which is surprising because they put it in everything else. I really like the way the tartness compliments the sour cherry flavor and there’s an added benefit. The sour cream turns the soup a fantastic shade of Barbie pink. It’s fabulously shocking. You could certainly leave it out if you like but why? If you have little girls, they will love it.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: DESSERT FOR DINNER. This one confuses people not of Hungarian descent – they don’t know what to make of it. “Cherry soup? The fruit? But that’s for dessert, right? I don’t get it.” It doesn’t matter – you don’t have to “get” something when it’s delicious. I’d love to say something Hungarian here to tie it all together but I shamefully admit to learning no Hungarian. I’m a horrible tourist. Wait a minute, I could navigate my way through a menu pretty well so that’s something. Typical.
four years ago: Sour Cherry Sorbet
three years ago: Betty’s Pies – Exploring Minnesota
two years ago: Life in Southwest France
one year ago: Sour Cherry Slab Pie
one more sour cherry recipe: Sour Cherry Cobbler
HUNGARIAN SOUR CHERRY SOUP (hideg meggyleves) - adapted from this recipe
If you can’t find fresh sour cherries, frozen sour cherries would work too – defrost and use the accumulated juice as the liquid in the recipe. I suppose you could use sweet bing cherries though the flavor will be completely different. The name is formed from hideg meaning ‘cold’, meggy meaning ‘sour-cherries’ and leves meaning ‘soup’. Did you see sweet in there? Me neither.
2 pounds fresh sour cherries, pitted
½ cup water or cherry juice
2 Tablespoons sugar
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cinnamon stick
2 lemon slices, ¼” thick and seeded if necessary
½ cup sour cream
- Add cherries, water (or juice) sugar, salt, cinnamon stick and lemon slices in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the cherries are tender, about 5 minutes.
- Let cool then discard the lemon slices and cinnamon stick.
- Remove ½ cup of the cherries with a slotted spoon and puree the remaining mixture with an immersion blender or regular blender until smooth.
- If the mixture is cooled (i.e. not hot), add in the sour cream and blend or whisk until smooth.
- Add the reserved cherries back to the mixture, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours or overnight until thoroughly chilled. Serve cold.