Note: This story is from six years ago, but it is a holiday tale which speaks to any era. As a personal aside, “The Bun” is our toddler, who got that name from being a “Bun in the Oven.” That kid has years of therapy ahead of him.
Every Christmas is a misadventure in gift-making in the hopes of saving money, but this year I thought I would go out of my way to come up with something really special. And when my husband and I went to an amazing dessert place, I noticed they sold a box of four brandied cherries for nine bucks. FOUR CHERRIES. Nine bucks. I don’t question the quality of their cherries, but nine bucks seemed like a lot of hay for four little chocolate-dipped confections.
“I’ll make chocolate cherries for Christmas. If this place can sell ’em for nine bucks a box, surely I can give mine away for free!”
I began doing my research. I didn’t have a recipe and all I could find were separate pieces of the puzzle: a recipe for brandied cherries, without chocolate. Maraschino cherries instead of fresh. Finally I found a recipe that sounded right but there was honest-to-god canning involved and I was intimidated; I’ve never canned anything, and little gift boxes of botulism probably don’t go over very well. So I found a recipe for the cherries which involved only hooch, sugar, and the cherries themselves, dumped in a jar and allowed to pickle themselves in wanton boozy splendor.
Cherries are hard to come by in the middle of December. I’ll bet you haven’t looked lately, but if you had you would discover that cherries are either mangy, ludicrously expensive, or altogether absent. I ran against all three problems in my quest, but finally found a pathetic little bunch for ten dollars a pound at a specialty store. I doused them liberally in brandy.
It was about this time that I realized that the brandied-cherry process takes three months. THREE MONTHS! I didn’t have three weeks! I began to foresee a little time crunch, and unless I could build a time machine in the next few days, my cherries were going to be ready in time for a little Easter giving.
I needed to can them after all.
Back to the stores trawling for fresh cherries, which included me learning when produce deliveries were made. Each potential triumph was met with disappointment: the cherries were supposed to arrive Wednesday, then Thursday. I called the produce guy: no cherries until Saturday, and maybe not until next week. Time was of the essence, and I was losing hope. My cherries were a dream unfulfilled.
I gave up. I was just going to have to bake some stupid cookies or something.
Ready to move on with my life I walked into a store to pick up some victuals, and there, like manna from heaven in a glistening pile of blood-red fructose, was the answer to all my drunken holiday dreams: Chilean Bing cherries for $7.99 a pound. I should have bought them all, but in my travels I envisioned another tortured nut-job racing from store to store looking for cherries and I had pity on them. I left some behind for the next sorry sap.
I was ready to can. I had the cherries. I designed the labels. I bought boxes and little candy underpants for the finished confections. All systems were go.
To evaluate my process, I looked at the website of the dessert place where this seed of discontent had germinated and read the description of their cherries:
The house specialty! These bad boys have been bathing in Kirsch since June! They then take a dip in fondant and finish with bittersweet chocolate.
I read it again: fondant.
What the hell is fondant?
There was some mystery component called “fondant” which was the answer to my drunken cherry nightmare. Back to the internet I went, searching high and low for a definition of fondant and how I could get some, fast.
Each answer provided more questions. Fondant was the icing on those crazy Martha Stewart wedding cakes which look like they’ve been shellacked. But what was icing doing in my drunken cherries? It was a solid that turned into a liquid and made cordials gooey inside. Okay, great, gooey cherries, but how the hell do I get some?
After reading thirty websites and parsing out half-literate directions, I realized that fondant is confusing because fondant is all things to all bakers. It is the icing on the cake and the buttercream filling in Mrs. See’s candy. It is the sugary goo in the cordial cherry and the totality of the after-dinner mints in the restaurant. It is everything, and nothing at all.
It was too zen for me. But I had come too far, invested too much sanity, and spent too much money on cherries to let a little sugar come between me and my drunken confection.
Now we were treading in true candy-making waters, a dark, perilous path which, unlike cooking, has little margin for error and lots of scientific voodoo surrounding it. I was never very good at science. I read up all I could, and bought myself a candy thermometer and a scraper. I dug out a marble slab from a table which had gone into deep storage since The Bun arrived.
I put him down for a nap, and I began to boil sugar.
The only thing I really know about boiling anything is that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But this sugar needed to boil to a “soft ball” stage, which was supposed to be between 235 and 240 degrees exactly. I had no idea how long that took.
It takes a long time.
The Bun was awake before it was done, that’s how long it took. And I needed to let the sugar cool for a while on my marble slab, which, after waiting an eternity for it to boil was too much for me to resist. As a cook, you’re always stirring and tasting and spicing and stirring again, but this candy thing was achtung about stirring the boiling sugar (“Verboten!”), and now I had to let it cool without meddling with it? It was intolerable. Plus, The Bun was rummaging through a cupboard he had emptied of its couscous the day before, and I needed to get this show on the road before the pilaf met a similar end.
I began to knead my fondant. It was very, very sticky. It did not come up easily from the marble slab. It did not ball up like Silly Putty or Play Dough. It stuck to the scraper. It stuck to itself. It was a complete mess. I powdered my hands with corn starch and began twisting it in my hands, hoping it would begin to harden just enough for me to throw it away, when it began to turn white, just like it was supposed to. It was crazy, it was amazing! I set it down and rescued the oyster crackers from the clutches of the bun. I felt moderately triumphant, and then went about trying to make dinner.
Lars came home to a marble slab covered in sugary tar, me covered in corn starch, and a hungry Bun. I explained the circuitous route by which I came to this point, and showed him my round white ball of sugar which I tapped proudly.
It thudded. It had a weight similar to the heft of cement shoes. It was as white as a cue ball, but markedly larger with a gravity that puts Jupiter to shame. My fondant wasn’t a light confection that was flexible enough to roll–it was hard enough that if I hurled it at someone’s head, it would give them a concussion, if not kill them outright.
Despite this setback (how many setbacks have I had now? Four? Five?), I proceeded along with my plan and canned the second batch of cherries. I’m considering getting more just so I can make sure I’ve got enough on hand to make a fabulously ridiculously enormous batch of chocolate-bloody-covered cherries.
At this point I’m committed. I’ve become a woman possessed.
Now it’s not about the Christmas cheer, or the joy of giving, or the good feeling one gets by sharing a handmade gift of delicious food. Now it’s the principle of the thing. Now it’s about revenge. Now it’s about me conquering a bunch of out-of-season cherries and making them cower beneath my fondant and chocolate glaze.
I have seen my Drunken Cherries through to their conclusion, and there’s no step which hasn’t been met with chaos. As of this writing, the casualty list is: four jars of cherries, three batches of failed fondant, two bags of sugar, a quart plus a pint of brandy, several pounds of chocolate, many afternoons, and most of my dignity.
I never did succeed in making fondant. One batch was stone, one was tar, and after I realized my thermometer wasn’t recording proper temperatures, my last batch crystallized like rock candy. So I gave in and bought some. Of course, it was out of stock when I walked in, so I had to wait yet another day. This is typical of the Cherry Path, and in the end the cherries proved stronger than me: after finally seeing several cherries through to their chocolate-drenched conclusion, most of them had holes which leached goo like the blood from battlefield wounds. Some died on the table. The ones I patched up in triage were misshapen and monstrous looking, more Frankenstein than delightful dessert.
When I was weighing whether or not to package them up anyway, I noticed to my chagrin that they had developed a case of “bloom,” a separation of the chocolate solids, making them even less attractive (if that were possible) and serving as a ringing note of failure in my epic cherry-making disaster. Finally, when I checked on them this afternoon, I found that the remaining chocolate shells had imploded in a tide of cherry effluvia, apparently preferring to take their own lives rather than continue on in ignominy. They expired on December 17th, 2004 around 2:33 p.m. They are entombed forever in two little Tupperware sepulchers.
After I had become obsessed, I penned my version of Heart of Darkness:
My journey into the jungle of confection continues. The walls of candy are closing in on me, threatening to tip me into the abyss of madness. The world runs in rivers of blood-red syrup and stark white fondant, blending in a failure of bad science and too little time.
The natives are getting restless, and I can feel the thrum-thrum-thrumming of drunk cherries, lolling like corpses in their watery tomb of sugar and spirits, condemning me, accusing me. The cold marble slab upon which I sacrificed two balls of fondant lies awaiting me like my own bier.
Each step takes time, and I have none to spare. I fear that I may not survive this trip. I fear the jungle is stronger than I am.
The horror… the horror…
That just about sums it up.