We are just a few days into September here in South Florida but I can already feel the shift of seasons. A shift so fine that mostly the locals who steep in the heat and humidity of the tropics year round, myself included, and fall-crazy folks in general, myself included, are apt to pick it up. Early mornings and late evenings are half a degree cooler, the sun’s moved further away, and the skies just have a different look to them altogether. It is in the air. You can’t see much of it in Florida. Feeling it is your best bet, and that’s in case you have the time and the desire to stop and sense the world around you. You’ll be surprised to notice that even down here it comes on time and makes itself pretty comfortable all the way through . . . March. Seasons are totally screwed up in Fla., I am sorry to state.
Yep, autumn is settling in . . .
Autumn is my favorite season and my favorite word. It sounds so sexy, especially when you say it with the prim and proper accent of the Brits. Aauu-tumn.
Autumn brings back a lot of motley memories and makes me long to make some more. I get excited just thinking about all the things that this autumn is about to bring: cold fronts preceded by heavy showers, red leaves on maple trees in my backyard and throughout town, neat pumpkin patches set up in front of churches, and farmer’s markets abundant in season-appropriate produce.
Nicole’s turning 5 (check back with me in early October for Pig Licking Carousel Cake that’s in the works to mark the occasion), my mom’s moving in with us in just a few weeks (believe it or not, the most anticipated event of the year!), and my younger sister Kate is renewing her marriage vows in an Orthodox church wedding ceremony. Whereas she is frantically shopping around for her second wedding dress, I can’t but feel jealous because I actually know what I’d wear if I were in her shoes. Should I say “I do” again just to wear the perfect dress I never did the first time around? The only problem with perfect dresses is that they never seem that perfect 9 years later.
Well, those are just some of the family affairs scheduled to take place between now and the end of the year. Wait a minute! Speaking of dresses, what am I wearing to the wedding??? No, no, nooooooo! I am not freaking out! Putting together a church-worthy outfit that conforms to the capacity of an elder sister who just got invited to a wedding with no set date in October (this year!) can’t be that problematic. I sooooooooo hope . . .
Another thing that autumn brings and that I tackle without complaining is taking inventory of my wardrobe. You might be more familiar with the term “spring closet cleaning”. A biyearly event of rearranging my wear according to the needs of the season is always fun since I never fail to rediscover a piece or two I totally lost memory of. What a wonderful pick-me-up with a zero-calorie intake! It usually takes me half a day to cram the summer gear into the dark oblivion of my overflowing closet and to release a slew of jackets, sweaters, and scarves front and center. Yes, I live in South Florida if you feel a bit confused at this point.
Buying new boots is simply an autumn must. A pair of rugged combat boots with a lace-up vamp sounds good to me this season. I would probably pair them with a floral-print chiffon dress that is totally flirty and femme. And just like that the church attire is starting to shape up. Yay!
But above all, I am looking forward to an autumn full of traditional baking, decorating, and entertaining. Only this year I am going to change things up a little by adding one more thing to the familiar routine—the old-fashioned canning.
I have the best of memories of my parents picking and preserving the bounty of summer for the harsh winter ahead. And although the winters in Moldavia were never too harsh, there was something extremely comforting in the thought of sleeping above the cellar full of pickled veggies, sugared berries, and stewed fruits. Crates of apples that were individually wrapped in newspaper and padded with straw were neatly stacked up into the ceiling, and sacks of walnuts and watermelons took up all the floor space, posing a surprise tripping hazard for anybody who had their eyes set only on the jar-studded shelves.
August and September were the busiest months of the year, with my sister and me picking a lot, Mom canning a lot, and Dad taking care of the logistics. Oh boy, what didn’t we pick throughout the fertile years of the nineteen-year Moldovan era: walnuts, dogwood berries, sunflower nuts, sweet and sour cherries, horseradish, mulberries, and tons of tomatoes, to name just a few.
My all-time favorite was walnut picking. Walnut trees were to be found along all major roads in great abundance back then, so all we had to do was drive out of town, park the car, and get down to work. From tree to tree we would walk, tagging along a burlap sack, picking what was on the ground and what Dad would shake off with his bare hands or kick off with a robust stick. As walnuts fell, those that were ripe would crack open upon landing and lose their protective green husk. My sister and I had no immediate interest in those other than to throw them into the sack then and fold them into a simple sugar brittle the next day. After school. For lunch. While our parents were not home. It was the unripe pieces that tempted our young minds with some very unconventional use. We painted our lips with the brownish juice that oozed from the bruised green husk of the immature nuts. The color would stay on our lips as well as our fingers for days. As a tween, I remember looking at myself in the mirror, thinking I was beautiful with those iodine-colored lips, unevenly tanned complexion that never ceased to peel, and faded blonde hair that looked like a pile of straw gathered together in a tight ponytail. My sister and summer were my best friends back then . . .
And then there was cherry picking that I had very mixed feelings about. And it wasn’t the picking that bothered me but the pitting that followed immediately thereafter. A long evening of tedious cherry pitting with a safety pin that left our fingers pricked and stained for days was never something I looked forward to. Yeah, that cherry juice would turn into a potent dye just after some 2 kilograms (about 4.5 lbs) into the pitting. Unfortunately, it never seemed to last long enough on our lips. The only upside to the pitting misery, well, besides eating more cherries than pitting, was staying up past bedtime to watch an American thriller or a horror movie on cable TV that had just leaked its way into the Soviet homes from the “demoralizing” West.
Pitted cherries would normally end up jammed, stewed, and . . . preserved naturally in their own juice as the Russian name suggests if translated word for word. Layered with just a little bit of sugar, Mom would leave a huge stockpot of them on the counter overnight so they could give off as much juice as possible, then all she would do was heat them up and pour into jars. That minimum use of sugar and heat would later yield the maximum flavor and nutrients, not to mention a very delectable filling for all sorts of baked goods. A jar of cherry preserves on the kitchen counter always meant that mom was up to something more than just opening it up. It wasn’t until over a plate of cherry varenyky for breakfast, a piece of cherry-filled blini cake for my sister’s birthday or a cherry rum baba for Easter that the whole cherry pitting business would start to make sense and become worth the anguish.
Recipe for Mom’s Cherry Preserves:
Cherries, preferably sour
Use 400-450 grams (about 1 pound) of sugar for every 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds and 3 ounces) of cherries. Since I couldn’t find any sour cherries, I used the sweet variety and reduced the sugar in half.
1. Wash, dry, and pit cherries.
2. Put them in a large stockpot and cover with sugar. Stir carefully.
3. Leave stand overnight or until sugar has dissolved and cherries have given off plenty of juice, about 10-12 hours.
4. Over medium-high heat, heat the cherry mixture to 80 degrees Celsius (176.0 degrees Fahrenheit), occasionally skimming off foam with a metal spoon.
5. Remove from heat and ladle into sterilized jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Wipe rim and seal.
6. Turn the jars upside down, cover with a blanket, and let cool. This will help ensure a better seal.
7. Label and store the preserves in pantry for up to 1 year.