My Grandmother's Cherry Soup Was Gone Forever—Until I Found It in This Cookbook

July 19, 2018
Photo by Chad Robertson

My grandmother carefully placed the large white soup tureen on the table. When she began to lift the top, the moment of truth was upon us. If white steam billowed out the top, we’d be eating mushroom-barley soup—and have a new Pope, according to a family joke that compared the tureen to the Sistine Chapel (it’s hard to explain, as family jokes tend to be). But if no steam rose, then all jokes aside, it was time to celebrate: Cold cherry soup was on the menu.

Throughout my childhood and into my high school years, every Friday night was spent at my grandparents’ house in Montreal, where nearly twenty people—cousins, aunts, uncles, and the occasional friend and/or visiting relatives, all gathered for dinner. Like clockwork, the lot of us squeezed around that same carved wooden dining room table each week to partake in the family specialties of feasting and fighting—an inevitable side effect of cramming so many of us together in such a confined space.

Grandma Eva and Grandpa Joe, originally from Hungary, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Montreal after a brief stop in Norway. My grandmother was a determined food pusher—perhaps because, as my cousins and I theorized, she knew what extreme hunger was like—and so there was always too much food at the table and none of it was allowed to go to waste. One look at her four adult sons, a combined 1,400 pounds, and you knew you’d soon be stuffed, whether you liked it or not.

We squeezed around the table to partake in the family specialties of feasting and fighting.

The lack of space around the table was matched on its surface, as overflowing crystal and silver serving dishes covered nearly every inch of the once pristine white tablecloth. Their contents varied over the weeks, from roast beef with potato gratin, boiled corn, and uborkasaláta—a simple Hungarian cucumber salad—to chicken paprikash with galuska—what we call spaetzle—and green salad. For dessert, there was an array of Hungarian pastries, strawberry shortcake, or both. We were a large family, after all.

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But to start, there was almost always soup. Sometimes that hot mushroom barley soup, but often a curious cold cherry concoction that we all grew to love, called meggyleves in Hungarian. “Meggy” means sour cherry and “leves” means soup.

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Top Comment:
“Writers don't generally write headlines, and not all lawyers are litigators so I'm afraid I can't help represent you in your lawsuit against me and Food52 for the harm done by this title. I do appreciate your interest in the story/subject though, and hope you try at least one version of the soup, be it Balla and Burns's or a more traditional one.”
— Charlie F.

At its core, my grandmother’s cherry soup was essentially just jarred sour cherries swirled together with dairy—the exact proportions of cream, milk, and/or sour cream, depending on my grandfather’s weight at the time, I’m told. In Hungary, meggyleves is a staple summertime dish celebrating the sour cherry season, and is served both as an appetizer and as dessert, where the soup is often sweetened with sugar and spiced with cinnamon.

In our family, though, cherry soup was always an appetizer and was served year-round thanks to those trusty glass jars full of cherries in syrup. The result was a thick, slightly sweet yet tart, rose-colored spoonful. Exceedingly rich and a wholly unreasonable way to begin a large meal, no doubt, but I can still remember the excitement every time we started the meal with cherries, not mushrooms.

Though I loved it growing up, I went at least a decade without eating cherry soup again. As the years went by, we gathered less frequently at Grandma Eva and Grandpa Joe’s. Playful and frivolous family feuds over who got the last roast beef bone, or who could best use a spoon to catapult jelly candies into the cupped chandelier hanging overhead, suddenly shifted to not-so-frivolous fights over the family business. That took precedence over feasting. Cherry soup simply got lost in the fray.

Even as relationships slowly mended and we all tried to come together as one large clan again, the routine had been lost. Some of us had grown up and moved away; others blamed friends, homework, and extracurricular activities for their absence. And even when we did all agree to make Friday work, the stress of cooking for a crowd simply became too much for my grandmother as her health deteriorated.

Throughout my college years and subsequent move to New York in the early aughts, ramen and pho dominated my soup consumption. I had mostly forgotten about cherry soup. But then, a few years ago, I picked up a copy of the Bar Tartine cookbook by San Francisco’s star culinary couple, Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns.

Balla counts some Hungarian lineage on his father’s side, but it was really the year he spent as a high school freshman living in Budapest with his Fulbright Scholar father that sparked his interest in the country’s cuisine. “My dad rented a flat from a family who butchered their own pigs and made sausage in the house; they grew mushrooms, they made brandy, and just made all their own stuff,” Balla recounts. “The grandmother would make us this traditional stuff that you never see anymore, and definitely not in restaurants.” Signs of Balla’s Hungarian influence flow throughout the cookbook.

Flipping quickly through the pages for the first time, I found recipes for dishes my grandparents would find familiar, like “beef gulyas” and “liptauer paprika cheese dip,” alongside the unfamiliar, such as instructions for making rice koji at home. To make koji, Ball and Burns explain, cooked rice is turned moldy thanks to the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, producing the fermenting engine traditionally employed to transform simple soybeans into things like miso and soy sauce. In Grandma Eva’s kitchen, by contrast, all the moldy leftovers found in the back of the fridge were strictly a result of her reluctance to let any food go to waste, expiry dates be damned.

But moving past that lesson on koji and other ruminations on fermentation, on page 150, I came to a most welcome surprise: Chilled Sour Cherry Soup. It looked entirely different, yet simultaneously familiar. I knew I had to make it.

“Dessert can be fun sometimes, but more often I crave a savory more acidic version,” Balla recently told me when I relayed how different my grandmother’s version that could double as dessert was from what I found on the page in front of me. “So mine is a refreshing appetizer, or even a main course with a chunk of bread and butter.”

More Chilled Soup, This Way

Determined to try this chef’s take on meggyleves, I waited patiently for fresh sour cherries to come into season, dutifully prepared the required kombu dashi, pitted the cherries, and got the rest of my mise en place. I sweated fennel and onion, added the dashi and sweet Tokaji aszú wine, and finally those tart sour cherries before puréeing and straining the soup. Finally, I waited for it to cool. And then waited some more.

Four long hours later, the soup was ready and I sat down excitedly to enjoy this delicacy of my youth. But this time everything was different. The soup was lighter in texture, bright with acidity, and had a deep savory undertone absent from that of my memories. It was also bright red.

Uniquely, Balla and Burns’s recipe only features dairy as a garnish—here a quenelle of sour cream (apologies to the chefs, but I used store-bought, not the homemade version found on page 71 of the cookbook) scooped on top, alongside fresh sour cherries, chopped herbs, and toasted sunflower seeds.

Was it delicious? Yes. But do I still sometimes crave grandma’s much simpler version of jarred cherries, cream, and little else? Let’s just say I saved the leftover dashi for other uses.

Cherry soup still isn’t in my regular rotation today. Through a combination of family discussions and online research, other Hungarian staples have slowly become regulars in my kitchen—especially my grandmother’s cucumber salad—but cherry soup remains a once-a-year delicacy, at best.

Like my grandmother but unlike most recipes found online, I make a light roux with equal proportions of butter and flour, then add a whole 24 ounce jar of sour cherries to simmer. When the mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon, I cool it and, when it’s ready, slowly stir in roughly a quarter cup each of cream, milk, and sour cream until the soup takes on the color I remember—somewhere between Pepto-Bismol and red wine. Again, I wait for the soup to cool in the fridge, but this time secure in the knowledge that the taste will match my memories.

However, when I find fresh sour cherries at the farmers’ market in the summer, they’re more likely to end up in a take on Marian Burros' famous plum torte or just eaten fresh.

On a trip to San Francisco last year, I visited Duna, the now-closed restaurant run by Balla and Burns. The liptauer cheese dip was considerably more complex and satisfying than my grandmother’s, full of umami and depth of flavor she could only dream of. I have no doubt Balla and Burns’s meggyleves is similarly superior from an objective perspective—and I’ve included the recipe from the Bar Tartine cookbook below—but the simple, sweet and creamy version I now throw together every year will always be my go-to cherry soup.

What's a dish you "rediscovered" after a long time? Let us know in the comments!

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Charlie Friedmann is a freelance food and wine writer based in Toronto. Previously a corporate lawyer in New York City, he quickly realized he prefers food and wine to mergers and acquisitions. You can follow him @cfriedmann on Instagram and Twitter.


geekchorus December 24, 2022
Wonderful article. I've made the mushroom barley soup and the Bar Tartine cherry soup. Both superb.
Mfeuerst July 23, 2020
Oh I have another comment about the mushroom barley soup recipe...since the essay is about the author's jewish family. So ... what's with the pancetta? isn't that a pork product or am I missing something? I realize that it's a separate recipe that's linked to the author's essay (very nice, BTW) but pork isn't, shall we say, kosher.
Mfeuerst July 23, 2020
My grandparents were also hungarian and jewish -- and our chilled cherry soup is so easy I make it whenever I find fresh sour cherries. Not so easy anymore especially since I'm not around the cherry trees I grew up with (in Buffalo). We also picked enough to can for the winter (and also used for the cherry soup. It's completely different from the one listed. Basically cherries, with pits, covered with water, brought to a boil. Add sugar to taste. Then. add a bit of salt to sweet cream (heavy, light or half and half) to keep it from curdling and quickly whisk in some hot liquid into the cream, then quickly whisk the cream/cherry liquid combo into the soup. Taste again -- add more sugar if necessary, chill, eat (mix before serving.) A beautiful pink color.
AJG July 25, 2018
Any recipe for the mushroom & barley soup?
kayswa July 31, 2018
If you click on the words "mushroom & barley soup" in the first paragraph, it will take you to the recipe
Alice July 22, 2018
Your grandmother's version sounds delicious, and that is what I'd like to try. My mother's grandmother was from Hungary, but sadly, only the German-Lithuanian food of my paternal grandmother was what got passed down to the succeeding generations.
Pamela_in_Tokyo July 22, 2018
What wondful memories you and your family have of food shared together. Food travels around the world within us and gets transplanted to a new place and lives on.
Stephanie A. July 22, 2018
That title is seriously misleading. There are a number of variations on Hungarian cherry soup, but none(!) of them contain any of your first 5 listed ingredients, nor even most of the garnishes. No, not even the white wine. The ones referencing an optional wine all call for red wine. So, essentially, about the only ingredients (not necessarily the amounts) you got right are the red sour cherries, the (should be much less) salt, and the sour cream.
I very much doubt that your recipe, as described, tasted anything like your grandmother's - if she was indeed from Hungary. This may or may not turn out to be an interesting culinary experiment for those who care to give it a try. But Hungarian it most decidedly it is not!
Charlie F. July 22, 2018
I'd recommend reading beyond the title before posting a comment like this, but what do I know?
Stephanie A. July 22, 2018
As a writer (and surely even more so, as a formal litigator), perhaps you would know that the title is misleading (to put it mildly) and thus draws people in to reading the article under false pretenses.
Charlie F. July 22, 2018
Writers don't generally write headlines, and not all lawyers are litigators so I'm afraid I can't help represent you in your lawsuit against me and Food52 for the harm done by this title. I do appreciate your interest in the story/subject though, and hope you try at least one version of the soup, be it Balla and Burns's or a more traditional one.
Stephanie A. July 22, 2018
Oy! Really? Who said anything about a lawsuit?
Rosie C. August 20, 2018
The author clearly states in the text of the article that the recipe included is the one from the cookbook, not her grandmother's.
geekchorus December 24, 2022
Perhaps Stephanie has too much time on her hands for writing and too little for actually reading, e.g. the article itself. I keep telling people that writers almost never get to write their own headlines. And I am prone to writing the relevant publications, including august ones like the NYT, to say how misleading their headlines are. Wonderful article, anyway. Thanks for pulling it together.
Zoltan V. July 21, 2018
There is no use of fennel in traditional cooking in Hungary, and kelp is basically unknown to Hungarians. I know not a single Hungarian recipe that uses kelp (let me know if you can find one -- and I mean, in a HUNGARIAN cookbook). This sour cherry soup is anything but Hungarian. I have nothing against fusion cooking, but Chef Balla made a huge stretch here. Of course, those who know nothing about Hungarian cooking will believe anything -- but you, Charlie Friedmann?
Charlie F. July 21, 2018
It's not meant to be traditionally Hungarian. I think chef Balla would say it's inspired by a Hungarian classic, but then incorporates the flavors and techniques of his pantry. Some of Balla and Burns's recipes hew closer to traditional versions, while some, like this one, are more full-on reinterpretations.
Merry July 20, 2018
On one of my first visits to Boston many years ago, friends took me to the now sadly defunct Cafe Budapest. It was my first taste of Hungarian food and the Cherry Soup was out of this world and much closer to your Grandmother's version than Bar Tartine's. A few years later I spent the summer in Budapest and lived on a street lined with sour cherry trees. Frankly, I'm not interested in Bar Tartine's recipe. I, too, long for the cold sweet-tart creamy deliciousness of an authentic Hungarian sour cherry soup.
Linda July 22, 2018
The Cafe Budapest version is amazing, and much simpler. A real treat!