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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1/2 cup grapeseed oil
- 1 medium sweet white onion, chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, cored and chopped
- 2 cups sweet white wine
- 2 cups kombi dashi (see headnote)
- 2 1/2 pounds fresh sour cherries, or 1 3/4 ib frozen sour cherries, pitted; 20 reserved for garnish
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 drop sour cream, for garnish
- 2 pinches freshly ground black pepper
- 1 handful freshly chopped fresh dill, for garnish
- 1 handful freshly chopped parsley, for garnish
- 1 handful toasted sunflower seeds, for garnish
- 1 dash grapeseed oil, for garnish
What's a dish you "rediscovered" after a long time? Let us know in the comments!