Gypsy Kitchens: Meggyleves, Hungarian Cherry Soup

Hungarians eat a lot of sweet things at dinnertime. Not just desserts, but sweet appetizers and pastas too - we have actually seen noodles served with a sugar dispenser. A favorite of Magyars, and something we've come to really like, is "meggyleves," or cold cherry soup. It's generally treated as a pre-dinner course, but would be just as good as a post meal treat. It's also good at breakfast time, and would be delicious on a hot afternoon, served alone.
Our version was created from the two most popular Hungarian fruits of the season: in addition to the cherries, a quarter of a watermelon provided a different layer of flavor.
The preparation is either incredibly simple or a little less simple - you have to decide if you want to pit your cherries. If you do, more of the juice will escape into the broth, the soup will be free from cherry stones and your fingers will end up stained red. Deciding not to pit them is fine - we didn't, because it's common here to leave the fruit whole and because it seemed like a lot of work. Stemming them is mandatory, however.
For the broth, use about a pound of nicely ripe sour cherries, boiled for twenty-five minutes in a quart of water. Before cooking, add sugar and a cinnamon stick to the water; if your tastes run in the direction of sweetness, add about 1/2 cup or more of sugar or honey. Many other cooks use 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, but our soup had only 1/3 cup of honey. It's not really important, as long as you're comfortable with what you're eating.
Let the broth cool to room temperature, then put in the refrigerator for a few hours.
Meggyleves is most often made simply with cherries, but we've had it with a whole host of other ingredients throw in - blackberries, raspberries, red currants, even plums. In effect, there isn't much that can't be added. The crucial thing is to recognize which ingredients should be cooked with the cherries, and which should be added once the meggyleves has cooled. Blackberries or watermelon, for example, are probably better as they are, uncooked, whereas red currants can stand up to the process and will impart more flavor if they're boiled.
Watermelon is very easy - just cube the flesh in a way that avoids as many seeds as possible. The final ingredient is sour cream - about a cup. Creamier soups call for more, of course, and are just as good.
Blending the sour cream into the broth can be a little difficult - one might try combining it in a bowl with a little bit of the soup's liquid before adding it to the body of the broth. Persistence is key, though a few floating bits of cream are really more displeasing to the eye than to the tongue.
Avoid the temptation to substitute yogurt for sour cream. Meggyleves is sweet enough as it is; yogurt would only make it syrupy. Some restaurants and cooks serve their soup spiked with red wine, added just before serving. It's probably very tasty, but that's only speculation.
It's a refreshing bowlful of fruit, with soft cherries and crisp melon and a nice undertone of honey. As the weather heats up and summer intensifies, it's easy to imagine craving this for an appetizer, just to cool down before eating!
Here's the recipe:
1 lb. sour cherries, de-stemmed
1 lb. watermelon, cubed with seed avoidance in mind
1/3 - 3/4 cup honey or sugar, depending on the chef's taste
1 cup sour cream
1 cinnamon stick
A pinch of cloves
-Bring the cherries, sugar, cloves and cinnamon to a boil in 1 qt. water. Boil gently for 20 - 30 minutes.
-Remove from heat and let cool until room temperature, then refrigerate for 1 - 24 hours.
-Add watermelon and sour cream, stir or whisk until smooth.
-Decide if you'd like to part with a cup or so of red wine, which can be added too.
-Serve cold, with a warning about the cherry pits and the possibility of watermelon seeds.
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