Red wine livens up this summer starter
Chilled fruit soups are popular in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the best known is Hungarian meggyleves (Cold Sour Cherry Soup). It’s traditionally made from sour cherries, cream, and sweet white wine (in Hungary, that often means Tokaji).
Here in the US, it can be hard to find fresh sour cherries. But sweet Bing cherries are in season now—and abundantly available. So we use them instead of sour cherries in our recipe. And to avoid making the soup too sweet, we replace Tokaji with a drier red wine.
The result? A refreshing summer starter with outstanding flavor. And one that can provide a fun change of pace at your next dinner party—especially since this is a dish that many people are not familiar with.
Your guests are sure to be impressed. So start practicing a modest bow. You’ll want to be prepared for their accolades.
Recipe: Hungarian-Style Cold Cherry Soup
Years ago, we had an authentic recipe for this soup (one that required sour cherries and Tokaji wine). We made it several times—but then we lost the recipe. Bummer. So we were forced to rethink this dish, and came up with a new version.
Which turned out to be a good thing, because this recipe is actually better than the one we remember. It’s not “authentic,” though, so we call it Hungarian-Style.
The hardest part of preparing this dish is pitting the fresh cherries. You could also try making it with frozen cherries (which often are pre-pitted). We haven’t tried making it that way, but suspect it would work just fine.
Prep time (including the cherry pitting) is about 15 minutes. Cooking time adds another 10 minutes or so. And you want to make this soup a couple hours ahead of time so it has time to chill properly. (It’s actually pretty good warm, too, though we don’t serve it that way).
This recipe serves 6 as a first course.
- 2 pounds fresh sweet cherries (Bing cherries are our choice)
- 2 cups red wine, preferably one with cherry and fruity notes (see Notes for suggestions)
- 1½ cups sour cherry juice (may substitute water or sweet cherry juice; see Notes)
- 2 or 3 pinches of salt (to taste)
- zest of 1 lemon
- sugar to taste (probably about ¼ cup, but you may not need any at all; see Procedure)
- lemon juice to taste (probably a tablespoon or so, but you may not need any; see Procedure)
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (to taste; optional)
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch (optional)
- ½ to 1 cup yogurt, plus additional yogurt for garnish, if desired (to taste; may substitute sour cream)
- reserved cherry halves for garnish (optional)
- mint sprigs for garnish (optional)
- Wash the cherries. Pit and stem them (this is easiest to do with a cherry pitter, but if you don’t have one, cut them along the side with a knife and the pits should pop out). Reserve a handful of cherries for garnish.
- Add the pitted cherries to a 4-quart saucepan (preferably a stainless steel one) along with the wine, cherry juice, and salt. Bring to a boil. While the cherry mixture is heating, zest the lemon and add the zest to the pan.
- Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and set a timer for 2 minutes. At the 2-minute mark, taste the mixture. Add more salt if needed. If the mixture seems too sour, add sugar. If it’s too sweet, add lemon juice. You are aiming for a taste that is just slightly sweet.
- Continue simmering the mixture for another 8 minutes or so (for a total of about 10 minutes). Add black pepper if using, then taste the soup. Add more salt, sugar, and/or lemon juice if necessary. Remove the mixture from the heat.
- Using an immersion blender, purée the soup to the consistency of your preference (we prefer it slightly chunky; see Notes).
- If the soup seems thin, thicken it with cornstarch: Spoon 3 tablespoons of cornstarch into a small bowl, then add 4 tablespoons of cold water or red wine. Whisk the mixture together, then whisk it into the soup.
- Let the soup cool (we often pour the soup into a medium-sized bowl, then place the bowl in a larger container filled with ice and water). When the soup reaches room temperature (or cooler), whisk in yogurt or sour cream to taste (we generally use ½ to 1 cup, but you could add even more if you wish; note that adding dairy will lighten the color of the soup somewhat). Whisk the soup until the yogurt is thoroughly incorporated.
- Chill the soup in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. When ready to serve, whisk the soup to re-incorporate all the ingredients (some of the yogurt may have separated). Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, if desired. For additional garnish, use the reserved cherries (cut into halves) or sprigs of mint. Or use any combo thereof. Serve.
- Which wine to use in this dish? The best choice is a somewhat fruity red, preferably one with notes of cherry. Some pinot noirs have these characteristics. A nice Beaujolais-Villages would be fruity, although it might not have the cherry notes that would be ideal. When in doubt, we always ask our local wine merchant. For this soup, he recommended an Italian Barbera from the Asti region (and it was perfect).
- Which reminds us: It’s really worth finding a good wine store where the staff knows their stuff. Having a reliable one nearby has certainly made our lives simpler.
- Do note that even though you're cooking the wine, some residual alcohol will remain. Not very much, but some is there.
- Don’t want to use wine? Check out this recipe from Lizzy at Good Things. Lizzy has Hungarian ancestry, so you know it’s good stuff.
- You can substitute water for cherry juice in this recipe, but the soup won’t have as much flavor. BTW, if you use a cherry juice that’s sweetened, you almost certainly will not need to add sugar.
- Traditionally, this dish is flavored with cinnamon and cloves. We think that gives the soup too “wintry” a flavor for warm weather, so we skip them. But if the idea appeals to you, drop a few cloves and a stick of cinnamon into the pan as the soup simmers. Be sure to fish them out before you purée the soup.
- Black pepper is not a traditional ingredient in this dish, BTW. But it adds a bit of savor that we find irresistible.
- Lemon juice helps temper the sweetness of the Bing cherries, which is why we suggest using it in this soup. You could also try substituting balsamic vinegar. We haven’t tried this, but suspect it would work well.
- We like to use yogurt in this soup (particularly Greek yogurt). But sour cream works too. The traditional version of this soup often is made with sweet cream—but we don’t recommend using that in this particular recipe (it’s better to use yogurt or sour cream, which can help moderate the sweetness of Bing cherries). Nonetheless, if the idea of sweet cream appeals to you, give it a try—you may enjoy it (and it might make a great dessert soup served that way).
- When using an immersion blender in this soup, make sure to use one with a stainless steel shaft—plastic ones can crack in the hot liquid. Ask us how we know.
- If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender. Blend the soup in fairly small batches (don’t fill the blender jar more than half full).
- If you add too much hot liquid to a blender jar, you’ll risk blowing the top off (again, ask us how we know). You can also just wait until the soup cools completely before blending it.
- As noted above, we like a fairly chunky texture for this soup. If you prefer a very smooth texture, whirl the soup (in batches) in a food processor. Then force it through a fine mesh strainer.
- Some versions of this soup use stemmed cherries with their pits (cherry pits have loads of flavor). This isn’t something we’ve tried, but if you’re interested, you could skip pitting the cherries and just cook them whole. In that case, we suggest cooking the soup a bit longer (and, of course, don’t blend it). When eating, be careful of the pits!
- Bing cherries are a cultivar that originated in Oregon. They’re widely grown there, as well as in Washington, California, and elsewhere. They’re the most common commercially produced sweet cherry in the US.
- BTW, the cherry is named for Ah Bing, who apparently was born in China and moved to the US around 1855. He got a job as foreman working for horticulturist Seth Lewelling. It’s unclear whether Bing himself developed the cultivar, or Lewelling simply named it in honor of his long-time employee.
“Love this!” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “I remember the first time we had cold cherry soup.”
“Me too,” I said. “We were in Boston, and had dinner at the late, lamented Café Budapest. It was one of their house specialties.”
“Then of course we were inspired to make our own,” said Mrs K R.
“Still don’t know how we lost that recipe,” I said. “Kind of glad we did, though. That soup was good, but this version is the best I’ve ever tasted.”
“Lucky break,” said Mrs K R. “Sometimes life is just a bowl of cherries.”
This time, without the pits.
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