- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

May is time to start a “rumtopf,” the German word for “rum pot.” I had never heard of a rumtopf until a German friend served it many years ago. She spooned a drift of softly whipped cream into a stemmed glass and topped it with a ladle full of dark, sweet, preserved summer berries in a heady syrup. Accompanied by dark-roast coffee, the dessert was irresistible.

A rumtopf is simple to make. My version consists of whole berries and sweet cherries preserved in a rum and sugar syrup. As berries and cherries come into season, they are gently placed in a crock, covered with sugar, then doused with rum and left to sit and work their magic. The sugar and alcohol preserve the berries while adding a flavor of their own. There’s no set recipe, but the technique must be consistent.

For the container, you will need a 2- to 4-quart crock, such as a bean pot or heavy wide-mouth jar. For authenticity, check out flea markets or country stores for a crock labeled “rumtopf.” Glass is less traditional, but it works just fine. Since the pot must be kept covered, it’s best to use a container with a tight-fitting lid, but you can always cover the pot with foil or plastic wrap. Since the fruit and sugar are added in equal weights, you’ll also need a scale.

Only blemish-free pieces of fruit are selected for the pot. Since fruit and sugar are added to the crock in equal weights, anything from a handful to a whole basket of berries can be added at any time. Perfection of fruit is the only criterion.

There are no rules for amounts, but a good proportion might be a pint of cherries, a quart of strawberries, a quart of raspberries, a cup of blueberries and two cups of blackberries. The fruit will shrink some during the steeping as the sugar solution pulls water from the fruit by osmosis. Cherries, strawberries and red raspberries will yield a rich red rum pot; adding darker berries will make it a deep wine color. If you’ve ever sipped a raspberry liqueur called Chambord, you have a preview of the wonderful flavor that raspberries will impart.

Whether you use light or dark rum is a personal preference. I’ve used all light, all dark and mixed them together, too. No big deal here.

A word of caution. Never add apples, citrus, pineapple or any fleshy fruit. Although all of those fruits can be preserved in spirits, they have no place in the traditional rum pot mix.

Here’s how to begin.

Cherries come into season first. They must be perfect and firm. Never add bruised cherries. You can eat the rejects. Both red Bing or white Ranier cherries are good, but never use sour — or pie — cherries. Remove the stems and place the cherries (with their seeds intact) on a plate while you pick over the rest. Weigh them.

Place the cherries gently in the bottom of a crock. Add an equal weight of sugar, scattering it evenly over the fruit. Now pour on enough rum to cover the sugar. Don’t stir and don’t shake; trust nature to take care of this potion. Cover the pot air- and light-tight with plastic wrap and foil. If the pot isn’t tightly covered, the rum will evaporate. (Should that happen, add more rum.) Now the rum pot goes back into its cool place.

Strawberries will be added next or sometimes, depending on the growing season, at the same time. Pick only perfect berries and remove their hulls. Smaller berries are better than gigantic ones. A rum pot must have no stems or leaves. And remember to handle the berries gently — bruised fruit will spoil the clarity of the syrup.

Weigh the strawberries and place them gently into the pot. Add an equal weight of sugar, cover with rum and cover the pot again. Back it goes to that dark, cool place. A fruit cellar is a traditional place, but they are scarce in urban societies. My boot closet works fine.

There is no exact measurement for the amount of rum. Add just enough to cover the fruit.

To keep the fruit completely submerged, choose a plate just a little smaller than the circumference of the mouth of the container and set it on top of the berries.

You want to be sure that the fruit is completely immersed in the rum to prevent it from being exposed to air and spoiling.

In July, add black and red raspberries. Be sure the raspberries are plump and juicy. Avoid any that are dry and seedy. Take a look into the pot. By now the sugar and rum will have married and become syrupy. If, when you add a new batch of berries, they are covered with rum syrup and well below the surface, don’t bother adding more sugar and rum. The point is that the fruit must be submerged, not drowned.

Sometimes, depending on the shape of the container, the sugar doesn’t all dissolve. At this point it’s OK to gently, very gently mix the fruit syrup with a rubber spatula or chopstick, only enough to encourage the sugar to dissolve.

Next add blueberries, but not too many because, as they steep, they can get stiff and rubbery. Since blueberries are so small and easy to pick over, it’s tempting to add a whole basket, but then you’d end up with an unbalanced ratio of fruit. Keep it to one cup or leave them out entirely.

Blackberries ripen in August and are the last additions to the rum pot. Follow the same procedure with sugar and rum. Many parts of the country have an abundance of local berries that are good rum pot candidates, too. Use whatever is abundant and delicious in your area.

By summer’s end, you’ll have an investment of time, money and the bounty of half a farm field on the shelf, doing its thing. Think about serving rum pot in late fall, long after local fresh fruit has gone back into hibernation. Around our house, we open the crock on Thanksgiving Day, but once we opened it in October when one of my sons said, “What’s this jug of stuff in front of my galoshes?”

A rumtopf is potent, fruity and delicious. It has an affinity for plain-Jane desserts, and its texture is greatly enhanced by the silkiness of whipped toppings. Here are some ways to serve it:

• Top a slice of pound cake or angel food cake with sweetened whipped cream or tofu and top with a ladle of rum pot.

m Sneak some berries into the center of a custard-filled cream puff.

• Add elegance to a simple dish of ice cream with a ladle of rum pot. Vanilla is a natural, but chocolate and berry ice creams or lemon ice add a surprise of flavors.

• Spoon rum pot over any cheesecake, mousse or soft pudding that wants an elegant partner.

• Pour a liqueur glass of rum pot syrup. It’s a heavenly nectar that tastes like Chambord.

• Trying to end up with equal amounts of berries and syrup is like trying to saw pieces from a four-legged table. It never comes out just right. Most likely, you will have a quantity of leftover syrup. Lucky you. It can be strained, bottled and kept in the refrigerator or china closet at room temperature and used, sans berries, in any of the ways suggested above. It will keep indefinitely.

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