In the library at my childhood synagogue in suburban Chicago, there was a book that I dearly loved. I don’t remember the title. Truthfully, I don’t even remember what it was about. What I do vividly remember is that the book had a passage describing the Russian custom of drinking black tea with cherry jam.
Maybe it was just the future food writer in me having a moment, but that thought, at once homey and exotic, captivated my imagination and has stayed with me since. I could not imagine a more elegant way to start the morning.
A few years back, my friends and I began to visit the banyas (Russian bathhouses), which dot certain Brooklyn neighborhoods and that have significant Russian populations. Many of these bathhouses have in-house restaurants that sling significantly heartier and more exciting fare than your typical “wheat grass and smoothie” spa food. There’s borscht, blintzes and pierogis; pickles of all kinds, cured fish and incredible sour cream coffee cakes called smetannik. It is an Ashkenazi food lover’s dream.
And there, at the bottom of my favorite banya’s menu, I discovered black tea and cherry jam. We ordered a pot for the table, spooning the preserves from a small ceramic dish into our glasses of tea. It was — and I write this without irony or hyperbole — everything I had always imagined.
Over the summer I tend to brew lots of iced tea, which I drink at breakfast instead of coffee. Inspired by my banya find and my own long lost Russian roots, I have begun to mix in a couple teaspoons of cherry jam along with the sugar. The preserves swirl through the glass, adding a hint of fruit to the jolt of chilled tea. And once the glass is empty, I dig in and spoon up all the little blips of cherry left behind. Cheers!
Or, as they say in Russian, na zdorovie!
Black Tea With Cherry Jam
3 cups boiling water
6 black tea bags (like English breakfast)
¼ cup granulated sugar
Cherry preserves or sour cherries in syrup, for serving
Ice, for serving
1) Add boiling water and tea bags to a large bowl and let steep until quite dark, about 15 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeezing out any liquid into the bowl, then add the sugar and whisk until completely dissolved. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.
2) Pour chilled tea into a large pitcher and add cold water to taste. (Start with a cup or two, then add more until it reaches your desired strength.)
3) To serve: Place a teaspoon (or more, if desired) cherry jam or cherries in syrup in the bottom of a glass along with a couple tablespoons of the tea; stir to combine. Fill the glass with tea; add ice, if desired.
Leah Koenig is a contributing editor at the Forward and author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen,” Chronicle Books (2015).